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A Glimpse Into Osama Bin Laden's Final Days

ARUN RATH, HOST:

We have a snapshot of what life was like for Osama bin Laden in the months before he was killed thanks to the recent release of documents seized in the raid that took out the al-Qaida leader. Thousands were taken from his compound, but so far, only 25 have been made public. CNN national security analyst Peter Bergen says the documents reveal that bin Laden and al-Qaida were reeling from the CIA drone campaign.

PETER BERGEN: I would say under siege is a good kind of summary - embattled, and also very conscious of how embattled they were. I would say there were a few overall takeaways. First of all, the CIA drone program was eliminating many of the top leaders of al-Qaida. And one of the documents has a very elaborate description of an actual drone attack that killed the number three of al-Qaida at the time.

There was much discussion internally within al-Qaida's leadership about moving out of the federally administered tribal areas on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and moving either to Iran, moving to Afghanistan or moving deeper into central Pakistan, into the Punjab or areas very, very far away from the drone strikes. So the CIA drones program, according to al-Qaida's own internal memos, was very effective.

RATH: Was there any indication that bin Laden or anybody in al-Qaida had the sense that the CIA was hot on his trail at that point?

BERGEN: Yeah, there was a fascinating letter from an al-Qaida leader to bin Laden, saying look, you should stop your communications. Clearly, the Americans have very good espionage against us. Let's communicate more frequently. And this letter went to bin Laden on June of 2010 and turned out to be rather prescient, because August of 2010 is when the CIA first began focusing on a mysterious compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where somebody they suspected was bin Laden's courier was living. And very quickly they then suspected that that's where bin Laden was living. And everybody listening to this knows how that story ends.

RATH: Was there anything in the documents that surprised you?

BERGEN: I think there were a couple of things that were surprising. One is there was somebody in the documents called Tayeb Agha, who is pretty much Mullah Omar's - who's the head of the Taliban - senior aide. And he has been the principle conduit for U.S. negotiations with the Taliban, and he was in touch with al-Qaida at the same time that he was negotiating with the United States.

Now, we don't know the content of these discussions, but I think it's interesting to what extent the Taliban and al-Qaida are joined at the hip or not. So that's just an interest telling detail and leads to another issue, which is we've only seen 25 of these document so far being released. And there are thousands or tens-of-thousands or more of these documents that I think would be very useful for historians, counterterrorism analysts, the public at large to get a look at because we learn - every time they come out, we learn something new.

RATH: So Peter, we have this snapshot of al-Qaida where they're under siege, very much weakened by the drone attacks. This is four or five years ago. Based on your reporting, how does it compare with al-Qaida right now?

BERGEN: I think al-Qaida right now is in the same very bad shape they were that these documents reveal. You know, one of the interesting things about these documents is a - kind of a constant bemoaning of the fact that hey, you know, we tried to attack the U.S. embassy in Russia. That didn't work out. We tried to send some folks to the Great Britain to do attacks. That didn't work out. We sent some folks to Denmark, you know, to revenge the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. That didn't work out. And so yeah, their principal goal of attacking the West, in particular, the United States, has not worked out. And that is true today, and that was true around the time bin Laden died.

RATH: Peter Bergen is a national security analyst for CNN and author of the book "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search For Bin Laden From 9/11 To Abbottabad." Peter, thanks very much.

BERGEN: Thank you very much, sir. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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