Bin Laden Directed Al Qaeda Figures, Source Suggests
WASHINGTON -- The wealth of information pulled from Osama bin Laden's compound has reinforced the belief that he played a strong role in planning and directing attacks by al-Qaida and its affiliates in Yemen and Somalia, senior U.S. officials said Friday.
And the data further demonstrates to the U.S. that top al-Qaida commanders and other key insurgents are scattered throughout Pakistan, not just in the rugged border areas, and are being supported and given sanctuary by Pakistanis, a senior defense official said.
U.S. counterterrorism officials have debated how big a role bin Laden and core al-Qaida leaders were playing in the attacks launched by affiliated terror groups, particularly al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based in Yemen, and al-Shabab in Somalia.
Information gathered in the compound, officials said, strengthened beliefs that bin Laden was a lot more involved in directing al-Qaida personnel and operations than sometimes thought over the last decade. And it suggests bin Laden was "giving strategic direction" to al-Qaida affiliates in Somalia and Yemen, the defense official said.
Bin Laden's first priority, the official said, was his own security. But the data shows that he was far more active in providing guidance and telling affiliated groups in Yemen and Somalia what they should or should not be doing.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive material.
Their comments underscore U.S. resolve to pursue terror leaders in Pakistan, particularly during this critical period in the Afghanistan war, as President Barack Obama moves to fulfill his promise to begin withdrawing troops this July.
Already the Afghan Taliban has warned that bin Laden's death will only boost morale of insurgents battling the U.S. and its NATO allies. Al-Qaida itself vowed revenge, confirming bin Laden's death for the first time but saying that Americans' "happiness will turn to sadness."
For its part, the U.S. has already launched at least one drone strike into Pakistan in the days since bin Laden was killed, and there is no suggestion those will be curtailed at all.
The strikes are largely carried out by CIA drones, and the expectation is that they will continue in the coming days as U.S. military and intelligence officials try to take quick advantage of the data they swept up in the raid before insurgents have a chance to change plans or locations.
The American public, meanwhile, will get a peek at bin Laden's life inside the secret compound in Abbottabad on Saturday, according to U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because the data has not yet been released.
New, unreleased bin Laden propaganda tapes as well as footage of him moving about the compound are expected to be made public, officials said. Still cloaked in secrecy, however, are photographs of the dead terror leader, who was shot once in the head and once in the chest by the Navy SEAL team that swept into the compound in the dark, early morning hours Monday local time.
Officials say they have already learned a lot from bin Laden's cache of computers and data, but they would not confirm reports that it yielded clues to the whereabouts of al-Qaida deputy Ayman al-Zawahri.
Al-Zawahri is a leading candidate to take bin Laden's place as the leader of the terror group.
Officials say the handwritten notes and computer material are being scoured for intelligence that could help track down new targets.