A journal made public by the CIA and apparently handwritten by one of Osama bin Laden’s daughters offers a glimpse into how the al-Qaeda leader viewed the world around him and reveals his deep interest in the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions unfolding in the months before he was killed in a US raid.
The 228-page journal meanders among discussions, thoughts and reflections bin Laden shared with his family about how to exploit the uprisings, what to make of the rapid changes unfolding in the Arab world and when al-Qaeda should speak out.
“This chaos and the absence of leadership in the revolutions is the best environment to spread al-Qaeda’s thoughts and ideas,” bin Laden is quoted as telling his family in the document.
Bin Laden’s wife, referred to as Um Hamza, assures him that a tape he released seven years earlier calling out the rulers of the region as unfit could be one of the major forces behind the Arab Spring protests roiling the region.
The Associated Press examined a copy of the journal uploaded by The Long War Journal to its website. The CIA released it on Wednesday as part of a trove of material recovered during the May 2011 raid that killed bin Laden, then took down the files, saying they were “temporarily unavailable pending resolution of a technical issue.”
The journal appears to cover conversations between bin Laden and his daughters, Miriam and Somiya, his wife and his sons, Khaled and Hamza — the latter of whom would become a potential successor to lead the group his father founded.
The journal is titled, “Special diaries for Abu Abdullah: Sheikh Abdullah’s points of view — A session with the family,” which refers to bin Laden by his traditional Arabic name. The conversations took place between February and April 2011, with the journal entries dated according to the Islamic calendar.
During that time, uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt had ousted longtime autocratic rulers, touching off protests in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. The Middle East was on the cusp of unstoppable change, chaos and turmoil.
In Libya, the uprising would end with Moammar Gadhafi’s death months after bin Laden was killed. In Yemen, al-Qaeda would gain a greater foothold and remain active amid the chaos of war and famine. In Bahrain, the Sunni-led monarchy would launch a crackdown on the country’s Shiite majority. In Syria, the government’s lethal response to a protest by schoolchildren in early 2011 would spark mass protests and ignite a war and massive refugee crisis that continues today.
The reflections, jotted at times in blue ink and others in red, refer repeatedly to media reports of what was happening across the region.
At one point, they criticize Al-Jazeera TV’s broadcast of gruesome images from a deadly protest in Yemen, saying a warning should have been given to shield children from viewing them. However, the Qatari-backed channel is also hailed for “working on toppling regimes” and for “carrying the banner of the revolutions.”
Bin Laden appears concerned by the speed of some of the region’s revolts, believing that a gradual approach would help avoid the backlash of a counter-revolution as regime figures sought to hold onto power at all cost.
“I am upset by the timing of the revolutions. We told them to slow down,” bin Laden is quoted as saying, though it’s not entirely clear which countries he is referring to.
On Libya, bin Laden says he believes the uprising “has opened the door for jihadists.”
“This is why Gadhafi and his son say that the extremists will come from the sea, which will be an area of operation for al-Qaeda. This will be the Somalia of the Mediterranean,” he is quoted as saying.
Still, bin Laden appears reluctant to issue a statement in support of Islamists in Libya for fear that if Gadhafi is ousted, the US will try to expand its footprint there.
Yemen is a primary focus of the journal entries. Al-Qaeda’s branch there is among its most active in the world and the journal suggests al-Qaeda was plotting an assassination attempt against Yemen’s embattled ruler at the time, Ali Abdullah Saleh.
There is little indication that the writer had much information about what was happening in the region beyond what was reported in the media. This could indicate that bin Laden had become isolated in his final months hiding out in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where US forces would find and kill him a little over a month later. Or it could also be that bin Laden was shielding his relatives from al-Qaeda intelligence.
In the early pages of the document, bin Laden is asked about his thoughts on jihad, and replies that he first considered it “in secondary school.”
He says this was a result of his home and school environment. Separately, he describes his father as a pious man.
“There wasn’t a particular group that was guiding me, like the Muslim Brotherhood,” he is quoted as saying.
From a young age, he appeared to be unfazed by worldly spoils, recounting a story about declining a new watch from his wealthy father.
He recalls a summer spent studying in the UK when he was 14, including a visit to the home of Shakespeare. His time in Britain left him feeling uneasy and he decided not to return the following summer.
“I saw that they were a society different from ours and that they were morally corrupt,” he says.
Bin Laden imagines that Saudi Arabia would soon feel the “tsunami” of change sweeping the region. The late al-Qaeda chief held Saudi citizenship until the early 1990s, before he was stripped of his nationality by the government.
He talks about wanting to deliver a message to Saudi youth and Saudi rulers: “The flood is coming and it will lead to a change so there is no need for violence.”