By Dan Gettinger
On July 1, 2016, the Obama administration released an official tally of U.S. counterterrorism airstrikes that have occurred outside of declared war zones over the past seven years. According to the report, since 2009 the U.S. has launched 473 strikes—most of which have been carried out by drones—resulting in 2,372 to 2,581 combatant deaths and 64 to 116 civilian deaths, a lower figure than unofficial estimates. The release has reignited a long-standing debate over the efficacy of these strikes and the extent to which the Obama administration is responsible for sharing information about the strikes with the public.
One perspective that can be overlooked in the debate on targeted killing, however, is that of the targets themselves. On March 1, 2016, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) released 113 documents that were collected from Osama Bin Laden’s compound during the raid that killed him in 2011. A large portion of the documents, which have been translated into English, are letters between bin Laden and his lieutenants, including Atiyah Abd al Rahman, bin Laden’s chief of staff, who was killed in a drone strike in August 2011. In addition to the mundane administration challenges, the correspondence features several direct mentions of drones and many allusions to the group’s precarious security situation in Pakistan’s northwestern territories. “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf” offers a partial glimpse at the extent to which the threat of drones impacted al-Qaeda’s operations.
This is the second mass release of documents from the raid; on May 20, 2015, the DNI released 103 personal documents found during the raid. While several letters include specific mentions of “spy planes” (الطائرات الجاسوسية), other documents allude to the aircraft indirectly in discussions of operational security or in references to a member who was killed in a drone strike. We took a look through the DNI’s “Bookshelf” and other source documents to find references to drones. Here’s what you need to know:
DNI Bookshelf Part Two
Title: “Dear Brother Shaykh Mahmud” Author: Presumed Osama bin Laden (OBL) Recipient: Atiyah Abd al-Rahman aka Shaykh Mahmud Date: December 3, 2010 Source: DNI Bookshelf 2
Quote 1: Regarding the airstrikes where you are, we ask Almighty God to protect you and return the malice of our enemies by killing them. This is a major and long-standing issue. It is now evident that there are targets the enemy has discovered, but they are delaying attacking them due to some plans of theirs. Because of this, I insist on taking precautions at peoples’ homes, and cutting off surveillance as soon as (anyone) leaves them.
Note: Atiyah Abd al-Rahman was Osama bin Laden’s chief of staff and a frequent contributor to the correspondence from Abbottabad. He was killed in a drone strike in August 2011. In this letter, the author is describing necessary security measures to avoid drone surveillance.
Title: “Dear Honorable Shaykh Azmary” Author: Presumed OBL Recipient: Possibly Ayman al-Zawahiri Date: March 5, 2008 Source: DNI Bookshelf 2
Quote 1: One of his group went to the house where Abu al-Layth was killed, and photographed it after it was hit, and then he sent the photos to the Jihadist forums with the news of the Shaykh’s martyrdom, and the brothers were discussing whether to publish it or not, and they did not decide yet.
Note: Abu Laith al-Libi (Abu al-Layth), a Libyan citizen, was a senior al-Qaeda military commander killed in a January 29, 2008 drone strike in North Waziristan. This letter alludes to an internal debate following the death of al-Libi over whether to publish images of the aftermath of the strike.
Title: “Give the tribes more than they can handle” Author: Presumed OBL Recipient: Unspecified Date: Unknown Source: DNI Bookshelf 2
Quote 1: Give the tribes more than they can handle… Waziristan is more than what the tribes can handle. We are not talking about a war on the ground… Our brothers in Waziristan are exhausted. They literally said that the air strikes have exhausted them. We must stress this fact even if we had an army numbered in the millions. The enemy has somewhat received international approval to strike anyone who opposes it, in the name of al-Qa’ida. There might come a time when penetrating the airspace will be prohibited……….The air is hot and tense and the enemy’s reputation is deteriorating. The last thing they worry about is their indiscriminate strikes.
Title:“Letter from Brother ‘Atiyah to Shaykh Abi al-Zubayr” Author: Atiyah Abd al-Rahman Recipient: Ahmed Abdi Godane aka Mukhtar Abu Zubair Date: December 11, 2010 Source: DNI Bookshelf 2
Quote 1: We have been suffering from the spy planes problem and the spy war, especially in the tribal area. Many of us, the immigrants and the Taliban were killed. However, in exchange, the situation in Afghanistan bears good news and is to the interest of the Mujahidin. The attacks are on the rise and the flow of the jihad is excellent as the criminals, the Americans and NATO, are in distress. We ask for your invocations. If you have any technical assistance for us, advice or information on fending off the spying or otherwise, please let us know. What is the news on the spy planes at your end, do they exist?
Title:“Letter to my dear brother, Muhammad Aslam” Author: Presumed OBL Recipient: “Muhammad Aslam” Date: February 4, 2011 Source: DNI Bookshelf 2
Quote 1: Taking the necessary security precautions, the meeting between you and the brother’s intermediary or from our end should not occur except in closed markets or the like, in order to avoid aerial surveillance. Either the reason of the meeting is to deliver the letters or bring Hamzah. Keep in mind that we had informed the brothers that you have the file of bringing Hamzah. In addition, it is very important that you always keep the phone that our brother uses to call you on.
Title:“Letter to Professor Mustafa Hamid” Author: Ahmad Hasan Abu al-Khayr Recipient: Mustafa Hamid Relevance: Drone Strikes Date: August 22, 2009 Source: DNI Bookshelf 2
Quote 1: However, with that, I will leave it for you to respond to it in another topic from your book, where you discuss the insanity of American technology and its unprecedented use in hunting Bin Ladin and attempting to kill him, “B2 Stealth Bombers that are undetectable by radar were hunting a group of no more than five Afghan fighters, then an F16 plane supported them in that “complicated” mission… or drone aircraft struck a group of no more than 15 Afghans with guided missiles because it, meaning the plane, noticed that the group was treating one of its members with excessive respect!! So the smart plane, with its laser guided missiles, assumed that the person [might] be Bin Ladin, so it killed them all. (The Cross, page 304) So, do we understand from these words that the Americans were keen on keeping Bin Ladin safe or were they keen on killing him and on using the most modern technology for that?
Note: This letter is disputing the factual accuracy of a book by Mustafa Hamid, an estranged veteran of the counter-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan.
Title:“Letter to Shaykh Abu Muhammad 17 August 2007” Author: Presumed OBL Recipient: Abu Muhammad Date: August 17, 2007 Source: DNI Bookshelf 2
Quote 1: Who helped America to enter with its war planes to kill the hero the mujahid Shaykh Abi ‘Ali Al-((Harithi)) and his brothers on Yemeni territories?
Note: This letter refers to the death of Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, a leading al-Qaeda operative who was killed in the first drone strike in Yemen.
Title:“Ramadan Greetings from Abu Abdallah al-Halabi to Khalid” Author: Possibly Muhammad Abdallah Hasan Abu-al-Khayr aka Abdallah al-Halabi Recipient: “Khalid” Date: Unspecified Source: DNI Bookshelf 2
Quote 1: ((‘Abd-al-‘Aziz)) and ((Mansur)) came to me at night while listening to the spying. Their visit was reported by the spies. I went out. Mansur came to me for business I assigned to him. ‘Abd-al-‘Aziz came as if he knew it was his last goodbye. At 9:40 p.m. they left to go to Miram Shah carrying some consignments. They arrived there and stayed with one of our supporters (Ansar). At 8:00 (NFI) there was an air attack. ‘Abdal-‘Aziz and Mansur were killed. Three from our supporters were injured. However, two of them died the following day. Only one person survived. My brother/son-in-law was in front of me in a car with three supporters. Another car with supporters came ahead of them. Both cars stopped and passengers were talking with each other. They were about 400 meters ahead of me. This was 8:00 p.m. The air strike started and they were killed. An hour later, another car with supporters was hit from the air and passengers were killed. My third brother/son-in-law was killed in the month of Rajab while taking a training course in explosives. This leaves one son-in-law about 13-years old. The air strike was done as follows: A spy on the ground puts marks or sprays on cars. These infrared rays/marks and sprays can be seen by night vision instruments.
Note: This letter describes what was likely a drone strike in or around the town of Miran Shah in northwest Pakistan. The date of the strike is unspecified and the true identities of the two main casualties, “Abd-al-Aziz” and “Mansur,” are difficult to discern from the text. A 2010 United Nations sanctions designation identifies the name of the author, Abu Abdallah al-Halabi, as a nom de guerre of Muhammad Abdallah Hasan Abu-al-Khayr, a son-in-law of OBL and reportedly a finance official within the organization. Although the identity of the recipient, Khalid, is unconfirmed, other letters in the bookshelf confirm a regular correspondence between the two men.
Title:“To the kind brother, Shaykh Mahmud” Author: [Presumed OBL] Recipient: Atiyah Abd al-Rahman Date: Unspecified Source: DNI Bookshelf 2
Quote 1: There will never be a meeting with the negotiators inside Waziristan (meaning any area that is within the photography parameters of the American aircraft), unless there is a tight plan that prevents the enemy from following these negotiators, and accordingly, following the brothers. It is obvious that the news may reach the Americans that the specific entity is negotiating with the mujahidin to secure the release of their prisoner.
DNI Bookshelf Part One and Other Sources
Title: “Letter dtd November 24 2010” Author: Atiyah Abd al Rahman (a.k.a. Shaykh Mahmud) Recipient: Osama bin Laden Source: DNI Bookshelf 1
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.
Title:“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 1
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.
Title: “Letter to Shaykh Mahmud” Author: Osama bin Laden Recipient: Atiyah Abd al Rahman (a.k.a. Shaykh Mahmoud) Source: DNI Bookshelf 1
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.
Title:“Summary on situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan” Author: Unspecified (possibly OBL) Recipient: Unspecified Source: DNI Bookshelf 1
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.
Title:“Letter dtd 5 April 2011” Author: “Mahmud” Recipient: Unspecified (possibly OBL) Source: DNI Bookshelf 1
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.”
Title: 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.
Title: 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.
Title:SOCOM-2012-0000015-HT 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.
Title: “The Al-Qaeda Papers-Drones” Author: Abdullah bin Mohammed Recipient: al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula Source: Associated Press
Quote 1: The drone is unmanned and cost nothing compared to the manned jets and it does not create public exasperation when it crashes because the increase of human losses in the past pushed the American people to go to the streets shouting “bring back our sons” and if a drone crashes, no one will shout “bring back our planes.”
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