WASHINGTON — After reviewing computer files and documents seized at the compound where Osama bin Laden was killed, the New York Times reports, 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.
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, the Times reported, citing unnamed U.S. officials. The report added that the officials said there was no evidence of a specific plot.
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.
The newspaper quoted one U.S. official as saying bin Laden continued to plot and plan, to come up with ideas about targets, and to communicate those ideas to other senior al-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.
The fact that bin Laden was found not in Pakistan's rugged tribal areas but on the outskirts of an affluent town an hour's drive 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 that is 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 that the suspects may have been operatives with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
And, as the Central Intelligence Agency continues its drone bombing campaign in Pakistan, the trove of documents collected at the compound in Abbottabad is likely to produce intelligence for future strikes there.
1 man shot at SEALs
The Americans who raided bin Laden's lair met far less resistance than the Obama administration described in the aftermath. The commandos encountered gunshots from only one man, whom they quickly killed, before sweeping the house and shooting others, who were unarmed, according to the Associated Press, which cited a senior defense official.
In Thursday's revised telling, the Navy SEALs mounted a precision, floor-by-floor operation to find the al-Qaida leader and his protectors — but without the prolonged and intense firefight that officials had described for several days.
By any measure, the raid was fraught with risk, sensationally bold and a historic success, netting a man who had been on the run for nearly a decade after his terrorist organization pulled off the devastating attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Even so, in the administration's haste to satisfy the world's hunger for details and eager to make the most of the moment, officials told a tale tarnished by discrepancies and apparent exaggeration.
Whether that matters to most Americans, gratified if not joyful that bin Laden is dead, is an open question. Republican House Speaker John Boehner, for one, shrugged off the backtracking to focus on the big picture:
"I had a conversation with the president, and the president outlined to me the series of actions that occurred on Sunday evening. I have no doubt that Osama bin Laden is dead."
It's taken as inevitable in military circles that initial reports of combat operations are almost always imperfect.