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U.S. releases videos seized in bin Laden raid

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The Obama administration on Saturday released five videos of Osama bin Laden that were seized at the compound where he was killed, part of a vast collection of data that U.S. intelligence officials said shows that bin Laden remained highly active in directing the terrorist group.

The trove of data from Pakistan reveals that “this compound in Abbottabad was an active command and control center for al-Qaeda’s top leader,” a senior U.S. intelligence official said in a briefing at the Pentagon. “Though separated from many al-Qaeda members, [bin Laden] was far from a figure­head.”

The videos provide glimpses of bin Laden in settings that are familiar and surreal. In one, a noticeably gray-bearded bin Laden huddles under a wool blanket and uses a remote control to flip through news footage of himself on a small television propped up on a broken desk.

Another was described by the senior U.S. intelligence official as a previously unreleased “message to the American people,” in which bin Laden stands before a blue backdrop, wearing a gold robe and delivering a speech in which he “repeats the usual themes by condemning U.S. policy and denigrating capitalism.”

The administration did not release any audio from the segments or a transcript of what bin Laden said. The official said the government was reluctant to broadcast the messages on the videos or give al-Qaeda a propaganda platform after its leader’s death.

The decision to release the footage — and the choice of which segments to share from a broader collection in the possession of the CIA — appeared designed to provide new evidence that bin Laden was killed in the U.S. operation, and perhaps to present him in settings that might embarrass his followers or at least minimize his mystique.

The videos are part of a broader library of recordings that “would only have been in his possession,” said the U.S. intelligence official, who described other segments as fumbling “outtakes” from a terrorist leader who was “very interested in his own image.”

The official spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the intelligence on bin Laden.

The official disclosed few details about the contents of the more than 100 computers, drives and assorted digital storage devices recovered at the compound, except to say that they focused on planning attacks against the United States and other Western nations.

The CIA has created a task force involving at least nine other agencies, including the FBI and the Defense Department, that are likely to spend months combing through a collection that includes printed material, computer equipment, recording devices and handwritten documents, the official said.

The haul represents “the single largest collection of senior terrorist materials ever,” the official said. Underscoring the speed taken in scrutinizing the materials, the CIA is said to be producing a new intelligence report nearly every hour based on the information.

Already this week, the Department of Homeland Security issued a bulletin based on intelligence gathered from the bin Laden materials suggesting that al-Qaeda was plotting an attack on railways in the United States, perhaps to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Bin Laden was killed in a pre-dawn raid Monday in Pakistan by a team of U.S. Navy SEALs. His corpse was carried away by the assault force and later buried in the Arabian Sea.

The U.S. official said that DNA comparisons with samples taken from known relatives prove with near-perfect certainty that the man killed at the Pakistani compound was the al-Qaeda leader. The chance of a false positive from the DNA testing is “approximately one in 11.8 quadrillion,” the intelligence official said.

Perhaps the most intriguing of the videos released shows bin Laden, apparently squatting on the floor in a cold room, watching television news clips of himself. He is wearing a black stocking cap instead of his standard white headgear, and gripping a remote. On the screen is a menu of channels including al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya.

The camera zooms in on his face — his beard gray instead of dyed black — then pans back to show the al-Qaeda leader watching scenes of himself in familiar news footage: brandishing an automatic rifle, navigating a rocky trail.

The intelligence official said it was unclear when the video was recorded and that bin Laden’s beard was similarly gray when he was killed.

The most polished video, said to have been aimed at the United States, appears to have been recorded last October or November, according to preliminary analysis done by the CIA.

Bin Laden’s location in the videos has not been determined, the official said, although in one he appears before a wood-paneled armoire that the CIA thinks is a piece of furniture from the compound where he was killed.

The remaining videos show what appear to be practice sessions in which bin Laden glances down and then back at the camera, reading remarks before a wrinkled sheet, as colleagues fumble with the lighting.

The administration has not provided a catalogue of the recovered materials, but officials have said that more than 100 disks and flash drives were seized. Those devices appear to have been the conduits for bin Laden’s communications with al-Qaeda followers, smuggled out of the compound by two couriers who were also killed during the raid by the Navy SEALs.

The official declined to say how frequently bin Laden relayed messages to followers in this manner, or whether the data indicate that he was in contact with other leading al-Qaeda figures including his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, or the U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi, now based in Yemen.

Aulaqi was the target of an apparently unsuccessful U.S. drone strike Thursday.

“The materials reviewed over the past several days clearly show that bin Laden remained an active leader,” continuing to provide direction even on “tactical details” of operations, the official said.

Bin Laden’s compound was in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, which serves as a base for military garrisons and is the home of the country’s top military academy. The location has fueled suspicion that Pakistan’s intelligence service was complicit in protecting bin Laden.

The senior U.S. intelligence official said that after a preliminary review of the seized material, “we have no indication that the Pakistani government was aware that bin Laden was at this compound in Abbottabad.”

But the official indicated that the CIA and other agencies are exploring the data and the names that have surfaced in the records for any Pakistani government links. “We’re asking some questions, and the Pakistanis . . . are asking questions of themselves,” the official said.

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