WASHINGTON -- Newly released video and information about the cache recovered from Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan reveal a bit of vanity in the terrorist leader: He dyed his gray beard for videos and watched iconic footage of himself on television.
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In a briefing by a senior intelligence officer at the Pentagon Saturday, the al Qaeda leader was described as far more than the "figurehead" of the organization. U.S. officials had dismissed bin Laden's relevance over the years after he slipped away from capture at Tora Bora a few months after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Far from a strategic or symbolic leader of a global terrorist network, the videos reveal bin Laden was an active player in plotting new attacks that focused on transportation and infrastructure targets.
“This compound in Abbottabad was an active command and control center for al Qaeda," said a Pentagon official, who spoke on condition he not be identified by name. Bin Laden "was not just a strategic thinker. He was active in operational planning" for attacks, he said.
When pressed for evidence of plots masterminded by bin Laden, though, the official gave no examples. He also would not say whether the videos have so far provided any actionable intelligence that would allow the United States to target other al Qaeda leaders.
It is unclear whether this week’s drone attack in Yemen, the first there since 2002, that missed Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was the result of information taken from bin Laden’s compound.
The official said the vast array of computers, hard drives, printed material, hand-written material, videos and other evidence could take months to sift through.
In a written statement handed to reporters as they left the briefing, CIA Director Leon Panetta lauded the agency’s "perseverance, skill and sheer courage" in bringing bin Laden to justice. "The material found in the compound only further confirms how important it was to go after bin Laden. Since 9/11, this is what the American people have expected of us. In this critical operation, we delivered," Panetta wrote.
For now, Panetta indicated, the top priority is to discover any new threats that may be planned.
In response to accusations that have emerged after bin Laden's death, the official noted that so far, there is "no indication the Pakistani government knew [bin Laden] was at this compound."
When pressed to be more specific -- whether "government" included Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI -- he repeated that no one in the Pakistani "government" has been fingered by the evidence analyzed so far.
But the official did note that in confirming bin Laden’s death, al Qaeda said he was killed in Pakistan. The official considered that significant because, in the past, the group has tended to obscure where its members were apprehended or killed.
The hastily-called Saturday briefing featured five video snippets the official said were found at Bin Laden’s compound and that were highly unlikely to have been in the possession of anyone other than the al Qaeda leader.
One video was a "Message to America" from bin Laden similar to previous taped messages sent over the years to Al Jazeera and other Arab television networks. But the video shown to reporters had no audio. Officials said they had removed it because the U.S. government is "not in the business of spreading the word of al Qaeda."
The message clip was taped between Oct. 9 and Nov. 5, 2010, the official said. It showed bin Laden in a white turban, his beard dyed dark brown. In it, according to the official, he reprised his favorite themes, speaking out against the United States and "denigrating capitalism."
But it is another video that reveals more about the al Qaeda leader. In it, a tired looking bin Laden sits on a carpet on the floor of a bare-walled room. He is wearing a black knit cap and wrapped in a blanket or large overcoat. His beard is almost white.
He looks at a small television screen menu with the channel tuned to Al Jazeera. Then iconic clips of bin Laden on the battlefield and walking along a stony hillside with Ayman al Zawahiri -- another al Qaeda leader and bin Laden's possible successor. Other video clips that have served as the world’s only image of bin Laden for nearly a decade come on the screen. Slowly the camera pans over to bin Laden, who holds a remote control.
It is unclear when this video was made. Nor is it clear whether bin Laden was watching images of himself in real time on satellite TV or on a tape. His hideout had no Internet connection, though a satellite dish is visible in some photos of the compound.
“Clearly the al Qaeda leader was very interested in his own image,” the official said. “He jealously guarded his image.”
The other three clips shown to reporters Saturday were silent outtakes from videos bin Laden intended to be aired. Again, unlike the candid video taken in the bare-walled room, his beard is dyed dark. He fumbles his lines. The lighting is bad. In one, he sits before a crumpled white sheet.
The official also offered some new details as to how officials confirmed bin Laden's identity. He said DNA samples from bin Laden’s large extended family helped identify the corpse. The chance that it is someone else, the official said, is "one in 11.8 quadrillion."
Forensic analysts using facial recognition techniques comparing the eyes, ears and nose in known photos of bin Laden and the dead man put the certainty as a bit less, at 95 percent.
But the official said al Qaeda’s confirmation that their leader was killed ought to put any doubt to rest, even if President Barack Obama has nixed the idea of releasing photos of the dead bin Laden.
The official also noted that al Qaeda has not yet announced a successor to bin Laden.
Al-Zawahiri has been viewed as bin Laden’s presumptive heir, but some say he lacks the charisma bin Laden displayed.
"There are strong indiciations he is not popular in certain circles," the official said. "It’s an open question who will take over." He added that, "if free and fair elections were held, [al-Zawahiri would] have a fight on his hands" to win a majority.
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