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Pakistan’s military paints a different picture than the United States of Osama bin Laden’s final days: far from the terror mastermind still trying to strike America, he’s seen as an aging terrorist hiding in barren rooms, short of money and struggling to maintain his grip on al-Qaida.
But the CIA is saying he was in touch with key members of al-Qaida, playing a strong role in planning and directing attacks by al-Qaida and its affiliates in Yemen and Somalia, senior U.S. officials said Friday, citing documents found during the Monday morning raid in which bin Laden was killed.
Three of bin Laden’s wives were living with him in the compound and are being interrogated by Pakistani authorities, who took them into custody after Monday’s raid, along with 13 children, eight of them bin Laden’s.
Their accounts could help shed light on the U.S. military operation that killed the al-Qaida leader and reveal how he was able to avoid capture for nearly 10 years.
One of the wives, identified as Yemeni-born Amal Ahmed Abdullfattah, told interrogators she had been staying in bin Laden’s hideout since 2006 and never left the upper floors of the large but sparsely furnished building, said a Pakistani intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with the agency’s policy.
The official did not indicate whether bin Laden was with her the whole time, a period in which the Pakistani military says the al-Qaida chief’s influence and financial status eroded.
Disputes over money between bin Laden and his No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri, led the group to split into two factions five or six years ago, with the larger faction controlled by al-Zawahri, according to two senior Pakistani military officials. Bin Laden was “cash strapped” in his final days, they said.
The officers spoke to a small group of Pakistani reporters late Thursday, and their comments were confirmed for The Associated Press by another top military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issues. The officer didn’t provide details or say how his agency knew about bin Laden’s financial situation or the split with his deputy.
The image coming out of Washington based on information seized from bin Laden’s compound was far different.
It shows that bin Laden was a lot more involved in directing al-Qaida personnel and operations than sometimes thought over the last decade, officials said. And it suggests bin Laden was “giving strategic direction” to al-Qaida affiliates in Somalia and Yemen, one defense official said.
U.S. counterterrorism officials have long debated how big a role bin Laden and core al-Qaida leaders were playing in the attacks launched by affiliated terror groups, particularly al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based in Yemen, and al-Shabab in Somalia.
Bin Laden’s first priority, an official said, was his own security. But the data shows that he was far more active in providing guidance and telling affiliated groups in Yemen and Somalia what they should or should not be doing.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive material.
The confiscated materials revealed al-Qaida plans for derailing an American train on the upcoming 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. counterterrorism officials say.
They believe the plot, which seemed to be formulated in February 2010, was only in the initial planning stages, and there was no recent intelligence about any active plan for such an attack. The FBI and Homeland Security issued an intelligence bulletin with details of the plan to law enforcement around the country. The bulletin, marked “for official use only,” was obtained by the AP.
Already tense military and intelligence relations between the U.S. and Pakistan have been further strained by the raid that killed bin Laden.
Both countries have an interest in their version of bin Laden’s hidden life.
A weak bin Laden would make Pakistan’s failure to unearth his hiding place in Abbottabad, a military town just two-and-a-half hours’ drive from the capital, seem less of a glaring embarrassment, while a menacing bin Laden would make the U.S. Navy SEAL raid that killed him a greater triumph.
The proximity of the al-Qaida chief’s hideout to an elite military academy and the Pakistani capital has raised suspicions in Washington that bin Laden may have been protected by Pakistani security forces while on the run.
Pakistani officials have denied sheltering him and have criticized the U.S. operation as a violation of their country’s sovereignty. Pakistan’s army, a key U.S. ally in the Afghan war, threatened on Thursday to review cooperation with Washington if it stages any more attacks like the one that killed bin Laden. The army is considered the strongest institution in Pakistan, but its reputation has taken a beating in the wake of the raid.
Risking more tensions, a U.S. drone strike on Friday killed 15 people, including foreign militants, in North Waziristan, an al-Qaida and Taliban sanctuary close to Afghanistan, said Pakistani intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Such attacks were routine last year, but their frequency has dropped this year amid opposition by the Pakistani security establishment and people on the street.
Hundreds of members of radical Islamic parties protested in several Pakistani cities Friday against the U.S. raid that killed bin Laden.
“America is celebrating Osama bin Laden’s killing, but it will be a temporary celebration,” said Abdullah Sittar Chishti, a member of the Jamiat Ulema Islam party who attended a rally in Khuchlak, a town in southwestern Baluchistan province.
“After the martyrdom of Osama, billions, trillions of Osamas will be born,” Chishti said.
Some of the protesters expressed doubt that bin Laden was actually killed since the U.S. has refused to release pictures of his body.
Al-Qaida confirmed bin Laden’s death in an Internet statement Friday and warned that it would seek revenge by attacking the United States. And the Afghan Taliban issued a statement saying the al-Qaida leader’s death would boost morale among insurgents battling the U.S. and NATO in Afghanistan.
Bin Laden and his associates did not offer significant resistance when the American commandos entered the compound, in part because “stun bombs” thrown by the U.S. forces had disoriented them, two Pakistani officials said late Thursday, citing accounts by bin Laden’s wives and children.
Pakistani authorities found an AK-47 and a pistol in the house, with evidence that one bullet had been fired from the rifle, said one of the officials.
“That was the level of resistance” they put up, he said.
His account is roughly consistent with the most recent one given by U.S. officials, who now say only one of the five people killed in the raid was armed and fired any shots, a striking departure from the intense and prolonged firefight described earlier by the White House and others in the administration.
U.S. officials say three men and a woman were killed alongside bin Laden, including one of his sons.
Bin Laden’s wife, Abdullfattah, was shot in the leg and did not witness her husband being killed, a Pakistani military official said. One of the al-Qaida leader’s daughters did see the Americans kill her father, he said.
CIA officers have not been given access to the women or children in custody, the official said.
Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor, Kimberly Dozier and Eileen Sullivan reported from Washington. Rasool Dawar reported from Peshawar, Pakistan.
Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press