How Bin Laden never gave up his dream of another September 11

CIA sifts through files taken from al-Qa'ida leader's home

He was the chairman of the board who plotted grand strategy but who perforce stayed mostly aloof from day-to-day management of the multinational of terrorism named al-Qa'ida. And one over-arching element of that strategy obsessed Osama bin Laden until the end: how to stage a new 9/11-scale strike that this time would finally drive the Western infidel from Arabia.

More than a week after he was hunted down and killed in the Pakistan garrison city of Abbottabad where he appears to have lived since 2005, the first details are emerging of Bin Laden and his role in al-Qa'ida during the closing years of his life, gleaned from the trove of laptops, digital storage devices and paper records taken with them by the Navy Seals after their 1 May raid on his compound.

Those files are now being pored over by CIA and other intelligence analysts at an Agency unit in Northern Virginia, with the initial focus on the most recent data, that might yield clues to a future attack now at an advanced planning stage. Administration officials caution that it will take months to evaluate what one described as a "motherlode" of intelligence. But, according to accounts in the US media this week, they have already discovered enough to make them revise one assumption widespread until his death.

Far from being a superannuated figurehead whose value to his organisation was solely symbolic and inspirational, Bin Laden was not only in regular contact with a small group of key operatives in various sections of the al-Qa'ida franchise, but was involved in conceiving and planning major operations.

Among the most illuminating items retrieved was his personal journal, containing – as one official told The Los Angeles Times – "aspirational guidance" on how to achieve al-Qa'ida's goal of a US withdrawal from the Arab world. The smaller-scale attacks since September 2001 were not enough, Bin Laden had concluded; what was needed was the mass murder of thousands in an attack comparable, in size if not in method, to 9/11. Bin Laden also instructed his lieutenants not to focus exclusively on New York, but to target other major centres including Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington DC, as well as smaller American cities.

The aim, it appears from the personal journal and the data sifted so far, was a blockbuster plot to mark a national holiday like the 4th of July – or best of all, the 10th anniversary of 9/11 in four months' time. This might have involved the attack on the US rail system that officials have claimed was part of Bin Laden's thinking.

More generally, he repeated previous calls to his organisation to try to enlist new followers among America's "oppressed" minorities of blacks and Latinos. Anti-terrorist officials here however say there has been little sign of any concerted recruiting campaign.

"It's not like they have talent scouts at mosques in the US," an official told The Washington Post. Indeed it has never been established that Bin Laden's organisation has ever had much of an embedded network in the US proper.

Even so, his continuing involvement contradicts the impression that emerged immediately after the raid – not least from the image of the hunched figure, a brown blanket round his shoulder, watching clips of himself on TV, rather as an infirm and ageing former football star viewing a highlight reel of long-ago goals.

That involvement has been all the more surprising given his difficulty of communication with the outside world. This took place exclusively by means of human couriers who were ordered, according to one account here, not even to put a battery in their mobile phone until they were 90 minutes distant from the compound.

Among those Bin Laden was in touch with were his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, regarded as his most likely successor, and Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, the organisation's operations chief previously said to have been killed in a drone attack along the Afghan-Pakistan border in October 2010, and for whom the State Department has offered a $1m reward, dead-or-alive. But no evidence has yet surfaced that he knew where either man was.

He also communicated with the Yemeni branch of al-Qa'ida, now considered the most dangerous arm of the organisation, and which was behind the almost-successful Christmas Day 2009 bombing of an airliner preparing to land in Detroit, and whose most prominent figure is the US-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.

Although it is unclear to what extent Bin Laden co-ordinated the activities of the various al-Qa'ida affiliates, he seems to have helped plan almost every recent al-Qa'ida plot uncovered by US and European investigators, officials say.

By the end however his high standards of security may have been slipping. "Bin Laden got lazy and complacent," one official told The Washington Post. "I don't think he thought he would meet his maker in that house, and he certainly had made no preparations to escape from a raid and destroy the information we found inside."

The key question now is the impact his loss will have on al-Qa'ida: whether an already fragmented organisation will fragment further, and whether his death will inspire or deter new followers. Even when Bin Laden was alive, some theoretically al-Qa'ida groups were pursuing purely local goals in their countries of operation.

President Obama, meanwhile, plans a major speech next week on the Middle East, setting out a unified vision for the region after the death of the world's most wanted terrorist, and in the light of the pro-democracy uprisings rippling through the Arab world.

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