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The Pentagon released a handful of video clips on Saturday aimed at chipping away at the mystique surrounding Osama bin Laden. The tapes were confiscated from the bin Laden compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, earlier this week. The compound, about 35 miles from the capital, Islamabad, was the scene of a daring commando raid that ended with the death of the al-Qaida leader on Monday.
The videos show bin Laden threatening America, condemning the evils of capitalism and, in the longest clip, watching coverage of himself on television. The video clips were presented without audio, but they were clearly chosen to show bin Laden in a bad light.
A senior intelligence official briefing at the Pentagon said that bin Laden's concern about his appearance suggested that he was obsessed with the image he presented to his followers. The official also said the bin Laden compound was a command-and-control center for al-Qaida, where bin Laden plotted and planned attacks with al-Qaida lieutenants. For some time, many intelligence officials were under the impression that bin Laden was in such seclusion he had become nothing more than a figurehead for the group.
The videotapes are part of what officials characterized as the most significant trove of terrorism intelligence the U.S. has ever had. U.S. officials told NPR earlier in the week that the Navy SEALs left the compound with five computers, 10 hard drives, hundreds of thumb drives and stacks of paper files. The collection is at the FBI Lab in Quantico, Va., and analysts from the CIA, FBI, National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies are poring over the material for any indication that there are new terrorist attacks in the works and for fresh clues as to where al-Qaida's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, may be hiding.
Officials at the Pentagon briefing dodged questions about whether the U.S. was closing in on Zawahiri. Instead they stressed how unpopular he is among young jihadis in the organization because he is prickly, dogmatic and lacks the charisma that bin Laden possessed.
Most analysts expect Zawahiri will end up taking the reins of the organization and use bin Laden's dramatic death as a rallying point. That may be one of the reasons officials are trying to chip away at bin Laden's larger-than-life persona. Analysts said that calculation appears to be that one way to slow bin Laden's fast track to martyrdom is to show him as frail and human. The judiciously chosen video clips seem aimed at doing exactly that.
In one of them, which runs more than a minute, bin Laden is under a rough-hewn blanket wearing a woolen cap. His beard is unkempt and streaked in gray. He is sitting on the floor at the bottom of the video frame holding a television remote control. He is flipping back and forth between what appears to be live news coverage of himself. The TV is small and perched on top of a desk amid a tangle of electrical wires. It looks more dorm room chic than than a setup one would see in a mansion in an affluent suburb of Islamabad; bin Laden looks haggard.
The man who created the al-Qaida terrorist network that killed 3,000 people in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is dead.
In another of the clips, bin Laden appears with a very dark clipped beard. Officials said that video was part of a propaganda message bin Laden intended to send to the U.S. entitled "Message to the American People." Officials did not provide the audio for the video, but they said it was likely filmed in October or November of last year. They were quick to point out the vanity bin Laden must have had to dye his beard for the video. Officials had said earlier that hair dye was one of the things they found in the bin Laden compound. In those videos, he appears in religious clothing. Officials say it is unclear whether the videos were filmed at the house in Abbottabad.
What is clear is that for the Obama administration, the videos are part of a broader administration strategy to tar bin Laden and show him as a man of privilege who doesn't deserve his reputation as a humble warrior.
Soon after the president announced the successful operation, his top counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, was quick to tell reporters that bin Laden had been in a firefight and had used his wife as a human shield. The White House ended up having to walk back that story and say that bin Laden had been unarmed, but potentially dangerous in the third floor bedroom where he was found.
As for his 29-year-old wife, apparently she wasn't a human shield at all. She allegedly launched toward the SEALs to protect her husband and they shot her in the leg. She is in Pakistani custody now and the U.S. wants to question her. So far the Pakistani authorities have refused that request.
The Saturday briefing, in addition to taking some of the burnish off bin Laden's image, was also a way to extinguish any doubt that the man who was killed, swept out of the compound, and then quickly buried at sea early this week was the al-Qaida founder. Clearly, intelligence officials decided that having such insider videos made public would make it more difficult for conspiracy theorists to say bin Laden was still alive.
"The material found in the compound only further confirms how important it was to go after bin Laden," CIA Director Leon Panetta said in a written statement after the briefing. "Since [Sept. 11], this is what the American people have expected of us. In this critical operation, we delivered."