On May 2, 2011, United States forces entered the upper-class mansion in Abbottabad, Pakistan that was being used as a safe house for Osama Bin Laden. Having shot and killed the Al-Qaeda leader, they proceeded to exploit the compound for any materials that might prove to be of intelligence value. Soldiers retrieved what a senior intelligence official subsequently described to reporters as a “robust collection of materials” and, later, “the single largest collection of senior terrorist materials ever.”
The U.S. Government described the stash as exceeding a million documents, stored on paper and in 10 hard drives, nearly 100 thumb drives, and data cards — not to mention a vast cache of printed materials. According to President Barack Obama’s national security advisor, Thomas Donilon, the material could fill “a small college library.”
A CIA team was designated to analyze the material, with a priority on immediately actionable intelligence but the eventual goal of thoroughly mining the content for as close to a comprehensive understanding of AL-Qaeda as possible. The Administration also promised to make most of the materials available to the public as soon as it was operationally safe and advisable to do so.
Yet more than five years after the confiscation of the documents, none but a small fraction of the materials have been released to the public. Former intelligence officers familiar with interagency disputes over the archive assert, moreover, that the modest amount of declassified material was used by the Obama Administration to support a political narrative about Al-Qaeda that is not borne out by the majority of the documents. Among the major discrepancies: Significant evidence of cooperation between Al-Qaeda and the Iranian government.
For this special investigation, Asharq Alawsat interviewed former intelligence officers, staff members of the National Security Archive in Washington, and experts on successive U.S. Governments’ declassification policies — in addition to scrutinizing more than 250 documents from the Abbottabad compound. Among the key findings of the investigation:
– Bin Laden described Iran as “our main artery for funds, personnel, and communication,” and instructed subordinates to “refrain from attacking Iran and devote your total resources … to the fight against the crusaders and the apostates.”
– There was a clear contrast between public statements by Al-Qaeda declaring all Shi’ites to be apostates on the one hand, and internal deliberations by the organization calling for a pragmatic give-and-take with the Mullahs of Tehran on the other.
– Bin Laden grew agitated as reports of Al-Qaeda-Iran cooperation emerged in Arabic media, and urged his subordinates to refute them vigorously.
– Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi targeted Shi’ite holy places and civilians in Iraq against the orders of Bin Laden, sparking a crisis in the Al-Qaeda-Iran relationship. Iran took aggressive measures against Al-Qaeda, including the detention of members of Bin Laden’s family, in order to negotiate a restoration of cooperation from a position of strength.
– Iran used its access to and power over Al-Qaeda as leverage with the United States during both the Bush and Obama administrations.
– In the lead up to the 2012 Presidential campaign in which President Obama ran for reelection, the White House selectively released a few Abbottabad documents to support its claim that Al-Qaeda had been nearly defeated.
– That same year, a specially designated task force of intelligence analysts from United States Central Command [CENTCOM] organized a visit to the Abbottobad archives in Virginia, only to have permission to view the documents revoked by the President’s National Security Council.
– Fifty intelligence analysts from CENTCOM have formally complained that their work is being altered by their superiors to paint a rosy picture of the American military campaign against ISIS — sparking a Pentagon investigation into alleged manipulation of intelligence.
– The alleged suppression of evidence of Al-Qaeda-Iran cooperation coincides with a brazen Administration campaign to focus the public’s attention on claims of a Saudi government operational role in the 9-11 tragedy.
– The Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence is demanding the immediate release of all Abbottabad documents. A former Marine intelligence and Special Operations officer asserts that there is no operational justification to continue to withhold the vast majority of the documents.
– Experts on U.S. Government classification policies have dubbed the Obama White House “the most secretive administration in American presidential history.”
Chronology of Secrecy
In March 2012, as the one-year anniversary of the Abbottabad raid approached, President Obama’s reelection campaign was in full swing. The Administration worked through Washington Post columnist David Ignatius to delay a handful of excerpts from the archive, which were aptly summed up in the column’s headline, “Osama Bin Laden: A Lion in Winter.” Ignatius wrote: “I’ve only seen a small sample of the thousands of items that were carried away the night of May 2, 2011. But even those few documents shown to me by a senior Obama administration official give a sense of how … [Al-Qaeda] had lost its momentum. He added that Bin Laden and his cohorts had been “hunted so relentlessly by U.S. forces that they had trouble sending the simplest communications.” The column, and a handful of others based on a similar provision of information, supported the oft-quoted Administration claim that Al-Qaeda was “on the run.” Materials provided to Ignatius were among the fewer than 20 Abbottobad documents that were eventually released to the public on the first anniversary of the historic raid.
But subsequent reporting by Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard magazine exposed a snafu in the declassification that later took on added significance. Shortly before the release of the documents, one was withheld from the public: a document revealing close operational coordination between Al-Qaeda and senior figures of the Afghan Taleban — not in the distant past, but up until the final stage of Bin Laden’s life. In addition to contradicting the portrayal of a “lion in winter,” information about recent Afghan Taleban plots against American and NATO forces naturally stood to imperil then-ongoing negotiations between the Obama Administration and the Taleban. The document was not released — and meanwhile, senior administration officials including Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and CIA chief John Brennan told the public that Al-Qaeda’s defeat was imminent.
Meanwhile, intelligence analysts at US Central Command, conducting their own investigations of Al-Qaeda, were finding that, to the contrary, Al-Qaeda was alive and well; Bin Laden had been actively involved in its operations to the last; and the decades-old relationship between Al-Qaeda leadership figures and Iran had not ceased. Michael Pregent, a former analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency who focused on Iran in the course of his service, recalls, “In looking at phone numbers, signals intelligence intercepts, and other things, we started to see route facilitation through Iran. There was a letter in the [unclassified] Bin Laden documents referring to Iran’s crucial role in the organization, warning Al-Qaeda operatives not to mess with Iran. We were trying to gain historical knowledge of the organization, to see how it functioned. And we started seeing stuff nobody was talking about, like Iranian facilitation of Al-Qaeda travel into Pakistan, for example.” Derek Harvey, another member of the CENTCOM team, told Asharq Alawsat that at the time, the Bin Laden documents were languishing: Following several initial weeks in which a CIA-led interagency intelligence team conducted keyword searches to gain immediately actionable intelligence, the material was not reviewed further by anyone for a year if not longer. Maintaining control over the documents, the CIA refused to allow other agencies to review them.
What follows was a dispute within the U.S. Government over whether the CENTCOM unit should be permitted to view the Abbottabad material. Senior CENTCOM officials argued vigorously for the access, and eventually, James Clapper, CIA director at the time, agreed to relent.
Pregent recalls that his group received permission from the CIA to go to the National Media Exploitation Center in McClean, Virginia to review the documents. But shortly before the date of the scheduled visit, Pregent explained to Asharq Alawsat, it was abruptly cancelled. “From what I was told, the decision came from the President’s National Security Council. The team was disbanded weeks later.” Reporting from Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard cites his own intelligence sources as indicating that some analysts were summoned to Washington and instructed to stop attempting to analyze the few documents they had.
Nonetheless, public pressure continued to mount for the declassification of the documents — much of it from Congress, in an effort spearheaded by California Congressman Denon Nunes, Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. In 2014, a new “Intelligence Authorization Act” required the Office of the Directorate of National Intelligence to conduct a review of the documents for release. An interagency task force was established to review them — under White House auspices.
Two years later, fewer than 250 of the million documents have been declassified. Following the release of the most recent batch — 113 documents — on March 1, 2016, Congressman Nunes issued the following statement: “Although it is gratifying to see the new release of bin Laden documents, the Obama administration still needs to produce many more. The CIA already should have provided all the bin Laden documents to the House Intelligence Committee, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence should have already completed a classification review of all the documents to determine which can be publicly released. I look forward to receiving the remaining documents promptly.”
The DNI’s office states that “All documents whose publication will not hurt ongoing operations against Al-Qaeda or their affiliates will be released.”
This stated commitment raises questions for Timothy Ward Nichols, a professor at Duke University focused on counterterrorism and intelligence policy who previously served in special operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than five years after the documents were seized from Abbottabad, Nichols told Asharq Alawsat, “it is hard to imagine that all but a few of them have the potential to compromise ongoing operations.
If there were information about locations or planned activities and the idea would be to get that into the intelligence system and take action, target people, interdict — we’re a number of years into it, and if that action hasn’t happened already, it probably isn’t going to happen. Though some information might be worth holding onto, I doubt that the vast majority of the material has continuing intelligence value.”
Questions about the concealment of the Abbottobad archives are being raised in the context of broader accusations against the Obama Administration of manipulation of intelligence analysis.
Late last year, more than 50 intelligence analysts from the U.S. military’s Central Command issued a series of complaints alleging that their reporting and analysis of ISIS al Qaeda’s activities in Syria were being significantly altered by their superiors, in order to paint a rosier picture of the American military campaign against ISIS. The complaints caused the Pentagon’s inspector general to launch an investigation into alleged manipulation of intelligence. The formally lodged complaints described the censorious atmosphere surrounding intelligence analysts’ work as “Stalinist.” Then, in a further dramatic development last month, it emerged that two senior intelligence analysts at CENTCOM had been forced out of their jobs due to the skeptical assessments which they had presented to their superiors.
Asked to appraise the allegations against the upper echelons of CENTCOM, Nichols noted his longstanding knowledge of one of the main complainants, senior intelligence officer Gregg Hooker. “Gregg, whom I’ve known for 20 years, is probably the best US analyst on Iraq that there is. And when he’s concerned that the analytical intelligence that he submits is being fiddled with to make it look better than it is, I side with Gregg.”
Commenting on the politicization of intelligence, Nichols suggested that the problem seems to lie largely with the National Security Council: “When intelligence enters the NSC, I think that’s where a lot of the politicization happens, and it’s doing a disservice to President Obama. He put his people into place, and they are telling him what he wants to hear.” But Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, who served as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency before retiring in 2014, assigns the blame to a higher level of government: He told the Fox News Channel that “The focus of this investigation ought to start at the top … Where intelligence starts and stops is at the White House. The president sets the priorities and he’s the number one customer.”
Even based on the limited Abbottabad material that has been declassified thus far, the contours of a complex yet enduring relationship between Al-Qaeda and Iran are discernable.
Iran is “Our Main Artery for Funds, Personnel, and Communications”
References to the role of Iran in Al-Qaeda activities come across on a more casual operational level in correspondence between Bin Laden and his subordinates in the field. For example, in an April 2011 report sent to Bin Laden from an operative elsewhere in Pakistan, there are references to colleagues who have established themselves in Iran: “Brother ((Abu al‐Samah)) al‐Masri left and now he is in Iran. It seems that he resumed media activities and communications under the title “Jama’at al‐Jihad” as you can see in an attached file. Also, brother ((‘Abdallah Rajab)) al‐Libi left and he is in Iran too.” A letter by Bin Laden dated August 27, 2010, there is reference to “brothers coming from Iran,” as well as a discussion of other “brothers to go to Iran for safekeeping.”
In a different undated letter, there is a reference to Yemeni Al-Qaeda operatives who were arrested in Pakistan en route to Iran. That is, it appears that Iran was their destination, not merely a transit point.
In an undated letter regarding “external operations,” an operative reports to Bin Laden that he has been considering opening an office in Iran: “If we would like to implement what we have discussed above, first thing we have to face is establishing a complete organization, which we cannot to because the lack of finance and required cadres, and I think our job is executive work which has to belong to us. That is why we have thought to open an office for ourselves in Iran, to receive whoever comes to join us or someone traveling.” The operative goes on to raise concerns that the cost of doing so are prohibitive at the present time.
Perhaps one of the most telling documents is a letter from Bin Laden, dated October 18, 2007, in which he conveys disapproval to one of his followers — likely in Iraq — who has adopted hostile rhetoric toward Iran. “You did not consult with us on that serious issue that affects the general welfare of all of us. We expected you would consult with us for these important matters, for as you are aware, Iran is our main artery for funds, personnel, and communication, as well as the matter of hostages.” He subsequently states, “There is no need to fight with Iran, unless you are forced to … My advice is to refrain from attacking them and devote your total resources to … the fight against the crusaders and the apostates. This is also my opinion about the other fronts such as Lebanon and the like.”
Bin Laden’s advice famously went unheeded by Abu Mus’ab Al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq during the early years of the US-led occupation of the country following the ouster of Saddam Hussein. As has been widely reported, Zarqawi’s decision to target Shi’ite holy places and Shi’ite civilians was taken unilaterally, against the advice of Osama Bin Laden. When the bloody incidents caused a rift in relations between Al-Qaeda and Iran, however, an Iranian intermediary met with a senior Qaeda operative to attempt to resolve their differences and resume cooperation. This effort is described in an undated letter, apparently reform Iraq, in which an Al-Qaeda operative reports on a discussion with an Iranian intermediary: “The Iranians are very interested in working with someone from the chief’s [Bin Laden’s] side … they believe the brothers there, specifically “al-Azraq” [a reference to Zarqawi] and his group, have a hand in the attack on the Shi’a holy sites. Therefore, they want to meet with a delegate from the chief’s side to discuss this matter openly; there is also the potential for cooperation. … the Iranians have a desire to provide support and assistance … The Iranians would also like to receive at least a letter signed by the chief, assuring them that the Shi’a holy sites will not be targeted by the brothers. Furthermore, the holy sites should not be included as targets to attack. The letter should also say that what had happened was a result of planning over there, and the chief and his associates are not pleased and had not agreed to targeting those sites.”
Ideological justification for Al-Qaeda cooperation with Iran
Other available Abbottabad documents offer a glimpse into the ideological worldview adopted by Bin Laden which appears to justify cooperation with Shi’ite Iran — even by a Sunni jihadist takfiri movement which regards Shi’ism as being tantamount to polytheism. Bin Laden is seen asserting in various ways that the broader interest of confronting the United States makes it prudent to set aside such differences and cooperate with Iran — as long as Iran is similarly committed to defeating the United States.
According to one undated memorandum by Bin Laden, “The interest at this stage remains with not having the mujahidin enter into a military war with Iran, which would disrupt the singular effort aimed at the chief of unbelief, America. I believe that we, by the grace of God the Sublime, are in the time period of finishing off America. But as you know, the major nations are not brought down in a night, and being preoccupied with a grueling enemy and giving it a chance to catch its breath, and entering into a long-term war with another enemy, is contrary to wisdom.”
Another example of the public case for cooperation with Iran against a mutual enemy is in an undated “letter to the Muslim Brothers in Iraq and the Islamic nation.” Bin Laden writes, “The Iraqi who performs Jihad against the American infidels or ‘Allawi’s apostate government, is our brother and friend, even if he is Iranian, Kurdish or Turkmen. And the Iraqi who is a part of this apostate government, and fights the Mujahidin who are resisting the occupation, is an apostate and infidel, even if he is an Arab.”
In 2011, as the ouster of Tunisian president Zine al-Abedin bin Ali seemed to herald a wave of revolutions in the Arab world, Bin Laden appeared keen to place his imprint on the seismic development, and perhaps guide the revolutionaries through his writings and advice. In seeking an analogy with which to proffer his advice, more than once in his writings Bin Laden refers approvingly to the Iranian revolution against the Shah. For example, in his “letter to the Islamic nation at large” written after the revolution in Tunisia, Bin Laden hails the “Iranian revolution’s successful overthrow of the Shah.” In another letter to “my Islamic Ummah,” apparently also in the aftermath of the Tunisian revolution, Bin Laden again sites the Iranian revolution as a kind of exemplar, in making his case that all remnants of the incumbent regime need to be flushed clean: “The Iranian revolution’s leaders insisted on freeing the country of the regime completely. Even after they expelled the Shah, leaving matters to the Shahbur, where the people were calling for the return of the Shah, they did not stop the revolution. When this continued, despite shedding the regime of their blood supply, [they were insistent] on removing the entire regime.”
Sensitivities over a public association with Iran
Indications of Al-Qaeda accommodationism with Iran did not go unnoticed in the broader Arab world. In some of the correspondence, Al-Qaeda leaders manifest an awareness of the perception in some Arab countries that Al-Qaeda has established a partnership with Iran. Al-Qaeda’s leadership seem to understand that this perception is problematic and needs to be counteracted in some way. In a letter dated December 17, 2007, Bin Laden provides media and public communications advice to Abu-‘Abdallah al-Haj ‘Uthman. He states that whereas some denunciations of Al-Qaeda by Arab governments should simply be ignored, Arabic media reports of an Iran-Al-Qaeda connection are “hurtful” to the organization, and should be publicly refuted.
It seems meanwhile that some of Bin Laden’s followers, steeped as they are in Takfiri-style hostility toward Shi’ites, want to be assured that the leader of the organization is not “soft” on the Shi’ite sect. In an undated letter to Bin Laden, an Al-Qaeda operative queries him about his puzzling reluctance to criticize the Islamic Republic: “I will leave other issues for upcoming communications, such as your silence regarding the Iranian strategy in the region, and the nature of the relationship to it, especially after the repeated calls to Muslims by Dr. Ayman to support Hezbollah, knowing that Hezbollah is a part of the Iranian rejectionist agenda.”
Thus a bifurcation emerges — between, on the one hand, pragmatic deliberations in private about the Tehran regime’s value as an asset to Al-Qaeda and, on the other hand, hostile statements for public consumption about Al-Qaeda’s rejection of the Shi’ite sect. For example, in a letter dated March 1, 2004 [9-1-1425 Hijri] and attributed to Sulayman Bin Nasir al-‘Ulwan, Shi’ism is declared to be tantamount to polytheism.
And yet even in the public discussion, and within the most virulent anti-Shi’ite writings Al-Qaeda produced, the organization took pains to temper the rhetoric, apparently in deference to the interplay between the organization and the Iranian leadership. In one draft of a speech about Shi’ites, despite virulent denunciations of the sect, the author nonetheless asserts that “I am not biased to people over other people for ethnicity, blood, or nationality, and I thank God for the blessing of faith, as Salman the Persian and Bilal the Ethiopian are our masters and dignitaries, God be pleased with them, even if they are non-Arabs, and Ibn Salul al-Khazraji and Abu Lahab al-Hashimi are our enemies, even if they are Arabs and closer to us in blood. What counts is Islam and faith, and not country and relationship.” The draft proceeds to suggest that Sunnis and Shi’ites alike are both capable of being led astray: “Here I direct one bit of advice to the Sunnis and another to the Shi’a, which is that God knows I try to deliver the truth to all the people so that they know it and hold on to it, so that we all enter paradise, God willing, and with His grace and mercy.” But a comment to the draft document is added by a critical reader, suggesting that a line of condemnation be included, “like saying that the Shi’ites are in a wrong religion, based on deifying their imams to the extent of worshiping them.” At the same time, he cautions that while Shi’ites should be “denounced,” they should not be declared “enemies” — because, in the commentator’s words, “We may make the political leadership of Iran think we are declaring war against them.”
Mutual Distrust and the Fog of War
The many references to cooperation between Al-Qaeda and Iran in various forms do not mean that the two entities’ respective leaderships regarded each other with trust — and to the contrary, more than once in the Abbottabad documents Bin Laden states that the Iranians should not be trusted. Of the modest number of documents that were declassified by the U.S. Government, a large proportion of them are focused on Al-Qaeda’s struggle to deal with the detention of some of its members — including a wife, children, and grandchildren of Bin Laden himself — by the Iranian government. From a political standpoint, the materials superficially appear to negate the evidence of Al-Qaeda-Iran collaboration. But below the surface emerges a more complex picture.
In some of the correspondence, the writers of letters to and from Abbottabad convey shock when the Iranian government has detained an Al-Qaeda operative. In a letter dated 27-12-1431 H, the author — apparently Bin Laden — asks “the brother Sheikh Mahmud” to ascertain the reasons why certain Al-Qaeda members in Iran have been detained. He conveys the opinion, based on input from another member of the organization with apparent knowledge of Iranian strategic thinking, that “the Iranians were concerned about pressure.” Bin Laden urges his interlocutors in Iran to approach the matter delicately — applying their own pressure for the operatives’ release, but only “gradually.” In the same letter, moreover, he references other Al-Qaeda operatives in Iran who are plainly moving about the country freely — to the point that they enter into a discussion of logistics for the relaying of messages between the Abbottabad compound and the interior of the “Islamic Republic”: “We will tell the intermediary on our end to contact you at the start of each solar month – like this time right now – so you can send us a message if there is anything important that cannot wait. Since someone from my family in Iran will probably be coming, please arrange it so that when our friend contacts your friend, when they are at your place, they should come with him right away.”
A different letter provides further insight as to the nature of “pressure” Iranians may have faced to place some Al-Qaeda operatives under house arrest: “They were forced to this under the unjust campaign on Afghanistan by the United States, as America was targeting the families of the Arab mujahidin, women and children, blatantly, over and over. So some of those who
survived it went to Iran without coordination, and they were arrested …” The author of the letter appears to believe that Bin Laden has sufficient influence in Iran to negotiate their release: “We asked several times that they be let go so that they could go to Pakistan. Tehran did not respond to that, so maybe you could attempt to work on releasing them …”
Other documents appear to suggest a relationship between the detention of Al-Qaeda operatives in Iran and the Tehran government’s displeasure with anti-Shi’ite violence in Iraq as spearheaded by Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi. But perhaps the most poignant of the “arrest” documents — those concerning the incarceration of Bin Laden’s relatives in Iran during the later years of his life — are also the ones that coincide with the period of thinly veiled rapprochement between the Obama Administration and the Tehran regime. It would not have been difficult for Bin Laden over the last three years of his life to notice the olive branch Obama held out to the Mullah’s in his first “Nowruz message” — or the fact that Obama did not voice support for the “Green Movement” in Iran in 2009.
Thus creeping into Bin Laden’s correspondence about the detention of his family in Iran over the same period is a heightened paranoia about the regime’s intensions toward his loved ones. In a letter from February 2011, titled, “Letter to my caring family,” Bin Laden responds to a letter from relatives who have been released from detention in Iran and arrived in nearby Waziristan. It emerges from the correspondence that his wife had been treated for dizziness by an Iranian doctor. Bin Laden asks her to go to a female doctor in Waziristan in order to determine “whether or not the treatment prescribed by the Iranian doctor was necessary.” He is also concerned about the tooth filling which she was given by an Iranian dentist — apparently wondering whether there may be a bug or tracking device hidden in the filling. (In a separate letter, he conveys concern about a “chip implant.”) A letter a few months prior to the one above, dated September 26, 2010, speaks further to the distrust of the Iranians and the issue of a chip implant: “ Before Um Hamzah arrives here, it is necessary for her to leave everything behind, including clothes, books, everything that she had in Iran… Everything that a needle might possibly penetrate. Some chips have been lately developed for eavesdropping, so small they could easily be hidden inside a syringe. Since the Iranians are not to be trusted, it is possible to implant a chip in some of the belongings that you might have brought along with you … “
And indeed, in some of the correspondence Bin Laden appears to betray a sense of foreboding that the Iranian government will, in the fullness of time, use its access to and power over his organization as leverage in some sort of negotiations with the United States. In a letter from August 2009, Bin Laden writes a lengthy letter to the Egyptian jihadist ideologue and writer Mustafa Hamid, aka Abu Walid al-Masri, in which he refutes some of Hamid’s writings about the nature of the Iranian regime. Bin Laden appears concerned to cite instances of Iranian betrayal of various Sunni jihadist allies — notably the Taleban — in exchange for advantages from the United States. He writes the following, for example, about the bombardment of Taleban strongholds in Afghanistan during the post-9/11 US invasion of that country:“A month after the continuous bombing of the Taliban strongholds to no avail, the Iranian government presented to the Americans a military map of the positions that they should focus on to break the line. In fact, when the Americans took the Iranian advice, the line was broken, as a representative of the United States stated in the joint committee.“