For years after 9/11, top American officials proclaimed Osama bin Laden a man on the run and incapable of overseeing al Qaeda. But newly declassified files taken from his compound in Pakistan and obtained by ABC News show he was a "hands on" boss until the end, firing off hundreds of memos, letters and video messages containing explicit and detailed orders for his lieutenants, along with personal, security-obsessed missives for his family members.
"Bin Laden was very hands on with al Qaeda's day-to-day operations," a senior intelligence official familiar with the documents said on Monday, "but he seemed somewhat out of touch."
The al Qaeda leader, who had a $27 million bounty on his head, did it all using a network of trusted couriers carrying tiny, easily concealable cell phone computer chips to carry his communications back and forth from his hideout in Abbottabad to relatives held in Iran, media outlets and his lieutenants in Somalia, Afghanistan, North Africa, Iraq and many other places.
Bin Laden himself explained how it worked in letters such as one in early 2011 to one of his wives, seeking her advice on how to exploit the news media to hype the triumph of the upcoming tenth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"I will ask the brother with you to buy you a computer and accessories. I am enclosing to you everything on my computer in terms of statements or ideas. I hope that you review them and give me your impressions. I will also ask for the brother to buy SIM cards that you can use to communicate with me and your messages. What you write and tell me in terms of ideas, I will include in the statements," bin Laden told her. "Of course you know how important they are and how we need to exploit [9/11] in the media as the embodiment of the victories of Muslims.”
He often inquired about his children and what they were being taught in school, gave advice on avoiding security surveillance – once fearing his wife may have been bugged without her knowledge -- and made arrangements to move his relatives discreetly between countries and regions. The letters indicate his wife Khairiah was able to send her responses back to her husband.
For years, former President George W. Bush and his advisers spoke of bin Laden as "hiding in a cave" and dodging missiles from CIA drones. One senior Bush administration official said in a 2004 speech that bin Laden "spends most of his time trying to figure out how ‘they're going to come for me’ and ‘is this going to be the day?’”
But by the time bin Laden settled in the Abbottabad house maintained by two Kuwaiti brothers around 2006 or 2007, the documents show he was operating more like a Fortune 500 chief executive. While most of the tranche of files bagged and seized by U.S. Navy SEALs who killed in 2011 him have not yet been cleared for public release, officials said most of the massive archive from hard drives and hard copies curiously are dated after 2009.
The newly declassified files, which were published online by the government later this morning, include directions to an al-Shabab leader in Somalia to attack French targets if American targets are not available, and what appears to be bin Laden's opinion that al Qaeda should execute French hostages right before a national election to affect the political outcome.
"If [French President Nicolas Sarkozy] continues to refuse to negotiate, then one week before the French presidential elections we will kill one of the men (hostages), the one with the lowest rank and position in the company," the letter says. At some point the plan appears to have changed as four French hostages, presumably the ones to whom the letter refers, were released by al Qaeda's north African affiliate AQIM in 2013, two years after bin Laden’s death.
The subject of the Iranian regime, which has held some al Qaeda figures under house arrest while allowing other officials in the Sunni terror group to operate more freely since 2001, was raised often in al Qaeda's internal discussions and mentioned in 28 of the 113 documents reviewed by ABC News Monday.
A 2007 letter by Bin Laden told his lieutenants that "pressure should be applied gradually" on the Iranian regime to release his family members and key al Qaeda leaders such as Abu Hafs al-Masri, a top figure who eventually was purportedly freed last fall from house arrest in Iran.
"When you can, please let me know the reasons why the brothers coming from Iran were detained, God release them. I stress that anyone coming from there should take the necessary security precautions," Bin Laden wrote.
A 2011 message released by the U.S. intelligence community in a batch last May from bin Laden to his wife Khairah asked her about dental work she received while under house arrest in Iran, appearing paranoid in his questioning about possible micro bugging or tracking devices being installed unknowingly in her teeth using a syringe. Bin Laden repeatedly stated he wanted her to join him but he worried she could be tailed.
Several newly declassified letters appear to include follow-up correspondence with his wife, in which he explains to her that he and his men "horribly fear the filling you were given," because computer chips used to track people can be planted "under the skin."
"I ask you to report to me in detail anything you find suspicious from any doctor in Iran, like if the syringe is the usual volume and its head has a slightly larger diameter than normal," bin Laden wrote in the January 2011 letter.
Another dated only three months before SEAL Team Six operators shot the al Qaeda leader Abbottabad continued to ask his wife about her medical procedures, suggesting she get an x-ray or ultrasound to see if any tracking devices had been placed inside her body. He apologized for quizzing her, begging her to "please excuse me if I have worn you out with some of these details."
In other letters, the mujahid-turned-hermit appears whiny, pleading with his loyalists to help all of his family members "under house arrest" in Iran.
"We asked several times that they be let go so that they could go to Pakistan. Tehran did not respond to that, so maybe you could attempt to work on releasing them to the Waziristan area of Pakistan, where we can make sure they are all right there with these tribes," bin Laden wrote in an undated letter.
Among the few documents pre-dating 2009 recovered from the house was Bin Laden's handwritten last will and testament. The 1990s-era will said he had "about $29 million" in the Sudan remaining of his personal wealth, presumably inheritance from his wealthy father's Saudi construction firm. Bin Laden lived in the Sudan and funded well-publicized road projects in the country until 1996, when he relocated back to Jalalabad, Afghanistan, now under Taliban rule.
He envisioned carving up his then-fortune – which was later likely confiscated by Sudanese authorities after his return to Afghanistan -- among his family members and giving $1 million each to two loyal lieutenants, Abu Hafs al-Mauritani and Abu Ibrahim al-Iraqi Saad Jarwar.
"The bulk of it was to go into the pot ...for jihad," explained a senior intelligence official, who spent years studying the cache of al Qaeda documents.
Bin Laden himself explained that he had "received twelve million dollars from my brother Abu Bakir Muhammad Bin (Laden) on behalf of Bin Laden Company for Investment in Sudan. I hope, for my brothers, sisters, and maternal aunts, to obey my will and to spend all the money that I have left in Sudan on Jihad, for the sake of Allah."
After 9/11, his siblings went to great pains to distance themselves from their infamous brother Osama, with some even changing the English spelling of their English surname to "Binladin."
The al Qaeda leader also singled out two of his many children for payments in the event of his death, including his heir apparent Saad Bin Laden. But Saad met his maker before his father did, perishing in a CIA drone strike inside Pakistan in 2009 after being released by Iranian officials from house arrest there.
The documents also reveal that as far back as the mid-2000s there were fears from some in al Qaeda that some in the group’s Iraq franchise were attempting to split from the “core” organization based in Pakistan. Years later, those concerns would prove prescient as al Qaeda-Iraq (AQI) evolved into ISIS and publicly turned on its parent group.
ABC News' Lee Ferran contributed to this report. Editor’s Note: This report has been updated to clarify the portion of the documents relating to the French hostages.