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A peek inside bin Laden’s world: isolation, vanity, power

US releases tapes seized in raid; was active in plots, focused on image

In this video, Osama bin Laden sat on the floor in a small room, wrapped in a blanket as he watched news clips about himself. In this video, Osama bin Laden sat on the floor in a small room, wrapped in a blanket as he watched news clips about himself. (US Department of Defense)
By Elisabeth Bumiller and Carlotta Gall
New York Times / May 8, 2011

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WASHINGTON — The most-wanted terrorist in the world lived his last five years imprisoned behind the barbed wire and high walls of his home in Abbottabad, his days consumed by darkness and domesticity.

US officials believe that Osama bin Laden spent many hours on the computer, relying on couriers to bring him thumb drives packed with information from the outside world. He lived mostly in two indoor rooms except for daily pacing in his courtyard, near a lush inner garden framed by poplar trees.

His once-large entourage of Arab bodyguards was down to one trusted Pakistani courier and the courier’s brother, who also had the job of buying goats, sheep, and Coca-Cola for the household.

While bin Laden’s world had shrunk, he was still revered at home — by his three wives, by his children, and by the tight, interconnected circle of loyalists in the compound. He did not do chores or tend to the cows and water buffalo on the south side of the compound like the other men. The household, US officials figure, knew how important it was for him to devote his time to Al Qaeda, the terrorist organization he founded and was still actively running at the time of his death.

The Obama administration released five videos yesterday recovered from bin Laden’s hideout that show him threatening the United States, condemning capitalism, and, in the most candid scenes, watching news coverage of himself on television.

The videos were the first materials to be released from what a senior American intelligence official described as “the single largest collection of senior terrorist materials ever.’’ The trove, which includes hundreds of computer storage devices, hard drives, videos, documents, and personal papers, was seized by the United States assault team that killed bin Laden early Monday.

The administration released the videos in part to promote a stunning intelligence triumph and to try to further diminish bin Laden’s legacy and popular appeal.

Perhaps the most revealing video shows bin Laden sitting on the floor in a small room, wrapped in a blanket as he watches news clips about himself on television.

The other videos consist of outtakes from bin Laden’s recorded messages to his followers. The official said that in those videos, bin Laden’s beard had been dyed black to make him appear younger. The video of him watching television, however, shows him with a mostly white beard.

The senior intelligence official said that bin Laden’s concern about his appearance suggested that he was intensely interested in the image he presented to his supporters, and that he was deeply immersed in the propaganda efforts of Al Qaeda. That view contrasts sharply with earlier theories that he had become a marginal character who served as a figurehead for the group.

The official described the bin Laden compound as a command-and-control center for Al Qaeda, where attacks were plotted and where bin Laden remained deeply involved in the operations of Qaeda lieutenants.

US officials say there is much they do not know about the last years of bin Laden, who was shot dead by Navy SEAL commandos in his third-floor bedroom, and the peculiar life of the compound.

But what has emerged so far, in interviews with US and Pakistani military and intelligence officials and bin Laden’s neighbors in the middle-class hamlet where he had been hiding, is a portrait of an isolated man, perhaps a little bored, presiding over family life while plotting mayhem — still desperate to be heard, intent on outsize influence, musing in his handwritten notebooks about killing more Americans.

“My father would not look forward to staying indoors month after month, because he is a man who loves everything about nature,’’ Omar bin Laden, a son of bin Laden, said in an e-mail message in 2009. “But if I were to say what he would need to survive, I would say food and water. He would go inward and occupy himself with his mind.’’

Abbottabad, a scenic hill cantonment for the British Raj and later home to the elite military academy that is Pakistan’s West Point, became the bin Laden family base in late 2005. Their large compound, in a new neighborhood on the outskirts of town, is now the most photographed house in the country, with stories spilling forth from astonished neighbors.

Bin Laden, who was the tall man CIA officers watched pacing the courtyard from a surveillance post nearby, never went out. The neighbors knew the family as Arshad Khan and Tariq Khan, the local aliases of the trusted courier — he also went by the name Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti — and his brother.

The Khans seemed pleasant enough, but they kept to themselves behind their 12-foot concrete walls and barbed wire, the neighbors said.

They never invited anyone in or went to others’ homes, although they did go to prayers in the mosque and funerals in the neighborhood.

“They never told us why they came here,’’ said Naheed Abassi, 21, a driver and farm laborer who said he worked on construction of the house. The courier and his brother, both in their 30s and killed in the raid, were sons of a man bin Laden, 54, had known for decades. A bin Laden son, Khalid, who lived in the compound and was also killed, was married to a sister of either the courier or his brother, Pakistani officials said.

On the night he was killed, bin Laden was in his bedroom with his youngest wife, Amal Ahmed Abdulfattah, whose Yemeni passport shows her to be 29 years old, 25 years bin Laden’s junior. This wife was apparently the one shot by commandos in the leg as she rushed them in an effort to protect her husband. US officials say there were also children in the bedroom.

Although US intelligence analysts are just beginning to pore over a huge trove of computer files, storage devices, and cellphones that the commandos recovered from the compound, US officials already assume that bin Laden recorded some half-dozen audio messages per year from inside the house over the last five years.

The messages were meant for dissemination to the outside world, but to avoid detection, bin Laden had no Internet, e-mail, or phone lines that he could use to send them.

Instead, the audio files were evidently stored on a CD or tiny thumb drive and passed from courier to courier until they reached As Sahab, Al Qaeda’s media arm.

Congressional officials who received intelligence briefings last week said that they were struck by how bin Laden’s low-profile, low-tech lifestyle protected him for years, but in the end might have hastened his death.

Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat who serves on the Armed Services Committee, said he was surprised that bin Laden was not prepared for the kind of attack the commandos carried out.

“There was no escape route, no tunnels, not even false rooms in the house in which to hide,’’ he said. “It makes you wonder: At what point did that extra degree of vigilance he had get dulled by routine?’’