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U.S. official: Bin Laden ‘no figurehead’, directed al Qaeda from Pakistan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The compound in Pakistan where U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden was an active command center from which he directed al Qaeda, a senior intelligence official said on Saturday as he released videos showing bin Laden watching himself on tape and rehearsing speeches.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said information carted away from the compound by U.S. forces following Monday’s raid represented the largest trove of intelligence ever obtained from a senior terrorism leader.

“This compound in Abbottabad was an active command and control center for al Qaeda’s top leader and it’s clear … that he was not just a strategic thinker for the group,” the official said. “He was active in operational planning and in driving tactical decisions.”

The official released five video clips of bin Laden taken during the raid, most of them showing the al Qaeda leader, his beard dyed black, evidently rehearsing the videotaped speeches he occasionally distributed to his followers.

The videos were released without sound.

The intelligence official said the sound had been stripped because the United States did not want to transmit bin Laden’s propaganda. He said they contained the usual message “condemning U.S. policy and denigrating capitalism.”

The intelligence official’s portrayal of bin Laden as an active threat to the United States followed several missteps by the Obama administration in its handling of news about the raid that killed the al Qaeda leader.

Officials initially said U.S. forces who attacked the compound engaged in a sustained firefight and bin Laden had been armed, but they later acknowledged the shooting had been limited to the first moments of the raid and bin Laden had been unarmed when killed.

The administration’s changing story marred what was otherwise a major intelligence victory for Washington.

One of the videos released on Saturday was a “complete, yet unreleased” bin Laden tape he describes as “a message to the American people,” the intelligence official said.

The video was believed to have been produced between October 9 and November 5, 2010, he said, adding it was unclear why it had not yet surfaced publicly.

WATCHING HIMSELF ON VIDEO

Another segment showed a gray-bearded bin Laden in a more casual setting wrapped in a blanket and apparently wearing a ski cap while watching videotapes of himself.

“The videos make clear that bin Laden remained active in al Qaeda’s terrorist propaganda operations, especially in shaping his own image,” the official said.

“It is improbable that this kind of footage would be anywhere but with bin Laden. He jealously guarded his image.”

The official said identity of bin Laden’s body had been confirmed in several different ways after the raid, including identification by a woman at the compound, facial recognition methods and matching against a DNA profile with a likelihood of error of only 1 in 11.8 quadrillion.

Al Qaeda acknowledged bin Laden’s death on Friday as well, and the official said it was “noteworthy that the group did not announce a new leader, suggesting it is still trying to deal with bin Laden’s demise.”

The official said Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s No. 2 leader, was the presumed successor to bin Laden but “there is a strong indication that he is not popular within certain circles of the group.”

“To some members of al Qaeda he’s extremely controlling, is a micromanager and is not especially charismatic,” the intelligence official said.

“So I believe it’s an open question as to who will succeed Osama bin Laden. It is of course anathema to al Qaeda to hold free and fair elections but if free and fair elections were held, Zawahiri most likely would have a fight on his hands.”

An initial review of information taken from the compound showed bin Laden continued to be interested in attacking the United States and “appeared to show continuing interest in transportation and infrastructure targets,” the official said.

A multi-agency task force led by the Central Intelligence Agency was working 24 hours a day culling the intelligence cache obtained in the raid, searching for clues that might unravel threats to the United States, he said.

“It includes digital, audio and video files of varying sizes, printed materials, computer equipment, recording devices and hand-written documents,” he said. It also includes personal correspondence between bin Laden and others, he said.

“The materials reviewed over the past several days clearly show that bin Laden remained an active leader in al Qaeda, providing strategic, operational and tactical instructions to the group,” the official said.

“He was far from a figurehead. he was an active player.”

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