Recovered during the Navy SEAL raid of Osama bin Laden’s compound almost one week ago, the “treasure trove” of documents, thumb drives, and videos demonstrate that the suburban house inhabited by bin Laden “was an active command and control center for Al Qaeda’s top leader,” according to a senior intelligence official, who briefed reporters on the condition that he not be named.
“He was far from a figurehead,” the official said. “He was an active player” whose role was “to encourage plotting.”
The videos, released without audio, include the image of a gray-bearded bin Laden wrapped in a blanket, TV remote in hand, watching news footage of himself on television in a room with blacked-out curtains.
Some of the clips “are clearly outtakes,” the official said, as reporters in a Pentagon briefing room viewed images of bin Laden rehearsing his televised messages in front of a wrinkled baby-blue sheet and a large armoire believed to be located at the compound.
Another video showed bin Laden missing his speaking cue as a light malfunctioned, clips promptly dubbed “bin Laden’s bloopers” by reporters.
One of the videos, which was labeled a “message to America,” was recorded between Oct. 9 and Nov. 5, 2010 – the only video that was dated among the five that were released. In it, bin Laden is shown “condemning US policy and denigrating capitalism,” the official said.
The official told reporters that the audio was removed from the videos because it is “inappropriate to spread the message of terrorists.”
While US intelligence officials continue to catalog the material from the compound, “the treasure trove of information has provided some golden nuggets,” the official added.
As US authorities cull through the cache, “identifying imminent threats in plotting is of course our top priority,” the official said. The trove indicated that bin Laden “appeared to show a continuing interest in [US] transportation targets,” he added. Officials hope the materials will also offer clues about Al Qaeda's financing and its efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction.
Some of the most striking developments came earlier this week from Al Qaeda itself, in the terrorist organization’s reaction to the death of its leader. The intelligence official called it “noteworthy that the group didn’t announce a new leader,” and said this is evidence that Al Qaeda is struggling in the wake of bin Laden’s death.
Bin Laden’s presumed successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, “is not popular within certain circles” of Al Qaeda, the intelligence official said. Some within Al Qaeda consider him to be “extremely controlling, a micromanager, and not especially charismatic,” he added.
The videos also demonstrate that bin Laden dyed his graying beard black for his television appearances. “This is clearly an Al Qaeda leader who is interested in his own image,” the official said, adding that bin Laden's beard was gray when he was killed in his compound.
The Saturday briefing, held immediately before the taping of Sunday television talk shows, is widely considered to be an effort to shift public discussion toward the content of intelligence materials gathered in the raid – and away from a series of conspicuous missteps that administration officials made when they released differing accounts of what happened the night bin Laden was killed.
“This is the greatest intelligence success, perhaps of a generation,” the official stressed. "This is a classic and historic intelligence success."
Defending criticism that neither bin Laden nor any of his family members were taken by US operatives for questioning, the official said, “There was one objective for this mission, and that was to find Osama bin laden – and if he wasn’t there, to get out.”
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