Among the previously undisclosed records is a lengthy paper by bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, laying out the al-Qaeda strategy for Afghanistan in the years after the United States withdraws, current and former U.S. officials said.
Other files show that through his couriers, bin Laden was in touch not only with al-Qaeda’s established affiliates but also with upstarts being groomed for new alliances. Among them was Nigeria’s Boko Haram, a group that has since embraced al-Qaeda and adopted its penchant for suicide attacks.
Tracing clues in the trove against developments of the past year has been a focal point for U.S. counterterrorism officials seeking to assess what has become of al-Qaeda since the U.S. Navy SEAL raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
The emerging picture is of a network that is crumpled at its core, apparently incapable of an attack on the scale of Sept. 11, 2001, yet poised to survive its founder’s demise.
U.S. officials have debated “since bin Laden’s death what is the trajectory of this organization and when will we know that we’ve actually defeated it,” a senior U.S. counterterrorism official said.
The answer so far is split.
“The organization that brought us 9/11 is essentially gone,” said the official, among several who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss U.S. intelligence assessments of al-Qaeda with reporters a year after bin Laden was killed. “But the movement . . . the ideology of the global jihad, bin Laden’s philosophy — that survives in a variety of places outside Pakistan.”
That assessment is considerably more measured than some that were offered in the afterglow of the raid in Abbottabad. Most notably, Leon E. Panetta, after leaving his post as CIA director to become secretary of defense, said he was “convinced that we’re within reach of strategically defeating al-Qaeda.”
That prospect seemed to grow more tantalizing through the remainder of last year, as CIA drones picked apart al-Qaeda’s upper ranks.
Among those killed in the flurry of strikes were Ilyas Kashmiri, an operative bin Laden tasked with finding a way to kill President Obama, and Atiyah Abdul Rahman, who was in day-to-day charge of al-Qaeda and served as the main link between bin Laden and the network he built.
When a CIA drone killed Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born cleric accused of helping al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen plot attacks, even the network’s most aggressive franchise seemed suddenly vulnerable.
Since then, however, the momentum has slowed, and al-Qaeda has maneuvered past problems that U.S. officials hoped would hasten its demise. Zawahiri, for example, has defied predictions that he would fail to hold al-Qaeda together without bin Laden to safeguard the brand.