WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Osama bin Laden was actively engaged in directing his far-flung network in plots against the United States from the compound in Pakistan where he was killed, a senior U.S. intelligence official said as new video images of the al Qaeda leader were released on Saturday.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said information carted away from the compound by U.S. forces after Monday’s raid, represented the largest trove of intelligence ever obtained from a single terrorism suspect.
“This compound in Abbottabad was an active command and control centre 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.”
President Barack Obama’s administration released five video clips of bin Laden taken from the compound, most of them showing the al Qaeda leader, his beard dyed black, evidently rehearsing the videotaped speeches he sometimes distributed to his followers.
None of the videos was released with sound. The intelligence official said it had been removed because the United States did not want to transmit bin Laden’s propaganda. But he said they contained the usual criticism of the United States as well as capitalism.
While several video segments showed him rehearsing, one showed an ageing and gray-bearded bin Laden in an austere setting, wrapped in a blanket and wearing a ski cap while watching videotapes of himself.
The official said the personal nature of the videos was further evidence that the man killed in the raid was bin Laden, who carefully managed his public image.
The revelations came as senior Pakistani officials said bin Laden may have lived in Pakistan for more than seven years before he was shot dead by U.S. Navy SEALS, a disclosure that could further strain relations between the two countries.
One of bin Laden’s widows told Pakistani investigators that he stayed in a village for nearly two and a half years before moving to the nearby garrison town of Abbottabad, close to the capital of Islamabad, where he was killed.
The wife, Amal Ahmed Abdulfattah, said bin Laden and his family had spent five years in Abbottabad, where one of the most elaborate manhunts in history ended on Monday.
“Amal (bin Laden’s wife) told investigators that they lived in a village in Haripur district for nearly two and a half years before moving to Abbottabad at the end of 2005,” one of the security officials told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
Abdulfattah, along with two other wives and several children, were among 15 or 16 people detained by Pakistani authorities at the compound after the raid.
The senior U.S. intelligence official said bin Laden’s identity had been confirmed after his death in several ways — by a woman at the compound, by facial recognition methods and by matching against a DNA profile with a likelihood of error of only 1 in 11.8 quadrillion.
An initial review of the 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.
“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, making the recent operation even more essential for our nation’s security.”
Pakistan, heavily dependent on billions of dollars in U.S. aid, is under intense pressure to explain how bin Laden could have spent so many years undetected just a few hours drive from its intelligence headquarters in the capital.
Suspicions have deepened that Pakistan’s pervasive Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency, which has a long history of contacts with militant groups, may have had ties with bin Laden — or that at least some of its agents did. The agency has been described as a state within a state.
Pakistan has dismissed such suggestions and says it has paid the highest price in human life and money supporting the U.S. war on militancy launched after bin Laden’s followers staged the September 11, 2001, attacks on America.
Security officials said Pakistan had launched an investigation into bin Laden’s presence in the South Asian country seen as critical to stabilizing neighbouring Afghanistan.
“It is very serious that bin Laden lived in cities (in Pakistan) ... and we couldn’t nail it down fully,” said one of the Pakistani officials.
The U.S. intelligence official said Washington assumed Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s No. 2 leader, was likely to assume control of the organisation following bin Laden’s death, but that was uncertain because he was disliked in some quarters.
“To some members of al Qaeda he’s extremely controlling, is a micromanager and is not especially charismatic,” the official said.
Additional reporting by Kamran Haider in Chak Shah Mohammad, Pakistan; editing by Christopher Wilson