WASHINGTON – From a shabby, makeshift office, he ran a global terrorist empire. The world’s most wanted man watched newscasts of himself from a tiny television perched atop a rickety old desk cluttered with wires.
For years, the world only saw Osama bin Laden in the rare propaganda videos that trickled out, the ones portraying him as a charismatic religious figure unfazed by being the target of a worldwide manhunt.
On Saturday, the U.S. released a handful of videos, selected to show bin Laden in a much more candid, unflattering light. In the short clips, bin Laden appears hunched and tired, seated on the floor, watching television wrapped in a wool blanket and wearing a knit cap. Outtakes of his propaganda tapes show that they were heavily scripted affairs. He dyed and trimmed his beard for the cameras, then shot and re-shot his remarks until the timing and lighting were just right.
The videos were among the evidence seized by Navy SEALs after a pre-dawn raid Monday that killed the 54-year-old bin Laden in his walled Pakistani compound. The movies, along with computer disks, thumb drives and handwritten notes, reveal that bin Laden was still actively involved in planning and directing al-Qaida’s plots against the U.S., according to a senior U.S. intelligence official who briefed reporters Saturday and insisted his name not be used.
“The material found in the compound only further confirms how important it was to go after Bin Laden,” said CIA Director Leon Panetta in a statement Saturday. “Since 9/11, this is what the American people have expected of us. In this critical operation, we delivered.”
The notes and computer material showed that bin Laden’s compound was a command-and-control center for al-Qaida, where the terrorist mastermind stayed in contact with al-Qaida affiliates around the world through a network of couriers, the intelligence official said. Bin Laden was eager to strike American cities again and discussed ways to attack trains, officials said, though it appeared that plan never progressed beyond early discussions.
Officials said the clips shown to reporters were just part of the largest collection of senior terrorist materials ever collected. The evidence seized during the raid also includes phone numbers and documents that officials hope will help break the back of the organization behind the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The videos showing “outtakes” – the miscues by bin Laden that were destined for the cutting-room floor – were offered as further proof of bin Laden’s death. President Barack Obama decided this week not to release photos of bin Laden’s body, which were deemed too gruesome to reveal. The U.S. has said it confirmed bin Laden’s death using DNA.
But by selecting unflattering clips of bin Laden, the U.S. is also working to shatter the image he worked so hard to craft.
“It showed that bin Laden was not the superhero he wanted his people to think,” said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.
One video clearly shows the terror leader choosing and changing channels with a remote control, which he points at what appears to be a satellite cable box. U.S. officials have previously said there was a satellite dish for television reception but no Internet or phone lines ran to the house. Cellphones were prohibited on the compound.
It’s unclear how many tapes were pulled out of the house, and U.S. officials say they’re scouring the intelligence so quickly it has not even been cataloged and counted yet. But there may be a trove of recordings. According to the book “Growing Up bin Laden,” by his first wife and fourth son, the terrorist leader nearly always kept a tape recorder nearby to take down his thoughts, plans and musings about politics and the world.
Among the material handed out was an al-Qaida propaganda video, apparently intended for public release, titled “Message to the American People,” likely filmed sometime last fall, the official said. Bin Laden has not released a video since 2007, and officials were not sure why this one had not been released.
The official said the short taped message denigrated capitalism and included anti-American messages similar to his previous tapes, but he refused to say if it included a direct threat against the United States. The government released the video without sound because it did not want to disseminate a terrorist message.
Al-Qaida has confirmed the death of its founder, but did not announce a successor. Intelligence officials have taken that as an indication that the attack dealt a heavy blow to the organization. The most likely successor, al-Qaida deputy Ayman al-Zawahri, is not as charismatic as bin Laden and is not as popular in the group. Officials have said he is unlikely to galvanize followers as bin Laden had.
A task force headed by the CIA is working through the material, combing it round the clock to find clues to plots that might already be under way. The U.S. launched airstrikes in Pakistan and Yemen this week, but the U.S. official would not confirm whether the bin Laden intelligence has already led to attacks.
Arabic speakers from around the intelligence community have been tapped to help review the material. The team includes code-breakers at the National Security Agency, satellite specialists from the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, and the FBI.