A trove of never-before-seen letters by Osama bin Laden portray the terrorist leader as an irritated boss chiding his underlings for mistakes yet sure that they could pull off elaborate attacks against the United States.
U.S. Navy SEALs took the correspondence after they killed bin Laden in a raid on his Pakistan compound in May 2011. On Thursday, the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, released 17 letters totaling 175 pages, with more documents to be made public later.
U.S. officials say that the documents recovered in the compound -- about 6,000 pages worth -- were written between September 2006 and April 2011 and were recovered from five computers, dozens of hard drives and more than 100 storage devices. The cache has been described as the single largest batch of senior terrorist material ever obtained.
CNN reviewed the released papers, which can be read in full here.
Taken as a whole, the letters suggest that al Qaeda senior leadership couldn't decide on how to move forward. What tactics should they use? Do they need better strategy? A segment of the records reveals that bin Laden was revamping al Qaeda's media strategy, particularly in the wake of the Arab Spring protests, a movement toward freer societies in the Middle East and North Africa. He wanted to launch a publicity campaign that would inspire those who had "not yet revolted."
As a leader, bin Laden reveals himself to be hot-tempered and annoyed that the terrorist network he built had too many uncontrollable affiliates around the globe. At one point, he demands that four senior figures in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula write their own detailed self-reviews and send them to him.
Jealousy, hair dye and admitting mistakes
As a man, he seemed given to the same vanities and tasteless musings of any aging power player. He was coloring his graying hair with Just for Men dye, taking Viagra and making bad jokes about having multiple wives. But, at the same time, he wrote that he was concerned for at least one of the women and was also deeply worried that his adult sons were being watched and should be careful when traveling. In other points in the letters, bin Laden appears jealous of a Yemeni cleric whom followers had grown to admire.
In summer 2010, bin Laden appears so desperate to re-energize al Qaeda that he calls for admitting that attacking inside Muslim countries has been a mistake for which members should apologize. In urging more U.S. and U.S.-related targets, he wrote, "Making these mistakes is a great issue ... as a result the alienation of most of the nation from the Mujahidin.
"For the brothers in all the regions to apologize and be held responsible for what happened."
CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen was the only journalist to get early access to some of the documents while researching his new book "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden From 9/11 to Abbottabad." Bergen was also allowed inside the compound and saw the walls spattered with bin Laden's blood after a SEAL shot him.
Bergen described his reporting in an exclusive interview with CNN this week, suggesting that bin Laden was an "inveterate micromanager but was also someone almost delusional in his belief that his organization could still force a change in American foreign policies in the Muslim world."
But that didn't mean he lacked ambition.
Bin Laden wanted to see another major terrorist attack occur in the United States and wanted to kill President Barack Obama and Gen. David Petraeus when he was the commander of international forces in Afghanistan. Bin Laden ordered that units be established at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and in Pakistan to target planes carrying Petraeus or Obama.
Vice President Joseph Biden should not be attacked, he instructed.
"Good manners, integrity, courage"
"Biden is totally unprepared for that post."
If Obama were killed and Biden took control of the White House, bin Laden wrote, it would "lead the US into a crisis."
If Petraeus were killed, he reasoned, it would alter the course of the war.
Writing to one of his top lieutenants in 2010, he said he wanted "qualified brothers to be responsible for a large operation in the US."
He wanted high-ranking al Qaeda brass to nominate al Qaeda members distinguished by "good manners, integrity, courage and secretiveness, who can operate in the US."
Bin Laden still believed that attacks in the air worked well. He urged about 10 "brothers" -- preferably from the Gulf states -- to be sent to "study aviation" so they could carry out suicide attacks.
In an undated letter, unsigned but believed to have been written by bin Laden, the author likened the U.S. to a tree and its allies and cooperating Muslim countries as the branches. The writer explains that al Qaeda and its affiliates make up the saw that will slowly cut down the tree, after which its branches will die.
"Our abilities and resources, however, are limited, thus we cannot do the job quickly enough. The only option we are left with is to slowly cut that tree down by using a saw. Our intention is to saw the trunk of that tree, and never to stop until that tree falls down."
Better coordination among al Qaeda ranks was an absolute must, the documents suggest.