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Bin Laden planned to charter planes for new 9/11-style attacks and more, newly translated docs reveal

Osama bin Laden sits with his adviser Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri during an interview with Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir. Hamid in Nov. 2001 in Kabul. (Hamid Mir/WikiMedia)
April 27, 2022

Deceased Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden made plans to charter private planes for new 9/11-style attacks, derail trains and target international gas tankers, according to newly translated documents taken from the U.S. special operations raid on his compound in Pakistan in 2011.

CBS News’ 60 Minutes program on Sunday first reported on the newly translated documents, which were obtained more than a decade earlier by the U.S. Navy SEALs who raided Bin Laden’s Pakistan compound and fatally shot the Al Qaeda leader.

In 2017, the CIA released troves of documents recovered during the raid on Bin Laden’s compound, but provided little to no translation for the documents. Islamic scholar Nelly Lahoud began the process of translating thousands of the documents after their release and provided 60 Minutes with a new look at the Al Qaeda leader’s terrorist plans after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.

At one point, Bin Laden considered chartering planes to recreate the attacks in which Al Qaeda members crashed airliners into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Bin Laden then said that if chartering planes proved too challenging, Al Qaeda’s supporters could instead derail trains. According to Lahoud, Bin Laden detailed how to derail trains in a 2004 letter.

“He wanted to have 12 meters of steel rail removed so that, this way, the train could be derailed,” Lahoud.

Bin Laden had a degree in civil engineering and Lahoud noted the terrorist leader provided specific details about what equipment to use to remove rail lines.

“We find him explaining the simple toolkit that they could use,” Lahoud said. “You know, he said, ‘You could use a compressor. You could use a smelting iron tool.'”

The ideas for chartering planes or derailing trains never materialized. This may have been due in part to the terrorist group’s struggles after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Lahoud said she translated a letter to Bin Laden from a young associate named Tawfiq, which described how the terrorist group had been severely handicapped after 2001.

Tawfiq reportedly wrote to Bin Laden that “The weakness, failure, and aimlessness that befell us were harrowing. We Muslims were defiled and desecrated. Our state was ripped asunder, our lands were occupied, our resources were plundered.”

According to Lahoud, Bin Laden was not fully aware of how Al Qaeda’s capabilities had degraded after the terrorist leader went into hiding.

Lahoud said Tawfiq “actually warns [Bin Laden], that ‘I’m gonna tell you the truth as it is. And I know that some of the brothers here are not telling you everything in detail because they don’t want to upset you, particularly because of the delicate situations in which you find yourself with.'”

Lahoud said documents showed the terrorist group was also running low on cash, with about $200,000 in funds as of 2006.

Despite the terrorist group’s degraded capabilities and limited financial assets, Bin Laden continued to plot the group’s comeback while in hiding. By 2010, his ideas for the next terrorist attack began to focus on targeting multiple crude oil tankers and hindering shipping routes around the Middle East and Africa.

“He says, ‘It does not escape you, the importance of oil for industrialized economy today. And it is similar to blood for human beings. So, if you cause somebody to bleed excessively, even if you don’t kill him you will at least weaken him,'” Lahoud said. “And that’s– he really– what he really wanted to do to the American economy.”

Again, Bin Laden provided specific details about how to carry out these new attacks. According to Lahoud, he suggested attackers should integrate themselves within port areas and play the role of fishermen. Bin Laden also advised attackers a specific kind of wooden boat to help avoid radar detection. In a letter, he wrote the boats needed to carry lots of explosives arranged in an “arch position” facing the target vessels.

While degraded capabilities and limited financial resources may have limited earlier plans for attacks, Lahoud said later plans for attacks were complicated by a series of popular anti-government protests and riots throughout predominantly Muslim Middle Eastern countries, known as the “Arab Spring.” The series of protests and riots began to build in December of 2010 and early 2011. Lahoud said Bin Laden praised the popular opposition to governments throughout the Middle East, but said it caused him to question whether new attacks would be helpful to his cause at the time.

Bin Laden was never able to wait out the Arab Springs, which continued through 2011 and 2012. U.S. special operations forces killed him at his Pakistan compound on May 2, 2011.