Initial analysis of the huge cache of documents seized at Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan compound shows he was not a figurehead but the operational leader of Al Qaeda, an active manager who communicated regularly with terrorist partners about plots and tactics, a senior intelligence official said.
“As a result of the raid, we’ve acquired the single largest collection of material from a senior terrorist ever,” said the official, who spoke to reporters Saturday on condition of anonymity. “The materials have already provided us some important insights.… We are already disseminating intelligence across the U.S. government based on what we found.”
The official, who refused to be identified because of the nature of his work, called the Bin Laden operation “the greatest intelligence success in a generation.”
Seeking to dispel any doubts that it was Bin Laden who was killed, the U.S. government also released five videos seized at the compound, one showing Bin Laden as he did not intend to be seen in public.
With a blanket draped over his shoulders, he is huddled with a remote control in his hand, sometimes rocking back and forth while watching television footage of himself. His unkempt gray beard contrasts with the dark black and apparently dyed beard in outtakes also released Saturday of Bin Laden’s public appeals.
The material found in the raid “confirms how important it was to go after Bin Laden,” CIA Director Leon E. Panetta said in a statement.
An early review of digital, audio and paper documents “clearly shows that Bin Laden remained an active leader in Al Qaeda, providing strategic, operational and tactical instructions to the group,” the unnamed intelligence official said. “Though separated from many Al Qaeda members who are located in more remote areas of the region, he was far from a figurehead. He was an active player, making the recent operation even more essential for our nation’s security.”
A CIA-led multi-agency task force is cataloguing, translating and analyzing the material, the official said, and “the treasure trove of information has provided some golden nuggets on communications within the Al Qaeda group.”
Although he lived for five or six years in a compound without a telephone or Internet connection, Bin Laden continued to issue orders and encourage terrorist plots through a network of couriers, the official said. “He remained focused on inspiring and engineering international terrorism and on attacking the U.S.,” the official added.
However, the official would not say what sort of instructions Bin Laden issued, what plots might have been in the works or whether any of the material seized has produced information that can be acted upon immediately.
He did allow that Bin Laden “appeared to show continuing interest in transportation and infrastructure targets.”
The official added that, despite conventional wisdom that Bin Laden was living in a remote location and not able to communicate with his followers, “it was always our working assumption that he was involved in aspects of Al Qaeda’s operational planning.”
U.S. Navy SEALs shot and killed Bin Laden on Monday after the CIA tracked him to a compound in the garrison town of Abbottabad, 35 miles north of Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.
The evidence seized during the raid also includes phone numbers and documents that officials hope will help lead to other Al Qaeda figures and shed light on whether anyone in the Pakistani government was protecting Bin Laden. The U.S. has not found any evidence that the government knew he was there, the official said.
One segment of video footage released Saturday shows Bin Laden, looking perhaps older than his 54 years, watching footage of his younger self on television firing weapons. Officials did not play the audio, saying they didn’t want to release Al Qaeda propaganda.
These are the sorts of videos only Bin Laden would have possessed because he was careful about his public image, the official said.
One video was a never-released “Message to the American people,” officials said, believed to have been recorded between Oct. 9 and Nov. 5, 2010.
In the video, Bin Laden condemned U.S. policy and denigrated capitalism, the official said.
“We don’t know why the video hasn’t yet appeared,” the official said.
Other footage showed Bin Laden rehearsing for video messages.
“Our takeaway is that he jealously guarded his image,” the official said.
The U.S. released the videos, he said, “to underscore two main points. First, the videos make clear that Bin Laden remained active in Al Qaeda’s propaganda efforts, especially in shaping his own image. Second, it is highly unlikely that some of this footage would have resided anywhere else but with Bin Laden.”
The official also recounted the reasons the U.S. was certain Bin Laden was the tall man they shot: His wife called him by name during the raid; facial comparisons of eyes, ears and nose were a match with a 95% certainty, and the DNA matched a profile compiled from his extended family. The chance that it wasn’t Bin Laden is “1 in 11.8 quadrillion,” the official said, drawing laughter from reporters.
Al Qaeda “is damaged by Bin Laden’s death, but remains dangerous,” the official said. He noted that the group released a statement Friday acknowledging Bin Laden’s death.
“It is noteworthy that the group did not announce a new leader, suggesting it is still trying to deal with Bin Laden’s demise,” he said. “It’s also noteworthy that they acknowledged the death came in Pakistan, because in the past they have tried to obscure the reality of their presence in that country.”
It’s an open question who would take over after Bin Laden, the official said, because Ayman Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s No. 2, is unpopular among some elements.
To some members of Al Qaeda, the official said, Zawahiri is extremely controlling, a micromanager and not especially charismatic.