He was far from the only tetchy middle-aged senior executive in the world who missed his family, micromanaged, got cross with recalcitrant subordinates and liked books explaining the world with far-fetched conspiracy theories. But he was the only one with a $25m bounty on his head.
in the Pakistan compound where he had lived for about five years in May 2011, US special forces also scooped up a mass of documents, books, hard drives and disks. The haul was described by officials as the size of a small university library.
On Wednesday, with found in the house in Abbottabad, a garrison city in the north of the country, a new and richer picture of the last years of the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks emerged.
The document trove includes the contents of Bin Laden’s library, featuring works by Islamist thinkers but also English language books by authors like Noam Chomsky and Bob Woodward, plus correspondence between Bin Laden and his family and evidence of a continued preoccupation with launching attacks against the west. .
Some of the broad outlines were known from a previous release of a handful of documents in 2012. But much was unknown.
The new files included about 75 US government documents, none secret, including the report of the official US commission which investigated the 2001 attacks. There were also scores of reports from top international thinktanks, including the US-based Rand Corporation and the Combating Terrorism Center, part of the US military academy at West Point. Most were detailed analyses of al-Qaida, the group bin Laden helped found in the late 1980s. Dozens of cuttings from newspapers and magazines, again largely about al-Qaida, supplemented the more academic reading. One, from the Los Angeles Times, was entitled: .
Bin Laden lived with three wives, several children and about a dozen grandchildren in a walled compound that had no telephone or internet connections. Messages to the outside world were typed on a computer and put on a flash drive; a trusted courier then collected the drive and sent the messages from an internet cafe in another town.
This obsession with security is reinforced by the new documents. In 2010 Bin Laden told one of his wives who planned to travel to Abbottabad from Iran that “it is necessary ... to leave everything behind, including clothes, books ... everything that a needle might possibly penetrate”. This was because “some chips have been lately developed for eavesdropping, so small they could easily be hidden inside a syringe [and] it is possible to implant a chip in some of the belongings that you might have brought along with you”.
Elsewhere in the correspondence he berates associates for their sloppy attitude to online security.
Despite the practical problems of communication, Bin Laden was a prolific letter writer, trying through hundreds of missives to retain some influence on the sprawling, fragmented and decentralised organisation that appears, from the correspondence, to have been slipping out of his control.
There is evidence of a tendency to micromanage – with involvement in the transfer and expenditure of small sums of cash – but most appears to be attempts to keep al-Qaida focused on the 20-year-old strategy of striking the “Far Enemy”, the US and its western allies, rather than getting entangled in battles against local authorities across the Islamic world.
Echoing one of his most famous early speeches, Bin Laden told “brothers ... in the Islamic Maghreb” their job was “to uproot the obnoxious tree by concentrating on its American trunk”, and to avoid being occupied with the local security forces.
He also told them not to try to seize or control territory in order to “declare an Islamic state ... at the time being, but to work on breaking the power of our main enemy by attacking the American embassies and oil companies”.
A second theme was to maintain good relations with local communities and to avoid killing other Muslims. “Please remind the brothers in Somalia to be compassionate with the people,” Bin Laden writes in one mail. Another reveals harsh criticism in 2007 from an affiliated group in Iraq which complained about the indiscriminate brutality of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the infamous commander of the al-Qaida affiliate there.
A third constant element was a fascination with the media. There are practical instructions for arranging for a film to be made with al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite channel, for the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks as well as orders to launch a media campaign to exploit the turmoil of the Arab spring. There are also lengthy discursive, if rambling, documents on the potential of digital media to undermine regimes across the world.
For Bin Laden appears to have had the time and the inclination to read and reflect. included an eclectic mix of publications ranging from relations between religious communities in early medieval Spain, the economics of France in the 1930s, recent blunders by US intelligence agencies and the Vietnam war.
There are works by his mentor, Abdallah Azzam, and Syed Qutb, the Egyptian intellectual considered the godfather of modern jihadi thinking, who was hanged in 1966. But others are standard works of mainstream journalism or history, with a few esoteric subjects such as the French economy in the 19th century thrown in.
Bin Laden , particularly those with an antisemitic element. His library includes one book, New Pearl Harbor, which argues that the government of George W Bush was complicit in the 9/11 terror attacks.
The release of the documents came shortly after the US journalist Seymour Hersh alleged that Washington’s official account of the raid that led to Bin Laden’s death was false in significant aspects.
A CIA spokesman said the declassification had been long planned.
Though he spent his days with three wives and several children, , particularly his son Hamza.
Earlier documents have made clear the importance of family life to Bin Laden. The new batch provide further evidence of his affection for distant sons and daughters. Some mention his desire for news on his children’s successes at schools, and fears that they may fall into bad company.
Some long-term interests, such as agriculture, also feature. Bin Laden once tried to set up farms in Sudan in the mid-90s. In these documents he returns to the economics of palm tree plantations.
One element is noticeably absent. There is none of the apocalyptic literature, or indeed rhetoric, that has become so popular among Islamic militants in recent years, particularly those of the Islamic State. Bin Laden’s interests, and instructions, remain rooted in the real world. There are plenty of references to climate change and but none to the coming of the antichrist.
The documents confirm the image of an ageing leader, well past his prime, and increasingly out of touch with a new wave of militants who would unceremoniously shoulder aside the organisation Bin Laden had founded as a young man within a year or so of his death.