Osama bin Laden instructed top Al Qaeda operatives to try to kill President Barack Obama and Gen. David Petraeus during any visit they made to Afghanistan or Pakistan but to avoid attacking Vice President Joe Biden because the group thought chaos would ensue if Biden assumed the presidency, according to documents seized during the U.S. raid that killed bin Laden in Pakistan a year ago.
“The groups will remain on the lookout for Obama or Petraeus. The reason for concentrating on them is that Obama is the head of infidelity and killing him automatically will make Biden take over the presidency for the remainder of the term, as it is the norm over there,” bin Laden wrote in the undated letter released Thursday by the U.S. government. “Biden is totally unprepared for that post, which will lead the US into a crisis.”
Bin Laden said he’d given orders to set up two teams, “one in Pakistan and the other in the Bagram area of Afghanistan — with the mission of anticipating and spotting the visits of Obama or Petraeus to Afghanistan or Pakistan to target the aircraft of either one of them.”
Obama was at the Bagram Air Base near Kabul earlier this week when he made a high-security visit to Afghanistan. He has not visited Pakistan as president.
The directive mentioning Biden is unsigned, but makes reference to bin Laden’s sons in a way that identifies him as the author. The letter is one of 17 documents declassified by the Obama administration and made public on a website operated by the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
The documents — some written by bin Laden, some written to him and others that may simply have been in his compound when it was raided last May — provide insight into leadership struggles within Al Qaeda, the organization’s intense focus on commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and the group’s media strategy.
The White House, which is in the midst of a series of high-profile interviews and speeches marking the first anniversary of the raid that killed bin Laden, referred questions about the document release to the Office of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
The documents released Thursday were declassified “at various times during the past year,” said Shawn Turner, a spokesman for Clapper. The records released by West Point do not include the customary markings showing who declassified the individual documents, when they were declassified or at what level they were originally classified.
“Identifying these documents, declassifying, and reviewing and analyzing them required considerable time and was only recently completed,” Turner said in an email. “The decision to release the documents around the one-year anniversary coincides with renewed public interest in the bin Laden operation. Executive Branch officials determined that it was in the public interest to release these particular documents, and the rest are being retained for security and operational reasons.”
Among the unreleased documents is one showing bin Laden proposed trying to recruit an operative with a Mexican passport who could travel to the United States, the Los Angeles Times reported.
One document made public Thursday appears to reflect a debate within the leadership of Al Qaeda, which is Arabic for “the base,” about changing the group’s name to something with a more religious or explicitly Islamic sound.
“This name reduces the feeling of Muslims that we belong to them, and allows the enemies to claim deceptively that they are not at war with Islam and Muslims, but they are at war with the organization of Al Qaeda,” said the released excerpt, whose author was not indicated. “Al Qaeda describes a military base with fighters without a reference to our broader mission to unify the nation. … It would be nice if you could discuss and come up with appropriate names that would not be easily shortened to a word that does not represent us.”
The document said a name change might help combat Obama’s strategy of trying to distinguish between the broader Muslim community and Al Qaeda. “If the word Al Qaeda was derived from or had strong ties to the word Islam or Muslims; or if it had the name Islamic party, it would be difficult for Obama to say that,” the author noted.
The memo laid out 10 possibilities for new names for the organization, including Muslim Unity Group and Islamic National Unification Party. It’s not clear from the released documents whether any action was ever taken on the name-change proposal or just how seriously it was considered. A statement from the counterterrorism center at West Point said the proposal was “part of a longer letter which was not released” by the U.S. government.
The documents also illuminate techniques Al Qaeda considered to overcome their difficulties in mounting operations in the United States. One proposes more operations directed at U.S. military personnel outside war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan. South Korea is mentioned as one place American troops could be targeted.
Al Qaeda leaders had a deliberate strategy to cause economic injury to the U.S., both through the Sept. 11 attacks and through drawing out the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the memos.
“In some past documentaries on Al Jazeera, some specialists confirmed that the events of 9/11 are the main reasons for the financial crisis that America suffers from,” bin Laden wrote in one letter. “Anyone who knows the world and knows politics, knows that it is impossible for them to continue with the war. There is no difference between them and the Soviet Union before it withdrew from Afghanistan.”
“All the political talk in America is about the economy, forgetting or ignoring the war and its role in weakening the economy,” Al Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn wrote in one of the seized documents.
At “the press conference held by Obama after the midterm elections, all the questions were on the bad economy, and the means to get out of the crisis. Nevertheless not one of the journalists dared to embarrass Obama by questioning him about the influence on the American budget and the national economy of spending the billions yearly on the two wars of Afghanistan and Iraq,” wrote Gadahn, an American who is under indictment in California on charges of treason.
In one memo written less than a week before the raid that killed him, bin Laden appears to embrace the Arab Spring democracy movement — a drive that Western governments have also publicly endorsed, though with some trepidation.
“What we are witnessing these days of consecutive revolutions is a great and glorious event, and it is most probable, according to reality and history, that it will encompass the majority of the Islamic world with the will of Allah, and thanks to Allah things are strongly heading towards the exit of Muslims from being under the control of America, and the Americans worry about that, which is great,” bin Laden wrote. He noted that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had indicated that the U.S. feared armed Islamists would take advantage of the situation to try to seize control in some countries.
Obama and other Western leaders have described the Arab Spring movement as a strategic blow to Al Qaeda, since the drive gave Muslims new outlets to act on their economic anxieties and other grievances. However, bin Laden saw the events as playing directly into Al Qaeda’s hands, though he did seem concerned that some might embrace “half solutions” — which could refer to toppling hated leaders but failing to replace them with fundamentalist Islamic governments.
“These events are the most important events that the nation has witnessed for centuries,” bin Laden wrote. “It is known that comprehensive popular movements inevitably change the conditions, so if we double the efforts to direct and educate the Muslim peoples and warn them from the half solutions, while taking care in providing good advice to them, the oncoming stage will be for Islam, Allah willing.”
In an August 2010 letter, bin Laden also expressed doubts about having American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki take over the Al Qaeda offshoot in Yemen, Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula. The Al Qaeda chief asked to be sent a detailed resume for al-Awlaki as well as information about him being involved more directly in terrorist operations.
“We would like to be reassured more,” bin Laden wrote. “For example, we here become reassured of the people when they go to the line and get examined there.”
Al Awlaki was killed in a drone strike in Yemen in September 2011.
Tensions and infighting between Al Qaeda and other radical Muslim groups are also evident in the sampling of documents made public. One Al Qaeda memo sharply criticizes the Pakistani Taliban or TTP, a group that carried out a series of bombings aimed at destabilizing Pakistan’s government and that was linked to the attempted Times Square bombing in May 2010.
The December 2010 letter from Mahmud al-Hasan and Aby Yahya al-Libi faults the TTP for “clear legal and religious mistakes which might result in a negative deviation from the set path of the Jihadists Movement in Pakistan, which also are contrary to the objectives of Jihad and to the efforts exerted by us.”
The Al Qaeda leaders also hint at rivalry with the other group by complaining about being labeled as “uests” in Pakistan.