What we learn from Osama bin Laden's bookshelf

This week the Chairman and CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, announced on social media that he is currently reading "The Muqaddimah" - a book written in 1377 by the Islamic historian Ibn Khaldun about the history of the world.

In less than 20 hours after posting this information, he had nearly 58,000 "likes". Obviously, Mark Zuckerberg is a very successful person, so it is normal to be interested in what he is reading. For different reasons, but still in a similar way, many were fascinated when the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence recently released what it found on Osama bin Laden's "bookshelf" during the May 2011 raid that killed the al-Qaeda leader.

While Mark Zuckerberg posted on his personal Facebook page why he is reading The Muqaddimah, we can only guess why bin Laden chose to read the books he possessed. So what does bin Laden's book collection tell us about him?

The think-tank scene

For years the think-tank community, especially in the US, has been at the forefront of the counterterrorism debate. So whoever was providing or recommending papers to bin Laden published by think-tanks knew what they were doing.

At least 26 papers in bin Laden's collection were produced by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point - one of the leading counterterrorism think-tanks in the world. Another 43 papers were found from the US think-tank the Jamestown Foundation.

The prestigious British think-tank Chatham House also features on the list. Ironically, one work by Chatham House entitled: "Security, Terrorism and the UK", was published just days after the July 7, 2005, London bombings carried out by al-Qaeda.

Coincidentally for me, one document in bin Laden's collection: "The Evolving Al-Qaeda Threat", was authored by James Phillips, my colleague at The Heritage Foundation and a veteran Middle East expert.

The think-tank material found in the compound was wide and varied. This probably reflects bin Laden's curiosity (or considering the banality of most think-tank papers, his boredom). At first glance, titles like: "Al-Qaeda in Darfur", "Report on Turkish Arms Industry", and "Hezbollah in Venezuela", might seem like unlikely topics for a man in bin Laden's position to care about.

In reality, these titles are a reflection of bin Laden's week to week involvement in al-Qaeda's global operations. This was further made evident by the thousands of recently unclassified correspondence between bin Laden and his field operators.   

Conspiracy, France, and video games

The selection of English language books found in the compound is curious - especially, some of the loopier conspiratorial books like "Secrets of the Federal Reserve" or "New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions about the Bush Administration and 9/11".

According to the ludicrous "Secrets of the Federal Reserve" the US' banking reserves are in the hands of "Jewish International Bankers" for the purpose of creating world dictatorship. Yeah right.

It is likely this was more pleasure reading for bin Laden than anything else. After all, how could a man who was directly responsible for the 9/11 attacks - and admitted so on tapes - really believe it was an "inside job" by George W Bush?

We also learned from his book collection that bin Laden had a fascination with France. Unsurprisingly, de Tocqueville and Voltaire were absent. But at least 19 publications on France were found in bin Laden's collection, including topics on the resilience of the French economy, France's water supply, French shipping companies, and France's radioactive waste management.

These topics logically lead to one conclusion: that bin Laden was hoping for, and was probably planning to carry out, a major attack in France. After successful attacks in the UK and Spain, France would be a natural target.

Considering that bin Laden met his death at the hands of US Special Operations Forces, and that throughout his time al-Qaeda's leader sent dozens of young men on suicide missions, it is ironic that copies of a guide to the videogame "Delta Force Extreme 2" and a suicide prevention book were found in his collection.

Tip of the iceberg

There is no way of knowing if these were actually his books or not. It is also difficult to know if bin Laden requested these books, if they were recommendations or gifts, or if he even read them. Assuming he was stuck in his Abbottabad compound for years one must assume that his boredom, at times, was relieved by reading.

It is also important to note that the list of reading materials that were recently made public were only a small selection of what the US gathered during the 2011 raid, and only the tip of the iceberg from what bin Laden actually had in his compound.

I once heard a senior US official with intimate knowledge of the raid say that the only thing preventing the Navy SEALS from taking even more stuff from bin Laden's compound was space on the helicopters and the need to leave the scene in a hurry.

Only the Pakistanis know what was left behind. It is doubtful that they will ever publish what they found on bin Laden's bookshelf.

 - Luke Coffey is a research fellow specialising in transatlantic and Eurasian security at a Washington DC based think-tank. He previously served as a special adviser to the British defence secretary and was a commissioned officer in the United States army.

About the Author

Luke Coffey Director, Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Originally apperaed in Al Jazeera