Within less than two years of conceiving the idea, Usama put it into action. On September 11, 2001, and on Usama’s orders, nineteen terrorists hijacked four commercial airplanes, crashing two into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and a third into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. A fourth, United Flight 93, is believed to have been destined to burst through the U.S. Capitol, but was forced to crash into an empty field in Pennsylvania after passengers learned of the other attacks and overpowered the hijackers.54 The three coordinated attacks killed 2,983 individuals.55
Afghanistan’s neighbor Pakistan sought to persuade the Taliban to hand over Usama to the United States and so avoid a war on its border. According to President Pervez Musharraf, who had seized power in a coup in 1999, he sent three missions to meet with Mullah Omar, the first within days of the attacks. The primary objective of Musharraf’s envoy, General Mahmoud, was to convince Mullah Omar to deliver Usama to the United States, and thereby spare the Afghans the cruelty of war. Mullah Omar, Musharraf related, repeatedly asked for proof of Usama’s responsibility for the attack,56 but Pakistan did not have tangible evidence to convince him. On one occasion, Mullah Omar purportedly showed “a little bit of flexibility” when he and General Mahmoud were alone. He agreed to let Usama be tried by an Islamic court made up of religious scholars, but that was as far as he was prepared to go.
Was Mullah Omar sincere about subjecting Usama to a trial in an Islamic court? Or was he buying time? Probably the latter, because he must have known, based on prior experience, that his proposal would be rejected. According to the political memoirs of the Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan at the time, Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban had proposed the same thing after the 1998 East Africa bombings, and the United States had rejected their offer, insisting that they should either hand over Usama or deport him to another country.57
When Musharraf failed to deliver Usama to the United States, he knew that war could no longer be prevented. He entered into close cooperation with the United States, which included the “use of our airspace, logistic support and intelligence cooperation, information exchange.”58
On October 7, 2001, on the orders of President George W. Bush, Operation Enduring Freedom began. This saw the U.S. military (and other coalition forces) launch strikes against al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in Afghanistan. In his address to the nation, Bush indicated that he had chosen this course of action after the Taliban refused to meet a series of his demands, which included handing over the leaders of al-Qaeda.59
Initially, we learn from the letters that al-Qaeda militants took to fighting to repel the invasion. Before long, however, the Taliban forces were collapsing around them. Al-Qaeda’s fighters were at Kandahar airport, “facing American soldiers and the apostate soldiers of the atheist Gul Agha militia.” When the Taliban’s final collapse was near, al-Qaeda fighters received “a short and encrypted message: ‘Withdraw.’” On December 6, 2001, “the collapse was a fait accompli.” The letters reveal that Usama later learned that when the Taliban forces were defeated, Mullah Omar came “under severe pressure from the tribes, the Pashtun leaders, and all the people and their representatives, to hand over Kandahar to the tribal council. This was due to the ugliness of the American aggression which the people could not bear.”60
“The Americans’ response was beyond anyone’s expectations,” one al-Qaeda leader assessed in a letter years later. “The Crusader campaign was very severe,” he explained, and it was “followed by confusion, scattering, and an overwhelming chaos. Many people perished, a lot of money was lost, and more!”61 Al-Qaeda’s second-tier leader at the time, Tawfiq, whose letter is cited at the head of this chapter, lamented that “all jihadis” were shocked and felt “inept, feeble, and scattered.”62 The jihadi leader and strategist Abu Musab al-Suri, who was “a witness to the war,” bemoaned that it was nothing short of a “cataclysmic catastrophe” for the jihadis. He estimated that the real number of jihadis and their supporters who were killed “is larger by far than the official number of 3,000–4,000.” Among the fallen, he believed, were “almost 400 Arab jihadis who heroically fought on various battlefield fronts and were martyred defending Afghanistan.”63
We learn from the letters that, despite the “colossal consequences of the 9/11 attacks,” all jihadi groups reasoned it was necessary “to come to terms with the painful reality” that now beset them.64 They had no intention of surrendering. Rather, they determined that they should take shelter, “be patient and remain steadfast,” until the moment came when they could resume the jihad.65
Mullah Omar could not travel back in time and hand over Usama to spare his people a ruinous war. When it became evident that the Arabs, i.e., al-Qaeda and other Arab jihadis, were the primary target of the air campaign, he decided to prioritize the security of his fellow Afghans. We learn from former detainees who were forced to seek refuge in Iran that Mullah Omar sent a clear order: “It was necessary for the Arab brothers to evacuate Afghanistan, including the border strip with Pakistan, to ease the pressure on the mujahidin and the Muslims in those areas.”66 The letters reveal that only a “very few [Arab] brothers” stayed to continue fighting; the rest, with their women and children, obeyed the order of the man to whom they had given their allegiance, the Commander of the Faithful, Mullah Omar.
We read in the Bin Laden Papers that Usama “disappeared from the scene out of necessity.”67 Trusted companions who were by his side later related that he said little about the U.S.-led war, maintained a positive outlook, spoke of “auspicious signs and urged patience.”68 They chose not to discuss the implications of the war with him, let alone get into any discussion about whose fault it was. “It was not the time,” they concluded.69 They last saw Usama after escorting him to Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan.70 At least one person stayed with him. This must have been Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. He and his brother— who was either with them or joined them later—were the two “security guards” who were killed during the SOF raid that killed Usama. Abu Ahmed was a Pakistani national, and not of Kuwaiti origin, as his alias suggests. His real name was Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed. Abu Ahmed and his brother lived in a separate house in the same compound, and we know from one of Usama’s letters composed in January 2011, that he and the two brothers had “been treading this great path [i.e., God’s path] for longer than eight years together.”71
- For the timeline of drones in Yemen and Somalia, see Bergen, Sterman, and Salyk-Virk, “America’s
Counterterrorism Wars.” Yemen: https://www.newamerica.org/in-depth/americas-counterterrorismwars/us-targeted-killing-program-yemen/; Somalia: https://www.newamerica.org/in-depth/americas-counterterrorism-wars/somalia/.
- PDF-004345, Atiya to jihadis in Yemen, Somalia, and beyond on how to evade drones, June–July 2010. I am grateful to Stuart Caudill, who served in the U.S. Army and read an earlier version of
this chapter. Though he could not share classified information with me, it was most helpful
discussing with him al-Qaeda’s findings.
- See Air Combat Command, “RQ-1/MQ-1 Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle,” November 5,
2008, https://www.acc.af.mil/About-Us/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/199130/rq-1mq-1-predatorunmanned-aerial-vehicle/; Air Force Technology, “Predator RQ-1/MQ-1/MQ-9 Reaper UAV,” https://www.airforce-technology.com/projects/predator-uav/; U.S. Air Force, “MQ-1B Predator,”
September 23, 2015, https://www.af.mil/About-Us/Fact-Sheets/Display/Article/104469/mq-1bpredator/; Air Force Technology, “Predator RQ-1/MQ-1/MQ-9 Reaper UAV,” https://www.
airforce-technology.com/projects/predator-uav/; U.S. Air Force, “MQ-9 Reaper,” https://www.af.
- Coll, “The Unblinking Stare.”
- PDF-003157, Usama bin Laden to Ayman al-Zawahiri, October 16, 2010.
- PDF-002730, Atiya to Usama bin Laden (with Atiya’s responses in brackets), October 11, 2010.
- The parts of Woodward’s Obama’s Wars in the document are largely based on pp. 1–8.
- PDF-004946, notes about and excerpts from Woodward’s book Obama’s Wars shared with Usama
- PDF-002746, Usama bin Laden to Atiya, January 6, 2011.
- PDF-005032, Atiya to Usama bin Laden (with Atiya’s responses in brackets), January 26, 2011.
- PDF-004402, Security Committee Report.
- See “Defending Privacy,” in Michael Cook, Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic
Thought, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 80–2.
- Abu Yahya al-Libi, al-Mu‘lim fi Hukm al-Jasus al-Muslim (A Guide to the Legal Judgement
Concerning a Muslim Spy), Markaz al-Fajr al-I‘lami, 2009.
- Mark Mazzetti, “Officer Failed to Warn C.I.A. Before Attack,” The New York Times, October 19,
- PDF-004402, Security Committee Report.
- As discussed in previous chapters, al-Qaeda’s 2002 Mombasa attacks were planned in 2000 and
the operatives who carried them out were dispatched to East Africa before 9/11.
From The Bin Laden Papers: How the Abbottabad Raid Revealed the Truth about al-Qaeda, Its Leader and His Family by Nelly Lahoud. Published by Yale University Press in 2022. Reproduced with permission.
Nelly Lahoud is associate professor of security studies in the Department of National Security and Strategy at U.S. Army War College. She is also a senior fellow in New America’s International Security program. She is the author of three books, including The Jihadis’ Path to Self-Destruction.