After reviewing computer files and documents seized at the compound where Osama bin Laden was killed, U.S. intelligence analysts have concluded that the chief of al-Qaeda played a direct role for years in plotting terror attacks from his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, U.S. officials said on Thursday.
The CIA had Osama's compound under surveillance for months before U.S. commandos killed him in an assault on Monday, watching and photographing residents and visitors from a rented house nearby, according to several officials briefed on the operation.
The documents taken at the Abbottabad compound, according to U.S. officials, show that Osama was in touch regularly with the terror network he created. With his whereabouts and activities a mystery in recent years, many intelligence analysts and terrorism experts had concluded that he had been relegated to an inspirational figure with little role in current and future al-Qaeda operations.
A rushed examination of the trove of materials from the compound in Pakistan prompted Obama administration officials on Thursday to issue a warning that al-Qaeda last year had considered attacks on U.S. railroads.
The documents include a handwritten notebook from February 2010 that discusses tampering with tracks to derail a train on a bridge, possibly on Christmas, New Year's Day, the day of the State of the Union address or the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks, officials said. But they said there was no evidence of a specific plot.
An Obama administration official said that documents about attacking railroads were among the first to be translated from Arabic and analysed.
The materials, along with others reviewed in the intelligence cache, have given intelligence officials a much richer picture of the al-Qaeda founder's leadership of the network as he tried to elude a global dragnet.
“He wasn't just a figurehead,” said one U.S. official, speaking only on condition of anonymity, who had been briefed on the documents. “He continued to plot and plan, to come up with ideas about targets, and to communicate those ideas to other senior Qaeda leaders.”
The CIA surveillance team in the rented house near Osama's hideout took pains to avoid detection not only by the suspected al-Qaeda operatives they were watching but by Pakistani intelligence and the local police.
Observing from behind mirrored glass, CIA officers used cameras with telephoto lenses and infrared imaging equipment to study the compound, and they used sensitive eavesdropping equipment to try to pick up voices from inside the house and to intercept cellphone calls. A satellite used radar to search for possible escape tunnels.
Still, the spying operation had its limits: U.S. officials would see a tall man occasionally take walks through the compound's courtyard they called him “the pacer” but they were never able to confirm the man was Osama.
The aggressive effort across the intelligence community to translate and analyse the documents seized from the hideout has as its top priority discovering any clues about terror attacks that might be in the works. Intelligence analysts also were scrubbing the files for any information that might lead to identifying the location of al-Qaeda's surviving leadership.
Since Sunday night, counterterrorism officials have been alert to the possibility of new attacks from al-Qaeda to avenge its leader's death.
Department of Homeland Security officials have reviewed potential terrorist targets and deployed extra security at airports. And in response to the new evidence seized at the Osama compound, the Transportation Security Administration issued a bulletin to rail companies. But officials emphasised that the information was both dated and vague.
“It looks very, very aspirational, and we have no evidence that it developed beyond the initial discussion,” said Matt Chandler, a Homeland Security spokesman. “We want to stress that this alleged al-Qaeda plotting is based on initial reporting, which is often misleading or inaccurate and subject to change.”
That Osama was found not in Pakistan's rugged tribal areas but in an affluent town less than an hour from the capital, Islamabad, has prompted a rethinking of the widespread notion that he had little control over the rest of al-Qaeda.
“Until now, the prevailing wisdom was that he was hiding in a remote, isolated mountain range and cut off from his followers,” said Bruce Hoffman, an expert on al-Qaeda at Georgetown University. “Now we know that was all wrong and reconsider what his role really was.”
U.S. officials and terrorism experts have warned this is not the end of al-Qaeda. — New York Times News Service