The operation that led to finding and killing Osama bin Laden has been heralded as a major success for U.S. intelligence agencies but new details revealed Saturday raise questions about whether assessments made in recent years about the terrorist leader were off target.
A senior U.S. intelligence official said materials seized at the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where bin Laden was killed on May 1 represent “the single largest collection” of terrorist-related information ever found and show that the terrorist leader remained deeply involved in operational and tactical planning.
(PICTURES: Osama bin Laden's Compound in Abbottabad)
“This collection represents the most significant amount of intelligence ever collected from a senior terrorist,” said the official, who asked not to be identified. “It includes digital, audio and video files of varying sizes, printed materials, computer equipment, recording devices and handwritten documents.”
The official said there also was personal correspondence between bin Laden “and others,” but would not reveal who.
“Suffice it to say, this compound in Abbottabad was an active command and control center for al-Qaida’s top leader,” the official added. “What we’ve gone through so far shows he was actively involved in plotting operations and directing the daily operations of the group. He was not simply someone who was penning al-Qaida strategy. He was throwing operational ideas out there and directing other al-Qaida terrorists.”
The U.S. government did not release any evidence on Saturday proving that bin Laden maintained command and control over al-Qaida. For years, many senior officials have said it was more likely that bin Laden was isolated and not in a position to be intimately involved in leading al-Qaida operations.
The U.S. official disputed any intelligence failure, saying U.S. intelligence had worked under the assumption that bin Laden was involved “in aspects of al-Qaida’s operational planning.”
“If anyone defines this as an intelligence failure, I’ll be happy to have that argument,” the official said. “This is the greatest intelligence success, perhaps of a generation. This is a hunt for a top al-Qaida leader that has spanned nearly 10 years and this government, our intelligence community and counterterrorism agencies have expended relentless effort to pursue leads on Osama bin Laden.”
The official also said materials seized from the compound indicate that bin Laden and al-Qaida still wanted to attack the United States and especially transportation and infrastructure targets. The official would not comment, however, on whether the materials have developed any actionable intelligence.
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The U.S. government also released short videos of bin Laden apparently at the compound, although the official said the government is still trying to confirm exactly where all the videos were shot. In one video, bin Laden is shown watching video footage of himself. In other videos bin Laden has dyed his beard black.
“This is an al-Qaida leader who was clearly engaged in his own image,” the official said. “Our takeaway was that he jealously guarded his image.”
Another video shows an apparent bin Laden blooper, where a light shining on the terrorist leader suddenly turns off and distracts him.
The government muted the audio on the videos because it did not want to be a part of spreading bin Laden’s message. When asked what themes bin Laden cited in the videos, the official replied: “He rehashed many of the themes he’s talked about before, criticizing the United States and denigrating capitalism.”
The government also released the videos to help prove that bin Laden was indeed found at the compound. The official said bin Laden’s identity was confirmed using facial recognition software and DNA analysis using samples from bin Laden’s family.
“The possibility of a mistaken identity on the basis of this analysis is approximately 1 in 11.8 quadrillion,” the official said.
The official noted that al-Qaida also issued a message that bin Laden was killed. The official called it “noteworthy” that the group did not name a new leader. U.S. intelligence agencies believe a new leader was not named because there are divisions in the group, especially over whether bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, should take over.
For some members of al-Qaida, Zawahiri “is extremely controlling, is a micro manager and is not especially charismatic,” the official said.
“Ayman al-Zawahiri is obviously the presumed successor but there are strong indications that he is not popular within certain circles of the group. So I believe it’s an open question as to who will take over for Osama bin Laden,” the official added. “It is, of course, anathema to al-Qaida to hold free and fair elections but if free and fair elections were held Zawahiri most likely would have a fight on his hands.”
The official would not speculate who else might take over or if it could be Anwar al-Awlaki, who was born in the United States and who has become a radical Muslim cleric and is believed to be leading terrorist operations in Yemen as part of the group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
The official also would not discuss any details about the raid on bin Laden’s compound last Sunday. And the official said the U.S. government is still trying to determine whether anybody inside Pakistan’s government knew of bin Laden’s location.
“I’m unaware at this point of any Pakistani government knowledge of bin Laden’s whereabouts in Abbottabad,” the official said.
Osama bin Laden was actively engaged in directing terrorist operations for al-Qaida from the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where he was shot and killed Sunday and appeared obsessed with how his image was portrayed, a senior U.S. intelligence official said.
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