By Tim Lister
After years of isolation at his Abbottabad compound, Osama bin Laden's frustration was growing. He couldn't rein in groups that had taken the al Qaeda name but took little or no notice of "headquarters." He seemed even envious of their freedom to operate and of the money they had, and he was still yearning to get operatives into the United States.
Among the letters seized during the Abbottabad raid a year ago and released Thursday by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point, there's plentiful evidence that bin Laden was distressed by the behavior of affiliates in Iraq, Yemen and Pakistan - and especially the casualties among Muslim civilians they were inflicting.
By 2010, the al Qaeda leader was even suggesting a fresh start.
"I plan to release a statement that we are starting a new phase to correct [the mistakes] we made; in doing so we shall reclaim, God willing, the trust of a large segment of those who lost trust in the jihadis," he said in a document that was written sometime between July and October 2010 and sent to one of his top lieutenants, Attiyatullah.
It is a long, detailed and often strongly worded letter that demands "the brothers in all the regions to apologize and be held responsible for what happened."
At times, bin Laden sounds like an irritated school principal, and much of his ire is focused on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), based in Yemen, bin Laden's ancestral homeland.
In another letter written at about the same time, bin Laden demands that four senior AQAP figures write their own detailed analysis of the situation and send them "separately" to him. One of those figures is radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, by then an Internet "rock star" among jihadists.
Bin Laden is courteous about his role but adds an acid epithet: "We would like further assurances; for example over here we are generally assured after people go to the battlefield and are tested there."
"While there are only a limited number of references to Anwar al-Awlaki in the documents, what is there suggests that bin Laden wanted to learn more about him," says Gabriel Koehler-Derrick, one of the report's authors and an associate at the CTC.
"He seemed concerned that al-Awlaki was not tested on the battlefield, which is the mark of true leadership for bin Laden. It appears that Nasir al-Wuhayshi [the leader of the AQAP] offered al-Awlaki as a potential replacement as emir of the group, an offer bin Laden politely refused."
AQAP has become al Qaeda's most active franchise, and to U.S officials the most dangerous. But bin Laden slams its strategy of "escalation" against the government of Yemen as sapping al Qaeda's strength while doing little to hurt the "head of the infidels" (the United States).
Yemen, he writes in the longer document, is not ready to become an Islamic state. And he readily admits that given the choice between rule by al Qaeda and rule by the rich Gulf states, the people of Yemen would opt for the latter because "they have the ability to provide them the necessities of their livelihoods."
"Weighing people down with something that exceeds their energies is fraught with negative results," he lectures - and recalls the uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in the Syrian city of Hama in 1982, which was brutally put down by then-President Hafez al-Assad.
Bin Laden had long been upset about the evolution of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), its indiscriminate attacks on civilians and "differences between the different jihadi entities in Iraq."
"AQI's failures in Iraq weighed heavily on his mind, and he appears to have been concerned that AQAP might fall into some of the same pitfalls that had devastated AQI, not the least of which were overambitious operations and promises that the group lacked the capabilities to sustain," says the CTC's Koehler-Derrick.
Bin Laden said that declaring war on governments in Islamic countries was a waste of energy and would alienate Muslims. Instead, the focus must be on U.S. interests in non-Muslim states such as South Korea, "where we have no bases or partisans or jihadist groups that could be threatened by danger."
He wanted Attiyatullah to "nominate one of the qualified brothers to be responsible for a large operation in the U.S." And he wanted the regions to nominate al Qaeda members distinguished by "good manners, integrity, courage and secretiveness, who can operate in the U.S.
And he was clearly still obsessed with attacks in the air, urging that about 10 brothers - preferably from the Gulf states - be sent to "study aviation" to be ready to carry out suicide attacks.
The letter and other documents suggest that bin Laden wanted to press the "reset button" for al Qaeda, refocusing on targeting U.S. interests, achieving greater internal coherence and encouraging a new generation of senior operatives.
Among them, he had special praise for Yunis al Mauretani, the man widely thought by intelligence officials to have been behind a Mumbai-style plot in Europe in the fall of 2010. He wanted al Qaeda leaders in Yemen and Algeria to "put forward their best in cooperating with Sheikh Yunis" and continued: "Hint to the brothers in the Islamic Maghreb that they provide him with the financial support that he might need in the next six months, to the tune of approximately 200,000 euros." By conferring the title sheikh on him, bin Laden clearly held him in high regard.
Who knows whether that money was needed to plan a devastating attack in Europe. But it is clear that bin Laden wanted al Mauretani to travel to Yemen and North Africa in the latter half of 2010.
Bin Laden also appears to have relied on Ilyas Kashmiri, a Pakistani terrorist leader responsible for several attacks on India. He wrote that Kashmiri had been tasked with creating two groups - one in Pakistan and one in Afghanistan - whose mission would be to bring down planes carrying President Barack Obama or Gen. David Petraeus, at the time the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Since the letter was written, Kashmiri has been killed (just days after bin Laden himself) and al Mauretani has been detained in Pakistan. The recipient of the long letter written by bin Laden in 2010, Atiyyatullah, was killed in a drone strike in Pakistan in August 2011. Anwar al-Awlaki was killed in a drone attack in Yemen days later.