Drones in the Abbottabad Documents

By Dan Gettinger

On May 20, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released 103 documents that were collected during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden on May 1, 2011. A large portion of the documents, which have been translated into English, are letters between bin Laden and Atiyah Abd al Rahman, bin Laden’s chief of staff, who was killed in a drone strike in August 2011. The documents reveal the sometimes mundane administrative challenges that al-Qaeda faced, as well as bin Laden’s desire to maintain a central role in the organization despite being isolated from many of its units, agents, and commanders. Again and again, these texts stress al-Qaeda’s tenuous security situation in northwest Pakistan—the subtext to which is the “continuous humming of the Predator,” as Abu Saleh al Somali writes in a recruitment document. The DNI’s “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf” offers a glimpse at the extent to which the threat of drones affected al-Qaeda’s operations.

References to drones in these letters consist primarily of specific mentionings of “spy planes” (الطائرات الجاسوسية) and discussions of operational security precautions. We took a look through the DNI’s “Bookshelf” and other source documents to find references to the drones. Here is what you need to know:


Letter dated June 19th, 2010

Author: Atiyah Abd al Rahman (a.k.a. Shaykh Mahmud) // Recipient: Osama bin Laden // Source:  U.S. v. Abid Naseer

Quote 1: “I convey my condolences regarding our great brother Sheikh Sa’id (Mustafa abu-al-Yazidi) God rest his soul. He died as a martyr during a spy plane attack on the night of Saturday 7 lamadi AI Akhira 1431 a.h. (22 May 2010) in the area of Muhammad Khayl / Dighun / North Waziristan.”

Quote 2: “The planes are still circling our skies nearly every day. Sometimes there are fewer of them because of weather conditions like thunder, wind, clouds, and the like, then they come back when the sky is clear.”

Quote 3: “We will focusing on defensive security (counterespionage) by focusing on striking the spy plane bases using special operations, and on patience, persistence, hiding as well as decreasing our presence at least this year because it is an important year.”

Description: The first quote refers to the drone strike that killed Mustafa abu al-Yazidi—al-Qaeda’s finance minister—and several civilians. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a London-based organization that compiles data on drone strikes, identifies this strike as OB94.

Letter dated July 17th, 2010

Author: Atiyah Abd al Rahman (a.k.a. Shaykh Mahmud) // Recipient: Sheikh Abu-‘ Abdallah (a.k.a. Osama bin Laden) // Source:  U.S. v. Abid Naseer

Quote 1: “I am informing you about the deaths of brother Hamza al-Jawfi, may God rest his soul. It came at the hands of spy planes in southern Waziristan (Wana); others were killed with him but we are not sure who yet.”

Description: Hamzah al-Jawfi was an Egyptian-born leader in al-Qaeda who is alternately described as being AQ’s deputy chief of external operations and the commander of AQ-allied Jundallah. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism strike identification is OB101.

Letter dtd November 24 2010

Author: Atiyah Abd al Rahman (a.k.a. Shaykh Mahmud) // Recipient: Osama bin Laden // Source: DNI Bookshelf

Quote 1: “And the reason was their gathering (tn: together) for the holiday. This was done despite our enforcement and reassurances to the ‘brothers’ to avoid any gatherings.”

Quote 2: “[W]e shall take advantage of convenient ‘cloudy’ days for their move according to your direction.”

Letter to Mujahidin in Somalia dtd 28 December 2006

Author: “Atiyatallah” (perhaps Atiyah Abd al Rahman) // Recipient: Somali Jihad (presumably al-Shabab) // Source: DNI Bookshelf

Quote 1: “The mujahidin in Somalia should be careful of the air bombardments and should benefit from the art of gathering and dispersion experience, as well as movement, night and day transportation, camouflage, and other techniques related to war tricks.”

Letter to Shaykh Mahmud

Author: Osama bin Laden // Recipient: Atiyah Abd al Rahman (a.k.a. Shaykh Mahmoud) // Source: DNI Bookshelf

Quote 1: “You should work as soon as possible on arranging a safe route for getting out on a cloudy day in the area to Peshawar and the surrounding areas.”

Quote 2: “The facts prove that the American technology and advanced systems cannot capture a mujahid if he does not make a security violation that will lead them to him. Commitment to operational security makes his technological advancement a waste.”

Summary on situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Author: Unspecified (possibly OBL) // Recipient: Unspecified  // Source: DNI Bookshelf

Quote 1: “Over the last two years, the problem of the spying war and spying aircrafts benefited the enemy greatly and led to the killing of many jihadi cadres, leaders, and others. This is something that is concerning us and exhausting us.”

Letter dtd 5 April 2011

Author: “Mahmud” // Recipient: Unspecified (possibly OBL) // Source: DNI Bookshelf

Quote 1: “In short, his situation was worrying and he was calling his wife in Libya, in spite of knowing that communication was banned and in spite of knowing that he is considered dangerous and wanted by the Americans.”


Author: Osama bin Laden // Recipient:  “Atiyatallah” (likely Atiyah Abd al Rahman) // Source: The Combating Terrorism Center’s Harmony Program

Quote 1: “We could leave the cars because they are targeting cars now, but if we leave them, they will start focusing on houses and that would increase casualties among women and children. It is possible that they have photographed targeted homes. The brothers who can keep a low profile and take the necessary precautions should stay, but move to new houses on a cloudy day.”

Quote 2: “Planting trees is not expensive and it should be done immediately after rain…Trees would give al-Mujahidin the freedom to move around, especially if the enemy sends spying aircrafts to the area.”


  • The Office of the Director of National Intelligence published “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf” last week in accordance with Section 309 of the Fiscal Year 2014 Intelligence Authorization Act, which requires the DNI to conduct a declassification review of documents collected during the May 1, 2011 Abbottabad raid. Read On: Confessions of a Jihadi Nerd: A Guide to Reading the bin Laden Documents,” Clint Watts // War on the Rocks.
  • The Harmony Program at Combating Terrorism Center (U.S. Military Academy at West Point) analyzes documents from the Department of Defense’s Harmony Database in order to understand the inner workings of al-Qaeda. Documents analyzed by the CTC originate primarily from Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2012, the CTC released 17 declassified documents from the Abbottabad raid. Read On:Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Laden Sidelined?” // CTC Harmony Program
  • The case documents in United States v. Abid Naseer contain several letters from Atiyah Abd al Rahman (a.k.a. Shaykh Mahmoud), Osama bin Laden’s chief of staff, to Osama bin Laden that were collected during the Abbottabad raid. Abid Naseer was convicted of terrorism in March 2015. Read On: Secret cache of al-Qaeda messages to Osama bin Laden corroborates Bureau drone strike reports in Pakistan,” Owen Bennett-Jones // The Bureau of Investigative Journalism
  • The al-Qaeda Papers — Drones”: In February 2013, the Associated Press published a document that was found in Timbuktu, Mali during the French ground campaign against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The document, which was written by Abdallah bin Muhammad, a commander of Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, contains 22 recommendations for avoiding drones. Some of these suggestions appear repeatedly in one form or another in the Abbottabad raid documents.

This post is part of our ongoing exploration into the effectiveness of using drones to target the leadership of al-Qaeda. For our investigation into the roles and responsibilities of individual al-Qaeda leaders who have been killed in these strikes, click here

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