Navy SEAL seized papers reveal bin Laden planned 2nd strike, did not expect US to go to war after 9/11

Osama bin Laden, the notorious al-Qaeda leader who was killed by Navy SEALs in 2011, nurtured ambitions of fomenting further terror attacks in the United States during his time on the lam in Pakistan.

In his planned follow-up to the spectacular 9/11 attack, the terror leader envisioned using deadly train derailments and possibly even charter jets to sow chaos around the country. This is the picture that has emerged from the “bin Laden papers,” documents recovered by the Navy SEALs after their assault on bin Laden’s compound in 2011. They also show that he had ambitious schemes to expand al-Qaeda’s terror operations in the United States, even as the group was being decimated by relentless military operations in Afghanistan.

The new information on bin Laden’s audacious plans was disclosed in a “60 Minutes” interview with noted Islamic scholar Nelly Lahoud, which aired on Sunday. For years, Lahoud pored over the bin Laden papers, deciphering and translating the documents to peer into the fugitive terror leader’s mindset during his time hiding from U.S. retaliation.

“We see in the letters diminutive bin Laden,” Lahoud explains in the interview, “somebody who is very different from this powerful figure that we were reading about daily in the newspapers for over a decade. And the disconnect between his ambitions and between his capabilities is confounding.”

His ambitions, after the success of the attacks in 2001, were undiminished by his confinement to his Abbottabad compound.

“He’s very eager to replicate the 9/11 attacks in the United States,” Lahoud says. “You know he is mindful that now the security conditions are very difficult at airports.”

The operation to assassinate bin Laden, code-named “Neptune Spear,” occurred over a period of 40 minutes on May 1, 2011. It was expected to only last a few minutes, but as the SEALs discovered a trove of computers, flash drives, and other documents, they requested and were granted more time to recover the valuable materials. These documents were finally declassified by the CIA in 2017, and Lahoud has since worked to translate, analyze, and contextualize them

Among other things, the papers reveal that the terror leader severely underestimated the American reaction to the 9/11 attacks.

“Al-Qaeda did not anticipate that the United States would go to war,” Lahoud observes. Apparently, it was assumed the attacks would lead to a limited airstrike, the sort of thing that was popular during the Clinton administration. But there was no sense that the American response would go beyond that.

“[Bin Laden] thought that the American people would take to the streets,” Lahoud explains, “replicate the anti-Vietnam war protests and they would put pressure on their government to withdraw from Muslim majority states.”

Lahoud says this was a “huge miscalculation.”

The U.S. war in Afghanistan severely degraded al-Qaeda, and security measures limited the terror group’s capabilities. So, putting his degree in civil engineering to use, bin Laden suggested creative new ways to attack the United States in his addresses to his associates and followers. Instead of hijacking a plane, which was too difficult given the heightened state of airport security, bin Laden advised that terrorists should charter a plane, or target the country’s railways instead.

Lahoud describes some of these plans: “He wanted to have 12 meters of steel rail removed so that, this way, the train could be derailed. And we find him explaining the simple toolkit that they could use. You know, he said, ‘You’re—you could use a compressor. You could use a smelting iron tool.'”

He also outlined plans for a terror attack in 2010 on crude oil tankers along shipping routes in the Middle East and Africa. The idea was to infiltrate port areas, or pose as fishermen, using wooden boats to evade radar detection, and packing them with explosives to sink the tankers. Bin Laden hoped these attacks would disrupt oil shipments, and thereby weaken and eventually topple the U.S. economy.

And it seems bin Laden was very detail-oriented — he planned every aspect of the attacks, including details on how to derail trains and how to arrange the explosive-laden boats to ensure maximum damage.

“He’s very methodical,” Lahoud pointed out, “very methodical. He thinks—he doesn’t want to leave anything for chance.”

Al-Qaeda is still in operation, but most of its terror activities these days are the work of smaller offshoots and franchises. Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s second-in-command, now heads the terror group, and surfaces occasionally to fulminate against the U.S. and the enemies of Islam.


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Todd Jaquith


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