By Nigel Inkster, Director of Transnational Threats and Political Risk
Yesterday, a small sample of documents seized from Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad was released by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point. The 17 documents and notes were found on thumb drives, memory cards or the hard drive of bin Laden’s computer by the US Navy Seals who found and killed the terrorist leader last year.
The 17 documents published are part of a cache of more than 6,000, and the criteria for choosing them have not been made clear. However, it would be a reasonable assumption that the documents not released are in some way of operational use. The earliest letter is dated September 2006, the latest April 2011, and some are undated. Except for those addressed to bin Laden, ‘it cannot be ascertained whether any of these electronic letters actually reached their intended destinations’, the CTC cautions.
Some commentators have speculated that the selection of documents published may reflect an effort to portray al-Qaeda and its erstwhile leader in a particular light. There may be some truth in this, but the picture of al-Qaeda that emerges from the correspondence is broadly in line with that discernible from other open-source information – namely of an organisation that is, in the words of US Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan, ‘a shadow of its former self’, struggling largely without success to impose control on affiliated groups and maintain relevance in a rapidly changing world.