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Osama bin Laden notes show a plan to overthrow Hamid Karzai

The raid in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden also netted documents that show he wanted to overthrow Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a former U.S. official says.

May 01, 2012|By Brian Bennett and Ken Dilanian, Los Angeles Times
  • A man passes the demolished compound of slain Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. A selection of material seized in a U.S. raid on the compound a year ago will go online Thursday.
A man passes the demolished compound of slain Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden… (Sajjad Qayyam, AFP/Getty…)

WASHINGTON — Osama bin Laden was devising a strategy for overthrowing Afghan President Hamid Karzai and controlling Afghanistan once the U.S. left the country, said a former U.S. official familiar with the cache of notes and letters that were seized last year in the raid on the terrorist leader's compound.

Bin Laden had discussed his plans with the Taliban leadership council, known as the Quetta Shura, and the Haqqani network, which controls the North Waziristan tribal area in Pakistan, said the former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity while discussing the intelligence.

The haul of documents, hard drives and flash drives show Bin Laden seeking to shape the future of Afghanistan but also struggling to manage an organization fractured by CIA drone assassinations and hampered by inexperienced leaders, officials say.

A declassified selection of the vast trove of material will be published online Thursday by the Combating Terrorism Center, a think tank at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

The Taliban and Al Qaeda don't agree on everything but still have a "relatively strong" relationship, said Seth Jones, an expert on Al Qaeda at the Santa Monica-based Rand Corp. think tank and author of "Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of al Qa'ida Since 9/11."

"They are attempting to overthrow the Karzai regime, and they are both willing to work with each other to do that," he said.

The release of the declassified material follows President Obama's surprise visit to Afghanistan on Tuesday that administration officials acknowledged was timed to coincide with the anniversary of the death of Bin Laden.

Republicans have criticized the Obama campaign for using the killing of Bin Laden by U.S. forces in Pakistan on May 2, 2011, as a political talking point.

The documents captured at that time also show that a key go-between for U.S. negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan had also been in touch with Bin Laden.

Mohammed Tayeb Agha, an aide to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, met with U.S. officials at least three times in spring 2011. He was also in communication with Bin Laden, who was looking for assurances about what kind of haven Al Qaeda's senior leaders would have in Afghanistan after a U.S. military withdrawal.

Some experts say the apparent double dealing underscores the uncertainty surrounding talks with the Taliban.

"I don't think a deal with them will mean a lot if the political situation shifts, and I think it inevitably will," said Brian Fishman, an Al Qaeda expert at the New America Foundation in Washington.

But a U.S. official, noting that Tayeb Agha was in contact with a variety of groups, said, "It isn't a surprise to anyone that he has a less-than-clean Rolodex." The official asked not to be identified while discussing sensitive national security issues.

Bin Laden lamented the poor judgment shown by the rising crop of Al Qaeda leaders. He was increasingly concerned that Al Qaeda's credibility among Muslims had plummeted because commanders had bombed mosques and launched attacks that spilled the blood of fellow Muslims.

The missives show he was trying to steer the organization from regional conflicts and toward attacking the U.S. and other Western countries, known as the "far enemy." He wrote that "a large portion" of Muslims have "lost their trust" in Al Qaeda, said U.S. officials who have read the documents.

Al Qaeda's leadership even discussed changing the organization's name to revive its reputation, John Brennan, the top counter-terrorism advisor to Obama, said in a speech Monday.

Brennan said the Bin Laden letters prove that the CIA's controversial campaign of drone missile strikes has decimated Al Qaeda's leadership, hurt morale and made it harder for Al Qaeda to recruit new members.

"In short, Al Qaeda is losing, badly," Brennan said. "And Bin Laden knew it. In documents we seized, he confessed to 'disaster after disaster.' He even urged his leaders to flee the tribal regions and go to places 'away from aircraft photography and bombardment.'"

Brennan said that Al Qaeda's leaders continue to struggle to communicate with subordinates and affiliates, and that it is "harder than ever" for the leadership to plan attacks against the U.S.

Figures from the National Counterterrorism Center show that successful attacks by Al Qaeda have dropped 16% in the year since Bin Laden's death compared with the year before, according to an analysis released this week by the Center for American Progress in Washington.

Although the threat from Al Qaeda's top leadership in Pakistan may be declining, the organization's branches in Somalia, Yemen and North Africa are operating with more independence, officials said.

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