On September 11, 2001, al Qaeda carried out the deadliest foreign terrorist attack the United States had ever experienced. To Osama bin Laden and the other men who planned it, however, the assault was no mere act of terrorism. To them, it represented something far grander: the opening salvo of a campaign of revolutionary violence that would usher in a new historical era. Although bin Laden was inspired by religion, his aims were geopolitical. Al Qaeda’s mission was to undermine the contemporary world order of nation-states and re-create the historical umma, the worldwide community of Muslims that was once held together by a common political authority. Bin Laden believed that he could achieve that goal by delivering what he described as a “decisive blow” that would force the United States to withdraw its military forces from Muslim-majority states, thus allowing jihadis to fight autocratic regimes in those places on a level playing field.
Bin Laden’s worldview and the thinking behind the 9/11 attack are laid bare in a trove of internal communications that were recovered in May 2011, when U.S. special operations forces killed bin Laden during a raid on the compound in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad where he had spent his final years hiding. In the years that followed, the U.S. government declassified some of the documents, but the bulk of them remained under the exclusive purview of the intelligence community. In November 2017, the CIA declassified an additional 470,000 digital files, including audio, images, videos, and text.