Videos Show How Bin Laden Lived
Originally published on Mon May 9, 2011 4:51 am
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
U.S. intelligence analysts are just beginning to analyze the trove of computer files taken from Osama bin Laden's compound. The government did release five videos over the weekend that showed bin Laden doing routine things at his home. One of them shows him wrapped in a blanket watching news coverage of himself. For more on the material that was confiscated from the compound, we contacted Steve Coll. He's author of "The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century."
Mr. STEVE COLL (Author, "The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century"): Good morning.
MONTAGNE: You know, you see in one of these videos that bin Laden's beard is almost white, it looks like. But he's obviously dyed it black in videos that he created for his public messages. What does this and other parts of these videos say about him?
Mr. COLL: Well, he's always been very conscious of his role as a media figure. Dating way back to the 1980s and 1990s, in many ways he's been an innovator with television and media. And you'll remember that video he put out on the eve of the 2004 American presidential election, he also had dyed his beard. And the other thing that was striking in this batch was his rehearsing, and sort of watching himself and rerunning his lines. That's another part of his history. He's often retaped himself because he was dissatisfied with one performance or another.
MONTAGNE: Well, it also - separate from what he's trying to do on videos - it also shows him leading what appears to be a very restrictive existence. And yet U.S. officials say that he remained quite actively involved in the work of al-Qaida, which turned out to be something of a surprise that he was so involved.
What do we know at this point about that?
Mr. COLL: Well, apparently this cache of material suggested that he used the same channels that he was using to send his messages out to also be in touch with colleagues about actual terrorist operations. And that had always been a question: If he could get these four or five or six video and audio messages out each year, couldn't he also use those channels to talk about specific violent operations abroad. And at least the initial reports from the American government is that he was doing a fair amount of that.
MONTAGNE: You know, do the videos, though, and the other material that - the way the compound was set up and the lack of guards and whatnot, does it suggest a diminished bin Laden?
Mr. COLL: Well, diminished - I thought - I took a look at the last statement he made which was basically about some French hostages in North Africa, and whether or not they should be killed, because the French government hadn't withdrawn from Afghanistan. And it seemed like a diminishing kind of role, in the sense that he was trying to communicate with colleagues far away about a relatively sort of sad and trivial matter from inside his compound.
And he had stopped, by and large, narrating the big war. Occasionally he would come on and tell his followers why it all mattered. But by and large, he was, as you say, imprisoned. And also, when he did communicate, it was not about grand strategy.
MONTAGNE: Well, just very briefly, the information uncovered at the compound would seem to help the U.S. in tracking down other top al-Qaida leaders. I mean is that your sense of what it is that they've got a hold of there?
Mr. COLL: Yeah, I was struck by that national security adviser, Tom Donilon, describing it as being the size of a small college library. I'm sure there's a lot of trivia there. But I'm also surprised that there was so much information. And surely there will be breadcrumbs leading down other trails in Pakistan and elsewhere.
MONTAGNE: So just, would you - if you were an al-Qaida leader right now would you be getting rid of your cell phone, your e-mail addresses and anything else?
Mr. COLL: The smart ones have already done that but I'd also maybe look around and say whether there was some other place to move over the next month or two.
MONTAGNE: Thanks very much for talking with us.
Mr. COLL: My pleasure, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Steve Coll is a staff writer for "The New Yorker" magazine and the author of a book about the bin Laden family.
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