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Exposing al Qaeda's Secrets: Inside the documents obtained from Osama bin Laden's compound

Examining the Bin Laden Papers
The Bin Laden Papers: Examining the documents seized from the al Qaeda leader's compound 13:14

Eleven years ago, a team of two dozen Navy SEALs flew under the cover of darkness into Abbottabad, Pakistan to carry out one of the most important counter-terrorism missions in history – to capture or kill Osama bin Laden.  

Thirty minutes into that mission, the SEALs had their man and something they were not expecting, thousands of pages of Osama bin Laden's personal letters and notes. 

In 2017, the CIA declassified most of those letters without context and little translation. 

Author and Islamic scholar Nelly Lahoud wanted to read it all. She's spent much of her career researching al Qaeda with stints at Harvard and Cambridge Universities and she's fluent in Arabic. So she dug in. Carefully examining many of those documents, line by line.  

Tonight, we'll hear what she found, gaining a rare glimpse into the inner sanctum of al Qaeda through the "bin Laden Papers."

This is the bustling city of Abbottabad, Pakistan.

The vacant lot where bin Laden's compound once stood.

From overhead, you can still see the scar in the landscape. This vacant lot – where boys now play cricket – is where Osama bin Laden's home once stood and where the world's most wanted terrorist hid until the evening of May 1, 2011.

President Obama in speech on May 2, 2011: Tonight I can report to the American people and to the world, that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden.

The operation, called Neptune Spear, took 30 minutes. But then one SEAL alerted command that they'd found a ton of computers and electronics and needed more time. 

The SEALs were granted ten more minutes that stretched into 18.

They grabbed computers, VHS tapes, books, thumb drives, hard drives and notebooks, carrying them out in bags strung around their neck.

Sharyn Alfonsi: How important was that last-minute decision by the SEAL team to take those documents?

Nelly Lahoud: Bin Laden's greatest fear was about exposing al Qaeda's secrets. And so the fact that the SEALs decided to recover these letters ensured that al Qaeda's secrets were exposed.

In 2012, Nelly Lahoud was teaching at West Point when the CIA declassified the first 17 documents from the raid. She was asked to lead the analysis of those documents for West Point's Combatting Terrorism Center.

For the last five years she's been reading, translating and analyzing the remaining declassified documents. Consulting with U.S. generals, admirals and members of the special forces community to make sense of it all.

There are home videos, like this one, of Osama bin Laden's son, Hamza, getting married in Iran.

Family photos, audio files, and letters. 500,000 files in all. Nelly Lahoud focused on 6,000 pages of them for her book, "The bin Laden Papers."

  Nelly Lahoud

Sharyn Alfonsi: So you were creating kind of a narrative based on all of the documents?

Nelly Lahoud: And you couldn't do it any other way. You couldn't have a division of labor where several people will take [it] on because they're all so connected. Vague references in one letter can only be explained if you looked at several other letters. So really to get a grasp of what was really going on, you really need to be able to have read them all together. 

Letters were the only way Osama bin Laden communicated with al Qaeda associates for nearly a decade because he was trying to evade capture.

Bin Laden had television in his compound, but didn't have access to the internet or phone, so everything was written by hand or on computers, and encrypted on flash drives that were given to couriers to deliver. All the letters were backed up on hard drives.  

Nelly Lahoud: We see in the letters diminutive bin Laden, somebody who is very different from this powerful figure that we were reading about daily in the newspapers for over a decade. And the disconnect between his ambitions and between his capabilities is confounding. 

That "disconnect" was clear immediately after the 9/11 attacks.    

Nelly Lahoud: Al Qaeda did not anticipate that the United States would go to war.

Sharyn Alfonsi: What did they think was going to happen?

Nelly Lahoud: A limited airstrike, but they didn't think that they would go beyond that.

But as the war raged on in Afghanistan, Lahoud says, these letters show that Osama bin Laden was surprised by how Americans reacted to 9/11.

Nelly Lahoud: He thought that the American people would take to the streets, replicate the anti-Vietnam war protests and they would put pressure on their government to withdraw from Muslim majority states. 

Sharyn Alfonsi: A large miscalculation.

Nelly Lahoud: Huge miscalculation.  

In November of 2002, U.S. intelligence officials warned al Qaeda might be planning, "spectacular attacks" that could cause "mass casualties." 

But Lahoud says letters show, that by that time, al Qaeda was weak. Top leaders had been killed or forced into hiding and the terrorist organization was rudderless.

Sharyn Alfonsi: There is definitely a narrative that bin Laden was still controlling al Qaeda from behind the scenes, "the puppet master" somewhere hidden away. But is that what the papers show?

Nelly Lahoud: Far from it.

Sharyn Alfonsi: So he was not calling the shots (at that point)?

Nelly Lahoud: Absolutely not. 


She says Osama bin Laden didn't communicate with his al Qaeda associates for three years because he was on the run. It's still unknown exactly where he was hiding.

But in 2004, he reconnects with al Qaeda in this letter, offering surviving members his new plan to attack America.

Nelly Lahoud: He's very eager to replicate the 9/11 attacks in the United States. You know he is mindful that now the security conditions are very difficult at airports. 

She read us part of a chilling letter from Osama bin Laden to the head of al Qaeda's international terror unit. 

Bin Laden writes that rather than hijack a plane, operatives should charter one for their next attack on the U.S. And adds if that's too difficult, they should target U.S. railways.  

Then, bin Laden, who had a degree in civil engineering explains exactly how to do it.  

Nelly Lahoud: He wanted to have 12 meters of steel rail removed so that, this way, the train could be derailed. And we find him, explaining the simple toolkit that they could use. You know, he said, "You're-- you could use a compressor. You could use a smelting iron tool." 

Sharyn Alfonsi: He's in-- in those small details.

Nelly Lahoud: At the granular-- most granular level, yes.

Sharyn Alfonsi: What does that say to you?

Nelly Lahoud: He's very methodical, very methodical. He thinks-- he doesn't want to leave anything for chance.

Fortunately, he was never able to execute his plan.   

Because Lahoud says al Qaeda had been gutted by the war. She read us this letter from Tawfiq, a young associate who was running operations for al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is telling Osama bin Laden just how incapacitated the terror organization had become.

Nelly Lahoud: "The weakness, failure, and aimlessness that befell us were harrowing. We Muslims were defiled and desecrated. Our state was ripped asunder, our lands were occupied, our resources were plundered."

Sharyn Alfonsi: And so he's giving the state of al Qaeda to Osama bin Laden, who-- probably hasn't heard this at this point?

Nelly Lahoud: He didn't know. He didn't know the reality. And he actually warns him, that "I'm gonna tell you the truth as it is. And I know that some of the brothers here are not telling you everything in detail because they don't want to upset you, particularly because of the delicate situations in which you find yourself with…"

Osama bin Laden

That delicate situation, is bin Laden's life in hiding.  

By 2005, Osama bin Laden was living behind the 18 foot walls of the Abbottabad compound he shared with some of his wives, children, and grandchildren. 

In one clip, bin Laden's 22-year-old son, Khaled, is showing off the compound's meager gardens and animals he tends to.

Khalid also recorded his fathers public statements that were intended to be seen around the world.

You can hear him giggling as the lights malfunction.

But Nelly Lahoud says it was actually two of bin Laden's daughters who played the greater role in crafting their father's messages and jihad missions.

Nelly Lahoud: The people who really worked on Osama's public statements were mostly his-- daughters, Miriam and Sumaiya. And one of the pages, you know-- we find Osama soliciting explicitly, "Start preparing, start thinking about the ideas that need to go into the public statement." That's his own words.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Is this surprising how involved they were?

Nelly Lahoud: Yes, it was. It was surprising to me. In the world of al Qaeda, and of jihadism broadly, women are not part of the public face of jihad. 

But privately, the bin Laden women were very involved. In this letter to a relative, bin Laden's wife, Siham, is mourning the loss of a daughter who died in childbirth but then the tone quickly changes.     

Nelly Lahoud: And then she goes on to shame and at the same time incite the men to take up jihad. And she says, you know, "Our women and children are suffering, while the men are being servile and coward." So that's the kind of personality that we are encountering about the women in the compound, yes.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Wow.

Al Qaeda was also running low on cash. Lahoud says documents show that in 2006, al Qaeda had just $200,000 in its coffers and was unable to support or control an increasingly fractious jihad.

Still, she says Osama bin Laden kept plotting. Lahoud showed us one letter to another young associate, Younis, who'd impressed bin Laden with his sharp intellect. 

Nelly Lahoud: It says: "This is specifically addressed to you, top secret, do not share it with anyone."

It is Osama bin Laden's plan for another terror attack in 2010. This time, he wanted to target multiple crude oil tankers and major shipping routes around the Middle East and Africa.

Nelly Lahoud: He says, "It does not escape you, the importance of oil for industrialized economy today. And it is similar to blood for human beings. So, if you cause somebody to bleed excessively, even if you don't kill him you will at least weaken him." And that's-- he really-- what he really wanted to do to the American economy.

She says bin Laden details how al Qaeda operatives should integrate themselves into those port areas as fishermen. He instructs them exactly where to buy a specific kind of wooden boat to evade radar and then, once again, goes into the granular details of his plan. 

Nelly Lahoud: "The boats need to carry a large volume of explosives, preferably placed in an arch position, facing the vessel." 

Sharyn Alfonsi: So he is not only telling them what explosives to buy, he's telling them how to place the explosives.

Nelly Lahoud: In an arch position.

But his final plan to attack seems to have been halted by something he never saw coming, the Arab Spring. According to a family notebook, a unique item seized in the raid, the peaceful protests were confusing and concerning to the Bin Ladens.

Nelly Lahoud: On one level they were very excited by the fact that the people were able to bring down dictators. But at the same time there were all these question marks about, 'What is the value of jihad at the moment?' And we find this really throughout this notebook. 'Is jihad still necessary?'

Lahoud says Bin Laden was struggling with the answer to that question before he was killed.  

U.S. intelligence agencies say most al Qaeda terrorist activity is now being carried out by smaller al Qaeda offshoots.

Bin Laden's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, now heads al Qaeda. 

This month, he appeared in a new video denouncing the enemies of Islam.

Produced by Ashley Velie. Associate producer, Jennifer Dozor. Broadcast associate, Elizabeth Germino. Edited by Robert Zimet.

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