WASHINGTON (Reuters) - No evidence of specific or imminent threats has emerged yet from material confiscated from Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani hideout, Western counter-terrorism officials said, raising questions about how directly he was in control of al Qaeda.
Aides to President Barack Obama have said that evidence seized in the U.S. commando raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, suggests that despite years of isolation, bin Laden maintained an “operational” relationship with al Qaeda elements in the field.
But officials familiar with the latest analyses of the bin Laden trove, believed to include large volumes of electronic data, say that while bin Laden apparently was involved in brainstorming possible attacks, scant evidence has surfaced that he was involved in any plot under way.
“I haven’t heard anything about imminent threats,” said Peter Bergen, a counter-terrorism expert at the New American Foundation who once interviewed bin Laden.
If there were information about a pending threat, Bergen said, U.S. authorities would probably have issued a more alarming warning about possible attacks, like one issued by the State Department last year.
One U.S. intelligence official confirmed to Reuters that “no credible” information about current plots or “imminent” threats had so far emerged from analyses of the cache after the killing of bin Laden. The official, like others, requested anonymity to discuss intelligence assessments.
Another official familiar with analyses of the bin Laden material said authorities in New York have been advised there is “no indication of an attack planned against New York.”
In addition, three Western officials familiar with contacts between the United States and foreign governments said they were unaware of any intelligence from the bin Laden cache, regarding specific or imminent attack threats.
“DUTY TO WARN”
U.S. officials said the United States has a “duty to warn” foreign governments rapidly if American agencies developed intelligence about imminent threats of militant attacks.
A European counter-terrorism official said there had been “no change of the threat assessment” since bin Laden’s death.
The official questioned assertions by some U.S. officials that evidence from the cache demonstrated bin Laden was involved in al Qaeda operations at both strategic and tactical levels. “It’s impossible to run things at a tactical level through couriers,” the official said.
A U.S. official told Reuters the material collected from bin Laden’s hideout was “very large,” adding, “It will take a good bit of time to conduct an exhaustive review and provide proper context for information contained in those materials.”
And several officials cautioned that examinations of the data are still in a relatively early stage.
Since the May 2 U.S. raid that killed bin Laden, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI have issued at least two bulletins to law enforcement agencies around the country based on intelligence from the bin Laden trove.
One bulletin warned that as of February 2010, bin Laden and al Qaeda were discussing the possibility of derailing trains in the United States on Sept. 11 this year -- the tenth anniversary of al Qaeda’s attack on New York and Washington.
The second bulletin, issued late last week, warned that in 2010, al Qaeda was interested in targeting oil tankers and commercial oil infrastructure at sea, according to Matthew Chandler, a Homeland Security spokesman.
But Chandler added: “We have no information of any imminent terrorist threat to the maritime or energy sectors, but wanted to make our partners aware of the alleged interest; it is unclear if any further planning has been conducted since mid-last year.”
Other U.S. officials said that the most specific kind of intelligence to emerge so far from the material seized from bin Laden’s compound demonstrates his involvement in dreaming up “aspirational” targets and plans rather than any great ability to put those plans into practice.
Editing by Warren Strobel and Christopher Wilson