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Bin Laden remained fixated on attacking the US, captured material shows

Al Qa'eda leader exhorted followers to explore ways to recruit non-Muslims 'who are oppressed in the United States', particularly African Americans and Latinos, and to assemble a plot in time for the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

WASHINGTON // Osama bin Laden was preoccupied with attacking the United States over all other targets, a fixation that led to friction with followers, according to US intelligence officials involved in analysing the trove of materials recovered from the al Qa'eda leader's compound.

In handwritten journals and long-winded compositions saved on computer hard drives, the officials said, bin Laden always seemed to be searching for a way to replicate the effect of al Qa'eda's most devastating strike.

He exhorted followers to explore ways to recruit non-Muslims "who are oppressed in the United States", particularly African Americans and Latinos' and to assemble a plot in time for the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

The documents were obtained in the US navy Seal raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in which bin Laden was killed. Yesterday, Eric Holder the US attorney general, told the BBC that the raid was "not an assassination". He said the May 2 raid was a "kill or capture mission" and that his surrender would have been accepted if offered.

Even while he was sealed inside a cement compound, bin Laden functioned like a crime boss pulling strings from a prison cell, sending regular messages to his most trusted lieutenants and strategic advice to far-flung franchises, including al Qa'eda's affiliate in Yemen. Some followers pledged their fealty to him; others, however, chafed at his exhortations to remain focused on US targets instead of mounting less risky operations in places such as Yemen, Somalia and Algeria.

"Bin Laden is saying, 'You've got to focus on the US and the West'," said a senior US intelligence official who was involved in reviewing the stockpile, adding that some of bin Laden's followers seemed more concerned with regional issues and were reluctant to conduct an attack that would provoke an American response.

Little more than a week after obtaining one of the largest intelligence hauls on a terrorist group, US officials involved in reviewing the trove said they were learning more about bin Laden and the al Qa'eda bureaucracy than about the locations of operatives or specific plots that might be unfolding.

Overall, the officials said, the new information provides a strikingly rich portrait of the al Qa'eda chief.

"Bin Laden got lazy and complacent," said the senior US official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information. "I don't think he thought he would meet his maker in that house. And he certainly didn't make any preparations" to escape a raid or destroy the information found inside, the official said.

Officials said they are still in triage mode as they sift through the contents of more than 110 flash drives, laptops and other digital storage devices, in addition to piles of paper documents. The trove, which represents millions of pages that must be translated from Arabic, is being scrutinised at a secret CIA facility in Virginia. Analysts and Arabic linguists from other agencies are being brought in to review the materials.

The early effort has focused on searching the most recent materials for keywords, including the names of major American cities. Analysts are also scanning for references to names of al Qa'eda figures, phone numbers and other details that could provide clues for CIA operatives and military counterterrorism teams working overseas.

US officials said bin Laden had a relatively short list of senior al Qa'eda members whom he was in touch with frequently and directly, albeit through messages smuggled out of the compound by couriers.

Among them were Ayman al Zawahri, the Egyptian physician who had long functioned as bin Laden's second in command, as well as Atiyah Abd al Rahman, a Libyan operative who is the latest to fill the organisation's No 3 slot.

Bin Laden's directions tended to be big-picture in nature, officials said, focusing more on broader objectives than on granular operational details. "I wouldn't call it command and control" that bin Laden was exercising, the senior US intelligence official said. Indeed, there is no indication that bin Laden even knew the specific whereabouts of al Zawahri and others. Al Qa'eda's fragmented nature and operational security appear to have kept its leader substantially in the dark.

"We're not going to find operational manuals or Excel spreadsheets" with rosters of operatives and points of contact, the senior intelligence official said. Bin Laden served as a "chief executive who is giving fairly generic, broad instructions and guidance rather than tactical orders", the official said.

Even so, the communications are expected to help the CIA and other organisations, including the National Counterterrorism Centre, gain significant insights into al Qa'eda's structure and relationship to regional affiliates.

The US intelligence official said bin Laden's records have "confirmed our view that AQAP (Al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula) is first among equals in terms of relationships with al Qa'eda core". AQAP is behind a series of plots targeting the United States, including the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009.

Bin Laden does not appear to have been in communication with the most widely recognised AQAP figure, the American-born cleric Anwar al Awlaki, a relative newcomer who never met the al Qa'eda leader, US officials said. But bin Laden did relay messages to others in Yemen whom he appears to have known personally.

Largely because of Awlaki's influence, AQAP has emerged as what US counterterrorism officials have described as the most immediate threat to American interests.

Because bin Laden "was the author and prime proponent of global jihad", a central question among counterterrorism analysts is "whether some of that ebbs" with bin Laden's death, the US official said.

Washington Post