WASHINGTON -- Osama bin Laden warned al-Qaeda affiliates against prematurely declaring an Islamic caliphate, according to documents seized during the 2011 U.S. raid on his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Although the al-Qaeda founder planned for a caliphate, a senior U.S. intelligence official who closely reviewed letters and drafts of speeches found in his compound said that bin Laden did not envision realizing that goal in his lifetime.
Intelligence officials briefed reporters Tuesday on the release of 113 declassified documents taken in the bin Laden raid.
In one undated letter to Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who led the al-Qaeda branch in Yemen before he was killed in a U.S. drone strike, bin Laden had warned against taking over the capital city to quickly establish a new Islamic state.
"We want Sana'a to establish an Islamic State, but first, we want to make sure that we have the capability to gain control of it," bin Laden wrote. "The enemy continues to possess the ability to topple any state we establish," he continued, referring to the U.S. "We have to remember that the enemy toppled the Taliban and Saddam's regime."
Defeating the U.S. was the first priority for bin Laden, and he consistently pushed back against al-Qaeda members who called for hitting local targets instead. "America is the head of the nonbelievers. If God cut it off, the wings would be weakened," bin Laden reasoned in the letter to al-Wuhayshi, instructing him to remind "the new generation" not to pursue "separate operations rather than concentrating on the main objective."
The documents released Tuesday were the second set of materials from the 2011 raid made public. The first came out last May, and intelligence officials said they plan to declassify a final batch by the end of this year. Though much of bin Laden's correspondence is undated, a senior intelligence official estimated that the majority of the documents released Tuesday were written between 2009 and 2011.
The disagreement between bin Laden and several other key members of al-Qaeda over the timing of their expansion and whether to prioritize attacks on the U.S. reflected a growing disunity that ultimately led members from al-Qaeda in Iraq to break away and form the militant group now known as the Islamic State.
At the core of bin Laden's argument was his belief that al-Qaeda's fighters were not yet capable of preventing the U.S. from taking back territorial gains and lacked the resources to care for a large population of civilians. "If we fail," bin Laden warned, "people will not help us the second time."
The senior U.S. intelligence official said Tuesday that bin Laden, unlike the leaders of the current Islamic State, appeared to be concerned with popular opinion and cautioned his fighters against excessive displays of brutality.
Today, the Islamic State holds swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria and has an expanding presence in Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya and Egypt. The intelligence officials who briefed reporters declined to comment on whether bin Laden's death left proponents of declaring a caliphate free to build their own influence within the jihadi community.
While bin Laden focused obsessively on attacking the U.S., the documents released Tuesday do not indicate that he had developed a plan or that his group had the operational ability to launch another Sept. 11-scale attack. Rather, he was orchestrating a media campaign to coincide with the tenth anniversary of 9/11, pushing the idea that al-Qaeda had prospered since the attacks while the U.S. had foundered in the financial crisis of 2008. Bin Laden was killed by the U.S. military four months before the tenth anniversary.
In a handwritten will that intelligence officials suggest was drafted before he left Sudan in 1996, bin Laden said he had $29 million in Sudan and asked his survivors to spend the money "on Jihad, for the sake of Allah." It is not clear how much of that money remained by the time he died 15 years later.
Even as he spoke in grandiose terms about al-Qaeda's plans to wipe out the U.S., bin Laden appears to have grown increasingly paranoid about his own capture.
He told an aide that he preferred to communicate with Al Jazeera reporter Ahmed Zaidan in writing rather than in person because "journalists could be under surveillance that neither we nor they can perceive, either on the ground or via satellite." He also speculated that Zaidan could have a tracking device planted in his equipment.
In a separate letter to one of his wives, bin Laden voiced concern over her recent visit to a dentist in Iran. He warned her that they could have implanted a tracking device under her skin "about the length of a grain of wheat and the width of a fine piece of vermicelli."
Four months before he was killed, bin Laden wrote to two of his brothers about plans to move out of the Abbottabad compound to an unspecified location within nine months. According to the senior intelligence official, the move was motivated more by his brothers' desire to leave than by fear that the U.S. had discovered his hideout.
When asked for an overall takeaway from the latest tranche of documents, the intelligence official offered a surprising summation: "Bin Laden was actually sincere. ... The things that he said out loud are the things he said in private."
The official added that despite being a "sophisticated thinker," bin Laden had a "deeply flawed" understanding of the world that has led to the deaths of thousands of people. "And that's unforgivable."
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