Documents retrieved from Osama bin Laden’s final Pakistani hideout show that during his final months, the late Al Qaeda chief conspired with his associates to kill President Barack Obama. That discovery lends a satisfying touch of irony to Bin Laden’s own demise at the hands of a Navy SEAL team sent by the president. But the frustrated assassination plot, also puts the lie to several streams of Republican agitprop.
Al Qaeda had to eliminate Obama, wrote bin Laden in a 2010 memo first reported on Friday in a Washington Post exclusive, because he is “the head of infidelity” – an assertion that should authoritatively silence the right-wing paranoids who claim that the president is not a Christian, as he professes, but a secret Muslim.
More to the point, if Obama were the weak, ineffectual appeaser of Republican mythology, why would he have become the target of a plan to shoot down Air Force One? Administration officials told the Post that the plot was never a serious threat to the President because Al Qaeda lacked the capacity to fulfill it. Yet that didn’t quell bin Laden’s determination, expressed in demands that a terrorist named Ilyas Kashmiri “send me the steps he has taken into that work.” In a few words dispatched to his associates, bin Laden sinks the fundamental assumption of every foreign policy speech by Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum.
It is possible to argue with the military and diplomatic approach of the Obama White House, from drone strikes to the Afghan surge to the Arab Spring, but bin Laden’s own writings show that by 2010, he feared the ruin of his jihad – and blamed a combination of Al Qaeda’s “mistakes” and American strategy. Obama’s intensified drone barrage had wiped out many jihadi “brothers,” lamented bin Laden – and despite the resulting plague of civilian casualties, he fretted far more about the damage done to Al Qaeda’s “brand” by its own history of depredations against innocents.
According to bin Laden, the propaganda tactics of the Obama administration were succeeding against Al Qaeda. Those tactics worked, he believed, because U.S. officials “have largely stopped using the phrase ‘the war on terror’ in the context of not wanting to provoke Muslims,” while prosecuting a war on Al Qaeda instead. So alienated were most Muslims from Al Qaeda that bin Laden wanted to abandon the tainted brand and rename his organization.
In those same memos, bin Laden paid the compliment of a death threat to General David Petraeus, because the then-commander of allied forces in Afghanistan was the “man of the hour” – and killing him might alter the course of the war. He also seemed to assume, strangely, that Vice President Joe Biden would be “totally unprepared” to succeed an assassinated Obama, leading the United States into chaos.
When the full trove of documents found in bin Laden’s Abbottabad lair is released, there will no doubt be many such peculiar remarks among its pages. What will remain central in the coming debate over Obama’s national security policy, however, is that American forces finally killed the leader of Al Qaeda, rather than the other way around. And one of the most powerful endorsements of that policy – proving it was anything but ineffectual over the past three years – can be quoted in the words of the vanquished enemy.