Insights from the Bin Laden Archive

Digital data concept, illustration by thodonal/Adobe Stock

thodonal/Adobe Stock

An analysis of the contents of Osama Bin Laden's archive, conducted at the request of the Dutch government, uncovered a promising text cluster that could help generate novel insights and knowledge about Al Qa’ida during follow-on research.

What is the issue?

In 2017, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency disclosed an archive of files recovered in Pakistan during the 2011 raid on Al Qa’ida leader Osama Bin Laden’s compound. The archive contains a wide array of approximately 470,000 original files from devices collected during the raid that are presumed to have belonged to Bin Laden and other occupants of the compound in which he lived. To date, there has been limited, publicly published research into the archive.

How did we help?

RAND Europe was asked by the Research and Documentation Centre of the Dutch Ministry of Justice and Security to (a) inventory current knowledge on Al Qa’ida and completed and ongoing research on the Bin Laden Archive and (b) conduct an initial assessment and characterisation of the Bin Laden Archive.

Researchers adopted a sample-based approach to analyse the image, audio and video clusters of files, and used a machine-enabled approach, a RAND-Lex analysis, to map and characterise all the text files available.

Though the study’s scope did not entail in-depth research and analysis of any of the selected samples included in the archive, the research conducted provided an indication of areas within the archive that could merit further in-depth exploration and analysis.

What are our key findings?

  • Data and files in the archive can be clustered according to file type (audio, image, text and video files) to enable further investigation and characterisation.
  • There appears to be only a limited potential for the image, audio and video clusters of the archive to help generate new knowledge and insights on Al Qa’ida and on the related phenomenon of jihadi terrorism based on the sample of files analysed.
  • The text cluster of the archive appears to be the most promising cluster that could help generate novel insights and knowledge about Al Qa’ida during follow-on research. This is because the cluster contains personal, sensitive and private documents authored by individuals living in the Pakistan compound or by other Al Qa’ida senior personnel living in hiding who were in contact with those in the compound.
  • A qualitative review of the ‘Bin Laden journal’ - a handwritten journal reportedly written by Bin Laden and other occupants of the compound - highlights an interest on the developing situation across Arab countries during the so-called Arab Spring and suggests Bin Laden was considering ‘public relations’ activities in response.

What can be done?

The text files should be further characterised and prioritised in future in-depth studies on the archive. Based on the findings gathered in the initial assessment, the study team holds the view that analysing selected clusters and subsets of the archive, and in particular the text cluster, could generate novel insights and knowledge through access to primary sources so far not considered in scholarly literature.