U.S. intelligence analysts have concluded that Osama bin Laden played a direct role for years in plotting terror attacks from his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
WASHINGTON — After reviewing computer files and documents seized at the compound where Osama bin Laden was killed, U.S. intelligence analysts have concluded that the al-Qaida chief played a direct role for years in plotting terror attacks from his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, U.S. officials said Thursday.
With bin Laden’s whereabouts and activities a mystery in recent years, many intelligence analysts and terror experts had concluded he had been relegated to an inspirational figure with little role in current and future al-Qaida operations.
A rushed examination of the trove of materials from the compound in Pakistan prompted Obama administration officials Thursday to issue a warning that al-Qaida last year had considered attacks on U.S. railroads.
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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 Sept. 11 attacks, officials said. But they said there was no evidence of a specific plot.
An Obama administration official said documents about attacking railroads were among the first to be translated from Arabic and analyzed.
The materials, along with others reviewed in the cache, have given intelligence officials a much richer picture of the al-Qaida 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 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 Qaida leaders.”
The crash program across the intelligence community to translate and analyze the documents has as its top priority discovering clues about terror attacks that might be in the works. Intelligence analysts also were scrubbing the files for information that might lead to identifying the location of al-Qaida’s surviving leadership.
Since Sunday night, when President Obama announced the killing of bin Laden in a daring raid, counterterrorism officials have been alert to the possibility of new attacks from al-Qaida to avenge its leader’s death and prove its continuing relevance.
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 bin Laden compound, the Transportation Security Administration issued a bulletin to rail companies.
But officials emphasized 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 spokesman for Homeland Security. “We want to stress that this alleged al-Qaida plotting is based on initial reporting, which is often misleading or inaccurate and subject to change.”
As the bin Laden trail grew cold and the terror chief stopped broadcasting videos to the world in recent years, bin Laden’s status as the world’s most influential terrorist seemed to diminish. Still, in the decade since he fled Afghanistan in late 2001, he managed to release four to six audio messages each year, often making reference to current events, showing that his hideout was not entirely cut off from the outside world.
The only exception was 2005 — the year he is believed to have moved to the compound in Abbottabad — when his silence led to months of speculation that he might be dead.
“If he could get six audio messages out in a year, he could certainly get instructions to his followers,” said Ben Venzke, who runs IntelCenter, a Virginia company that tracks terrorist groups’ Internet communications. “I think the notion that he was completely irrelevant was exaggerated. His role was always as senior leader, giving strategic direction.”
The fact that bin Laden was found not in Pakistan’s rugged tribal areas but on the outskirts of an affluent town 60 miles from the capital, Islamabad, has prompted a rethinking of the widespread notion that he had little control over the rest of al-Qaida.
“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-Qaida at Georgetown University. “Now we know that was all wrong and reconsider what his role really was.”
Even with his death, U.S. officials and terror experts have warned since Sunday night that it’s not the end of al-Qaida. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in Rome for talks about the war in Libya, told international donors Thursday that the United States would continue aggressive operations against militants.
In fact, missiles fired from a Pentagon drone killed several militant suspects driving in a car in Yemen on Thursday. It was unclear who was killed in the strike, although U.S. officials said the suspects may have been operatives with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
And, as the CIA continues its drone bombing campaign in Pakistan, the documents collected at the compound are likely to produce intelligence for future strikes there.
New York Times reporters Thom Shanker, Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt contributed to this report.