May 3, 2012 — -- In his final days, according to declassified documents released today, Osama bin Laden was still ordering attack after attack on "only the Americans," but it's not clear if any of his orders were being carried out.
"I'm reminded of the final days of Adolf Hitler in the bunker in Berlin," said ABC News consultant and former White House counter-terror advisor Richard Clarke, "when he was giving orders for divisions and armies to be moved around and those divisions and armies didn't exist."
Documents released online Thursday by the Combating Terror Center at West Point show bin Laden, just days before he was killed in a U.S. raid in May 2011, asking for updates on a plot "using poison" that was being planned by one al Qaeda team in Yemen.
In another letter, bin Laden sought 10 new recruits willing to "study aviation" and "conduct suicide operations," apparently looking for a second 9/11-style attack.
"We see an individual who was a micromanager in more ways than we previously understood," said Seth Jones, author of the just-released book "Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of al Qa'ida Since 9/11."
The documents also reveal bin Laden's order to assassinate President Obama, and not to target Vice President Biden, because bin Laden believed Biden was "totally unprepared" to become president and by assuming the post would "lead the U.S. into a crisis."
But that plot, like others, seems never to have happened. The documents made public today show a leader frustrated at his own inability to control the violent jihadi movement he helped create, especially when it came to regional affiliates of al Qaeda.
Bin Laden believed that Al Qaeda affiliates like the Taliban and al Shabaab had hurt the reputation of al Qaeda in the Muslim world with attacks that claimed Muslim lives.
"He pushed categorically to stop mass casualty bombings, especially of Muslims," notes Jones. "He was involved in trying to back off Al Qaeda in Iraq from killing a range of Muslims. ... In North Africa . . . he tried to back off al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb from killing some French hostages because he didn't want the full force of the French to come down on him."
The documents also show a fugitive aware of the lethal power of U.S. drones, who told one of his lieutenants to warn al Qaeda members in Pakistan to move "away from aircraft photography and bombardment," and a shut-in, confined to his compound, who spent his time obsessing over TV news coverage of himself and al Qaeda. He wrote that jihadis need to understand that the media is a big part of the battle.
"He was a somewhat pathetic old man, out of touch with reality," said Clarke. "Bin Laden in his final days wasn't a threat, but the organizations that he spun off, like the groups in Yemen, they are still a threat and they're still following the guidance -- attack the United States."
This week, al Qaeda's Yemeni affiliate, al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, released a new issue of its English-language magazine "Inspire" that once again calls on Western jihadis to rise up and attack inside the U.S. Where past issues have urged mujahidin to make homemade bombs and mow down pedestrians with cars, the latest edition provides detailed instructions on igniting massive forest fires.