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 chief of al-Qaida 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 that 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.
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, 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 analyzed.
The materials, along with others reviewed in the intelligence 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 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 Qaida leaders.”
The crash program across the intelligence community to translate and analyze the documents 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-Qaida’s surviving leadership.
Since Sunday night, when President Barack 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.”