Today, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a new batch of declassified documents recovered during the raid to kill Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. Like most terrorism researchers (nerds), I am excited to see these documents finally come to light as I think they provide a much needed window for the public to see inside al Qaeda’s operations and thinking. These documents will provide excellent primary source material for researchers and ideally yield insights into how terrorist groups operate — illuminating their vulnerabilities and offering solutions to mitigate their violence.
Today’s declassification dump is not the first, however. Going back to 2006, the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point (where I used to work) began declassifying documents under the Harmony project. Harmony and Disharmony was the first in several research projects involving declassified internal al Qaeda documents. One of my roles at the Combating Terrorism Center was to assist in the triaging and declassification of internal al Qaeda documents for research compilations. And it seems Mr. Bin Laden particularly liked the work of Will McCants.
I often read headlines stating there are “millions” of al Qaeda documents that should be declassified to the public for analysis. The truth is that only a handful of these documents provide insightful information worth reading and pondering. Imagine if someone tipped over your house and went through every piece of paper and book you owned looking for clues about your thinking. Most of what would be found are just scraps of paper, of which only a fraction would illuminate anything about you. Al Qaeda is no different.
After spending a painful number of hours sifting through al Qaeda documents, panning for gold, I have the following recommendations for where to start when you see an al Qaeda document release. If you are new to al Qaeda’s internal documents and these declassifications, here’s my triaging strategy. An important note, the U.S. government has released only a few documents — a small percentage of the total. All of the documents surely have some significance.
Focus on documents with operational instructions over big ideas.
The biggest mistake I’ve seen with people analyzing al Qaeda documents is too great a focus on…