Washington — Keenly conscious of his image, a graying Osama bin Laden no doubt never expected this video — showing him hunched over, draped in a blanket and using a television clicker — to hit the world’s airwaves as it did Saturday.
Filmed by a confidant, the al Qaeda leader contrasts with the younger version of himself on a TV screen a few feet away. That man has a more youthful beard, a hand held up in resolve and a photo of the burning World Trade Center.
U.S. officials, who Saturday released five videos, emphasized the recordings and other materials seized at bin Laden’s Pakistan compound show the terrorist still had a firm hand at the tiller, managing strategic and tactical control of his organization, even as he stayed out of sight in Abbottabad.
The undated videos make clear bin Laden “remained active in al Qaeda terrorist propaganda operations, especially in shaping his own image,” said a senior intelligence official granted anonymity under the ground rules of a briefing at the Pentagon.
Four of the clips show bin Laden, who was killed along with four others Monday by U.S. commandos, in more formal attire. No audio of the terrorist leader speaking accompanied the images.
The intelligence official said the audio was removed because it would be “inappropriate to spread the words of terrorists and propaganda messages, especially Osama bin Laden.”
Besides the missing audio, the videos, according to the intelligence official, were not altered in any other way.
Still, the release of the home movies sends a message to those who doubted bin Laden was killed: Navy SEALs got footage that likely could have been held only by bin Laden at his hideout.
It may also have accomplished something else: diminishing the bin Laden mythology of invincibility.
CNN national security contributor Frances Townsend said U.S. officials “picked these videos pretty deliberately.”
Portions are unflattering of bin Laden and reflect his vanity, Townsend said.
Some of the videos indicate problems with production value. Bin Laden misses a cue in one and another shows him with a wrinkled backdrop.
The candid recording of an aging bin Laden, stroking his beard, reviewing news footage and calling up a DVD menu, portrays him as an ordinary man, not a terror mastermind. Bin Laden wears a dark wool cap, slightly rocking in his seat in the spartan surroundings.
Images on the TV screen include U.S. President Barack Obama, bin Laden handling an AK-47 rifle, troops and other scenes.
The videos lifted a corner of the tent on materials seized by U.S. commandos, including reams of documents, disks, thumb drives, computers and more. Analysts have pored over them for evidence of further plots or operations.
“The materials reviewed over the past several days clearly show that bin Laden remained an active leader in al Qaeda, providing strategic, operational and tactical instructions to the group,” the intelligence official said. “Though separated from many al Qaeda members who are located in more remote areas of the region, he was far from a figurehead. He was an active player making the recent operation even more essential for our nation’s security.”
But U.S. officials would not describe any of that material in detail Saturday.
They did say that the intelligence reveals bin Laden and al Qaeda had a driving interest in taking on the United States and that the leader was involved in the details of plotting attacks.
One of the videos is a message to the United States officials believe was recorded in October or November and is entitled “A Message to the American People.” In that video, which had not been broadcast by al Qaeda, bin Laden’s beard has been dyed black and he was well-composed as he delivered his message.
The three other videos are practice sessions for videos he was planning to release to the world. In one, bin Laden stands in front of an armoire. Preliminary analysis suggests that the armoire matches one at the compound, the senior intelligence official told reporters.
The videos were shown amid the Obama administration’s decision not to release photos of the slain bin Laden and bury the al Qaeda leader at sea.
The senior intelligence official briefing reporters said Monday’s raid by U.S. forces yielded a significant amount of intelligence, and that a special federal task force — including members of the CIA and FBI — is combing through the material.
The official also said the DNA evidence unquestionably shows that the person shot and killed in the Pakistan compound was bin Laden.
The intelligence officials said they are trying to determine what bin Laden’s death means to the future of al Qaeda and are trying to getclues to the locations of the other top al Qaeda leaders.
The No. 2 man in al Qaeda is Ayman al-Zawahiri; another top militant is Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S. born militant who is a leader in the group’s Yemen branch.
This week, al-Awlaki eluded a drone attack in southern Yemen as security personnel continue their hunt for him, Yemeni and American officials said.