WASHINGTON – Asked for his thoughts on the news that Osama bin Laden owned one of his books, William Blum responded with a quick correction.
Bin Laden owned two of his books.
“So I share honors with Noam Chomsky of being the only authors with more than one book in the collection,” Blum, a critic of U.S. foreign policy, said in an email. “In 2006, as you may remember, bin Laden appeared on an audiotape urging Americans to read Rogue State. This made me an instant celebrity and I was all over the media, which before then, and since then, has ignored me.”
Until Wednesday. Blum and an eclectic assortment of fellow authors —scholars of history and terrorism, fringe conspiracy theorists, famed journalist Bob Woodward — learned from the U.S. government that the world’s most notorious terrorist kept digital copies of their English-language work in the house in Pakistan where he was killed by navy SEALs in 2011.
“I was surprised that he had downloaded my 2006 congressional testimony on The Evolving Al-Qaeda Threat and wonder who brought it to his attention,” said Jim Phillips, a senior research fellow on the Middle East at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank. “I have been reading his writings for many years, going back before 9/11, and it is surreal to think that he also was reading mine.”
Perhaps coincidentally and perhaps not, the government released the list of books, articles and other reading materials — HP Printer Owner’s Manual — a week after journalist Seymour Hersh published an article accusing the Obama administration of lying about the circumstances surrounding the death of the Al Qaeda leader.
“Whatever you think of Hersh’s report, gotta admire the White House PR strategy of drowning it in listicles for the next month,” analyst J.M. Berger wrote on Twitter.
Bin Laden’s collection included three dozen English-language books. Among them were works of history (Christianity and Islam in Spain 756-1031), accounts of U.S. defence and foreign policy failures (America’s Strategic Blunders), a military guide (Guerilla Air Defense), and fringe conspiracy treatises (Bloodlines of the Illuminati; The Secrets of the Federal Reserve).
Bin Laden possessed Imperial Hubris, a book by the former head of the CIA unit devoted to tracking him, and Woodward’s Obama’s Wars. And the architect of the 9/11 attacks owned both the 9/11 Commission Report and a book that claimed 9/11 was an inside job by the U.S. government.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a terrorism scholar and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said bin Laden used English-language sources to prepare material for his fiery statements and to help him understand America.
“There is a very significant chance that the conspiratorial work was used to help him understand western society, rather than just being there for pure polemical purposes. Which is in and of itself interesting. He clearly had a fascination with conspiracy theories, though he almost certainly had a very dim view of 9/11 conspiracy theories,” he said.
In addition to the books, bin Laden’s library contained academic studies by U.S. think-tanks on terrorism and the Middle East, articles from magazines like Foreign Policy and Newsweek, and the writings of other extremists.
The U.S. also declassified 103 of thousands of bin Laden documents related to Al Qaeda and bin Laden’s personal life. His collection included wistful messages to his family, including a wife he called the apple of his eye, and directives to operatives he wanted to stay focused on the United States rather than battles with other enemies or the formation of an Islamic state.
The cache included a kind of job application that employed the same dry tone to ask fill-in-the-blanks questions familiar to corporate interviewees (“Any hobbies or pastimes?”) and jihadist-specific queries like “Do you wish to execute a suicide operation?”
“I think the documents released show that bin Laden was more actively engaged in running al-Qaeda’s operations than was generally believed at the time of his death,” Phillips said.