For Osama bin Laden, who spent years in seclusion with little to do, the first big plans to emerge from his compound paint a picture of a man who stuck to what he knew best and what worked before: planes, trains and ships.
The computer files hauled from his hideout in Pakistan have provided intelligence officials with an unparalleled glimpse into the mind of al-Qaeda’s founder, but perhaps most surprising about the first two attack scenarios to surface in those documents is just how predictable they were.
He hoped to attack trains, just as terrorists had done in Mumbai, India, and Madrid, Spain. He retained his fascination with attacking airplanes. And, according to US officials and a law enforcement bulletin on Friday, he wanted to hijack oil tankers and blow them up at sea.
That they were old ideas made them no less deadly. Yet with no specific plan in motion and after so many warnings about similar plots over the past decade, the revelations were met with little more than a shrug by many in the security business. Oil prices weren’t affected. Shippers said it was business as usual.
“This is nothing new,” said Christopher Davidson, a professor of Middle East politics at Durham University in northern England. “This is just confirmation of what most security and terror analysts had guessed.”
In short, bin Laden wanted to attack just where the US figured he would.
Part of that is owing to the billions of dollars that the US has spent on intelligence and security since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. So much has been spent on secret wire taps, satellite surveillance and new spies and analysts that the US isn’t supposed to be caught by surprise.
However, the predictability of bin Laden and his commanders is one reason why the core group of al-Qaeda is no longer the gravest threat to the US. That has fallen to the al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, where operatives have proved more clever and nimble.
The Yemeni group has come perilously close to carrying out two major attacks on US targets. Bin Laden’s writings show that, to the end, he remained committed to carrying out spectacular attacks on high-profile targets.
The Yemeni branch has embraced the idea of recruiting terrorists over the Internet, providing them with bombmaking instructions and letting them pick their own targets.