It’s impossible to know whether Osama bin Laden, sequestered in his Abbottabad hideout in Pakistan, ever turned on the DVD player and popped in a documentary he could instantly fact-check: Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden.
Bin Laden’s video-viewing habits were highlighted Wednesday by the CIA, which released a trove of documents and media six years after the raid that killed the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But for every insight from the release, there are dozens of head-scratchers, starting with bin Laden’s movie collection.
The man once listed as No. 1 on the FBI’s most-wanted list had collected the kid movies Antz, Chicken Little and Cars. In addition to the more serious documentary on the international terrorist, there were BBC and National Geographic documentaries, including World’s Worst Venom, Inside the Green Berets and Kung Fu Killers.
According to the CIA, there were also documents and videos that give insight into al-Qaeda’s internal fissures and disputes between the terrorist network and its allies.
Although the exact purpose of the more than 100,000 files died with bin Laden, they track with the common themes that emerged from the terrorist leader’s time in hiding.
He was a man who got bored, experts say, and occupied himself with mainstream movies, books by Noam Chomsky and Bob Woodward, Netflix-y documentaries and porn.
When you study terrorist groups, that’s always what’s striking to people, the kind of quirky, human side of them, Dan Byman, professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told The Washington Post. Their whole life is not spent plotting around the campfire saying, How do we infiltrate America’s defense?
They’ll have lots of pornography, like men all over the world. A lot of the documents are complaining about bureaucracies. What’s wrong with the fax machine. They’re involved in the same sort of organizational problems of bureaucracies that we all have. In some cases, a lot worse.
But bin Laden did appear to be doing his part to advance al-Qaeda’s aims. In the CIA’s release, there are draft videos and statements by bin Laden, Islamist militant propaganda, a personal journal that bin Laden had written in the day he died.
To anti-American terrorist groups, bin Laden was a sort of well-respected emeritus professor, Byman said. He was no longer actively involved in plots but was still trying to lend his intelligence and influence to the organization he had helped form and then expanded while trying to prevent its implosion.
And the ideological and practical divisions were metastasizing. As The Post’s Greg Miller and Peter Finn reported on a previous release, the documents included “chilling admonitions to remain focused on killing Americans” and concerns that important goals were distracted by regional fights.
Our strength is limited,” bin Laden wrote in a 2010 letter that compared the United States to a tree with branches that project across the world, according to Miller and Finn. So our best way to cut the tree is to concentrate on sawing the trunk.
This is a movement that historically has been highly divided, Byman said. “One thing Osama has been doing is trying to be a unifier. He was very comfortable working with people who agreed with him on one issue and disagreed with him on five. Toward the end of his life, a lot of what he was trying to do was to get groups to work together.