Washington: US officials have released extraordinary videos of Osama bin Laden seized in the daring raid that killed the Al-Qaeda chief, saying the material shows he was a hands-on leader who took pains to shape his public image.
The tracking of bin Laden and the 1 May raid, in which more than 20 US Navy SEALs swooped on his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and shot him dead, was an intelligence coup on a historic scale, a senior US intelligence official said.
The al-Qaeda leader “was far from a figurehead, he was an active player,” the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters at the Pentagon on Saturday.
The seized material includes digital, audio and video files, printed items, computer equipment, recording devices and handwritten documents.
“As a result of the raid, we have acquired the single largest collection of senior terrorist materials ever,” the official said.
“This is the greatest intelligence success perhaps of a generation,” the official said.
Five videos were made public, including an extraordinary one in which the al-Qaeda chief is seen holding a remote and sitting huddled under a blanket, watching images of himself on television in a spare-looking room.
In that video, bin Laden has a gray beard, but in other videos that were apparently meant for distribution as propaganda his beard appears to have been dyed black.
Audio was removed from the videos to avoid any possible terror messages, US officials said.
One video is styled as a “message to the American people” and is believed to have been recorded in October or November. Bin Laden is groomed and is speaking from a prepared text.
Three others recordings appear to be propaganda message rehearsals. The official said these show missed “cues” and problems with lighting.
“This clearly was an al-Qaeda leader who was very interested in his own image,” the official said. He “jealously guarded his image.”
It remains an “open question” now who will succeed bin Laden as head of the terror network, the official said.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian surgeon long considered al Qaeda’s number two, “is obviously the presumed successor.”
However, when al Qaeda acknowledged its chief’s death, the statement “did not announce a new leader, suggesting it is still trying to deal with bin Laden’s demise,” the official said.
There are “strong indications he is not popular within certain circles of the group. So I believe it’s an open question as to who will take over from Osama bin Laden.”
Like his Saudi-born co-conspirator, Zawahiri has been in hiding ever since the September 11, 2001, terror strikes on the United States.
Reportedly last seen in October 2001 in eastern Afghanistan, close to the Pakistan border, Zawahiri has released multiple videos from hiding, calling for war on the West.
The material seized from the compound “only further confirms how important it was to go after bin Laden,” CIA director Leon Panetta said in a statement.
The effort that traced bin Laden to Abbottabad also showed the CIA’s “perseverance, skill and sheer courage,” Panetta said.
In Pakistan, bin Laden’s Yemeni wife said the Al-Qaeda kingpin had lived for five years in the Abbottabad compound, Pakistani security officials said.
The revelation, if corroborated, would pile further embarrassment on the country, which is already reeling from accusations of incompetence and complicity in allowing bin Laden to hide out a mere 30 miles (50 kilometres) from the capital Islamabad.
The terror chief’s wife, who was shot in the leg during the raid by US Navy SEALs, is undergoing medical treatment and interrogation in Pakistan along with 15 other relatives, the officials said.
“She said in Arabic that bin Laden and his family were living in this compound for the last five years and he never left the compound,” said one of the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“But this is only her statement and we have not yet corroborated it,” the official added. A second security official confirmed the information.
Mounting questions have been raised about how bin Laden managed to hide out for so long in Pakistan, in a garrison town which is home to a top military academy and many retired generals.
The leader of Pakistan’s opposition in parliament demanded that President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani resign following the incident.
“The operation tramples on our honour and dignity, and the president and prime minister must either give an explanation or resign,” Chaudhry Nisar Ali told reporters.
“The government is keeping silent, and there appears to be nobody to respond to propaganda against Pakistan,” he added, saying that Pakistanis were feeling “insecure” after the covert US mission.
The director general of Pakistan’s military-run intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI, was expected to meet in Washington with Panetta in the coming days.
He was certain to face questions about what his agency knew about bin Laden’s presence.
Al Qaeda has vowed to avenge the death of the architect of the 11 September attacks, declaring him a “martyr” and calling on Muslims to rise up against the United States.
Extremists described attacks on government targets in the Afghan city of Kandahar which killed two and wounded 29 on Saturday as “revenge” for bin Laden’s killing, a statement from President Hamid Karzai’s office said.
“Al-Qaeda and its terrorist members who have suffered a major defeat with the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistani territory have tried to hide this defeat by killing civilians in Kandahar and take their revenge on the innocent people of Afghanistan,” the statement said.
US President Barack Obama had earlier swept aside the threats, decorating on Friday the team that killed bin Laden and pledging that the United States would crush Al-Qaeda.
The White House has been eager to avoid triumphalism over the killing of the world’s most wanted man, blamed for the deaths of 3,000 people in the September 11 attacks, in a bid to avoid whipping up Muslim anger.
Obama on Thursday laid a wreath at Ground Zero, the site where the World Trade Center once stood, in a sombre moment aimed at bringing closure to Americans still haunted by the attacks.