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Bin Laden letters used by U.S. to humiliate; Al-Qaida shamed in online release

Letters from Osama bin Laden's last hideaway, released by U.S. officials intent on discrediting his terrorist organization, portray a network weak, inept and under siege -- and its leader seemingly near wit's end about the passing of his global jihad's glory days.

The documents, published online Thursday, are a small sample of those seized during the U.S. commando raid on bin Laden's Pakistan compound in which he was killed a year ago.

By no accident, they show al-Qaida at its worst. The raid has become the signature national security moment of Barack Obama's presidency and one he is eager to emphasize in his re-election campaign.

Those ends are served in the 17 documents chosen by U.S. officials for the world to see -- not to mention American voters. The Obama administration has refused to release a fuller record of its bin Laden collection, making it difficult to glean any larger truths about the state of al-Qaida.

What is clear from the documents released so far is that al-Qaida's leaders are constantly on the run from unmanned U.S. aircraft and trying to evade detection by CIA spies and National Security Agency eavesdroppers.

In one letter, either bin Laden himself or his senior deputy tells the leader of Yemen's al-Qaida offshoot that, in the face of U.S. power, it is futile to try to establish a government that will offer it safe haven.

"Even though we were able to militarily and economically exhaust and weaken our greatest enemy before and after the eleventh," the letter says, referring to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, "the enemy continues to possess the ability to topple any state we establish."

Again and again in the letters, bin Laden and his inner circle struggle to keep the focus of Islamic terrorism on killing Americans and tamp down attacks by al-Qaida affiliates on Muslim innocents. The documents describe the United States as "a malicious tree with a huge trunk" and its allies as mere branches not worth al-Qaida's time.

From his redoubt in Pakistan, bin Laden was keenly aware that his organization's standing with Muslim populations was crumbling.

"I plan to release a statement that we are starting a new phase to correct [the mistakes] we made," bin Laden wrote in 2010. "In doing so, we shall reclaim, God willing, the trust of a large segment of those who lost their trust in the jihadis."

The documents, which date from September 2006 to April 2011, were declassified by U.S. intelligence officials and posted by scholars at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

The documents show that bin Laden's inner circle was frustrated when, in 2010, attention in the United States shifted to the economic downturn without linking al-Qaida to the damage. "All the political talk in America is about the economy, forgetting or ignoring the war and its role in weakening the economy," wrote his spokesman, Adam Gadahn.

As bin Laden struggled to right his organization, no detail seemed too small for his attention. In one letter, he wrote that "controlling children" was one of the keys to hiding in cities, as he did for years while U.S. forces searched Pakistan's rugged frontier.

He encouraged his followers in hiding to teach their children the local language and not let them out of their homes "except for extreme necessity like medical care." Adults should be with them outside to keep their voices down, he said.

The main message of the documents released so far is that "bin Laden is burdened by the incompetence of his jihadi brothers," said Nelly Lahoud, one of the West Point scholars who studied the correspondence.

Bin Laden's operatives, much like armchair political junkies in the United States, were attentive viewers of U.S. TV news.

Gadahn described ABC as "all right, actually it could be one of the best channels as far as we are concerned," criticized CNN as being too close to the government and heaped scorn on Fox News, which "falls into the abyss, as you know, and lacks neutrality." He said of Fox: "Let her die in anger."

Al-Qaida's relationship with Iran, a point of abiding interest to the U.S. government, was rough, judging from the documents. After the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, some top al-Qaida operatives and their families fled to Iran, where authorities there put them under house arrest. Over the years, Iran has released some, including members of bin Laden's family. Others remain.

Abd al-Rahman, who became al-Qaida's No. 2 leader after bin Laden's death, complained bitterly about dealing with the Iranians and what he considered their convoluted methods of negotiating. He died in a U.S. drone strike.

"The criminals did not send us any letter, nor did they send us a message through any of the brothers," he wrote of the Iranians. "Such behavior is of course not unusual for them; indeed, it is typical of their mind-set and method. They do not wish to appear to be negotiating with us or responding to our pressures."

In another document, it appeared that bin Laden was unaware of the planned bombing of Times Square in New York in May 2010 by al-Qaida associates in Pakistan, but he was disappointed that it failed.