When Seal Team Six carried out a raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 2, 2011, they not only killed the al Qaeda leader but swept up a treasure trove of his personal belongings. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has since made a large portion of these materials available to the public. Bin Laden’s personal possessions paint a more complete picture of the notoriously secretive leader behind the 9/11 attacks. Here are nine unexpected things discovered in Bin Laden’s compound and what they reveal about the founder of the international terrorist network al Qaeda.
Bin Laden's Carefully Guarded Emails
Despite having no Internet access or phone lines at the compound—"those would be too great a risk to his personal safety,” says Bill Roggio of Long War Journal—Osama bin Laden was a prolific writer and communicator from his self-imposed isolation. Using couriers, he’d save email correspondence to a flash drive, which the courier would then send from an Internet café.
Navy SEALs retrieved about 100 of these drives, which reveal that bin Laden was involved in critical al Qaeda operations even after world leadership assumed his responsibilities had been handed off to Ayman al-Zawahri. “The emails showed bin Laden did not surrender operational or strategic control,” says Roggio, who was granted advance access to many of bin Laden’s files before the CIA released them to the public. “He was issuing orders and being briefed on reports, promotions, reassignments, strategy and ideological issues like fatwahs and religious rulings.”
Bin Laden's Diary
The SEAL team also recovered his 228-page journal, which records thoughts he expressed to family members between February and April of 2011. (It’s unclear exactly how many people were living at the compound at the time of the raid, but it’s known that the cadre included several of his wives, along with multiple children and grandchildren, along with his couriers and their families.) Believed to have been recorded for him by one of his daughters, the diary revealed his thoughts on the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings taking place in several majority-Muslim countries and his vision for Al Qaeda's place in world politics: “This chaos and the absence of leadership in the revolutions is the best environment to spread al-Qaeda's thoughts and ideas,” the journal says.
His Son Hamza's Wedding Video
The raid also unearthed a family video from bin Laden’s son Hamza bin Laden’s wedding in Iran. “The only picture we had of Hamza prior to the video’s release was of him as a child. Hamza was being groomed for a leadership position, so seeing him as an adult was very valuable,” says Roggio.
The wedding guest list also proved revealing, as it included multiple members of al Qaeda’s inner circle. Hamza married the daughter of Abu Muhammad Al-Masri, another al Qaeda leader, and guests included Mohammed Showqi al-Islambouli, whose brother Khalid assassinated former Egyptian President Anwar-el Sadat. Hamza bin Laden was killed in 2019.
A series of video games downloaded and saved onto compound computers suggest Osama bin Laden or someone else who lived on the compound was an avid video game enthusiast. The CIA files released after the 2011 raid showed the al Qaeda leader had downloads of popular games like Half-Life, Super Mario Bros., Yoshi’s Island DS, Final Fantasy VII, Dragon Ball Z, and Counter-Strike, a game where multiple players team up to fend off counterterrorism efforts.
Videos of bin Laden Practicing for Public Speeches
While evading authorities, the fugitive leader released a number of pre-recorded videos to followers. Practice reels were discovered in the compound. “Streaming live is a traceable activity, so he would pre-record the messages and hand them to a courier to distribute,” says Roggio. “Recording these videos in advance enabled him to carefully control his public image.”
It’s strange to think that the mastermind behind the death of thousands of people would have Disney films in his hideout, but several were found at the Abbottabad compound, including Cars, Chicken Little and Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs. His four youngest children were under the age of 10 at the time of his death.
A few items from the hideout were never released to the public, including bin Laden’s reportedly large pornography collection. According to Reuters, "the pornography recovered in the Abbottabad compound consists of modern, electronically recorded video and is fairly extensive.” Multiple Freedom of Information requests for the release of the files have been denied, so their exact contents remain a mystery.
Documentaries About Himself
Osama bin Laden, the subject of thousands of news articles and multiple documentaries, apparently had an avid curiosity about his public image. After he was killed, authorities found on his computer several films about him, including Biography–Osama bin Laden and the 2008 comedy documentary Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?
His Library, Including Books on Conspiracy Theories
Osama bin Laden’s personal library was full of surprises. He owned several books on American military and diplomatic history like Bob Woodward’s Obama's Wars, Noam Chomsky’s Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies and Robert Hopkins Miller’s The U.S. and Vietnam 1787-1941. “It was important for him to understand his enemy and their way of thinking,” Roggio says. The compound also housed books on popular conspiracy theories on 9/11, The Committee of 300, and the Illuminati.