Bin Laden intel cache confirms weakness of al Qaeda

A top White House counter-terror official says information from Osama bin Laden's own compound showed, from the inside, how successful the U.S. has been in going after al Qaeda.

Documents and other information taken from Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan confirm that the long, costly U.S. campaign against al Qaeda has been very effective at killing its top leadership and disrupting its ability to attack the U.S., a top White House counterterrorism official said Wednesday.

John Brennan, in a speech unveiling the Obama administration’s new counterterrorism strategy, said the intelligence brought back from bin Laden’s compound showed that bin Laden himself knew how much damage al Qaeda had sustained,  how low its reputation had fallen, and how impotent it had become after its earlier ability to conduct major attacks. Here’s what he said:

As we approach the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, as Americans seek to understand where we stand a decade later, we need look no further than that compound where bin Laden spent his final days. There he was, holed-up for years, behind high prison-like walls, isolated from the world. But even he understood the sorry state of his organization and its ideology.

Information seized from that compound reveals bin Laden’s concerns about al-Qa’ida’s long-term viability. He called for more large-scale attacks against America, but encountered resistance from his followers and he went for years without seeing any spectacular attacks. He saw his senior leaders being taken down, one by one, and worried about the ability to replace them effectively.

Perhaps most importantly, bin Laden clearly sensed that al-Qa’ida is losing the larger battle for hearts and minds. He knew that al-Qa’ida’s murder of so many innocent civilians, most of them Muslims, had deeply and perhaps permanently tarnished al-Qa’ida’s image in the world. He knew that he had failed to portray America as being at war with Islam. In fact, he worried that our recent focus on al-Qa’ida as our enemy had prevented more Muslims from rallying to his cause, so much so that he even considered changing al-Qa’ida’s name. We are left with that final image seen around the world—an old terrorist, alone, hunched over in a blanket, flipping through old videos of a man and a movement that history is leaving behind.

Here’s another interesting note: Brennan said that U.S. officials have no information that bin Laden ever left his compound once he’d arrived there — he spent some six years inside the same walls. Some of the aides that lived with him also apparently never left. That total absence of movement, combined with what Brennan said was “phenomenal” operational security, is what made it so difficult to track bin Laden down.