Official: Bin Laden lost influence, 'cranky, old uncle'
Osama bin Laden was out of touch with the younger generation of al-Qaida commanders, and they often didn't follow his advice while he was in hiding in northern Pakistan, U.S. and Pakistani officials now say.
ABBOTTABAD, Pakistan — Osama bin Laden was out of touch with the younger generation of al-Qaida commanders, and they often didn't follow his advice while he was in hiding in northern Pakistan, U.S. and Pakistani officials now say.
Contradicting assertions of some U.S. officials that bin Laden was running a "command and control" center from the walled compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, officials say he clearly wasn't in control of al-Qaida, although he was trying to remain involved or at least influential.
"He was like the cranky, old uncle that people weren't listening to," said a U.S. official who had been briefed on the evidence collected from the Abbottabad compound and who spoke only on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "The younger guys had never worked directly with him. They did not take everything he said as right."
Nearly two months after bin Laden was killed by Navy SEALs who raided his hideout in the early-morning hours of May 2, a more detailed picture is emerging of how the world's most wanted fugitive lived out his final years in this town in the Himalayan foothills, where neighbors still deny having an inkling he was there.
One new detail is that the bin Laden household was buying and selling gold jewelry, perhaps as a way to raise money.
Another is that for a household that included at least nine women and twice that many children, consumption of electricity and gas was far less than that of neighboring households, a sign either of bin Laden's legendary frugality or an indication he simply had run out of money.
The SEALs scooped up computer hard drives and thumb drives that held a huge amount of data. Most of that data has been sifted through, allowing officials to reach better conclusions about how bin Laden had been passing the time and with whom he'd been in contact.
The data provided no "smoking gun" that Pakistani intelligence or other Pakistani officials knew of bin Laden's presence in the house, the U.S. official said.
The computer records also lend credence to long-held beliefs that bin Laden's longtime deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was named al-Qaida's leader this month, had been much more involved and important to the group's operations than bin Laden had been in the past several years.
"He wanted to stay involved," the U.S. official said of bin Laden. "He was corresponding with a lot of senior [al-Qaida] people, correcting perceptions, giving advice. He remained important as a symbol, sending out instructions, giving spiritual guidance."
How bin Laden survived undetected in the compound for perhaps as many as five years has been a source of speculation since President Obama announced that the terrorist leader had been killed.
The emerging picture of bin Laden's final years suggests one way he may have escaped detection was by leaving as small a footprint as possible.
Far from the million-dollar mansion U.S. officials initially said bin Laden lived in, the 12,400-square-foot house cost the equivalent of $100,800 to build, according to the contractor.
The land on which it sits, slightly more than two-thirds of an acre, was assembled for about $48,000, according to records reviewed by McClatchy.
The house, completed in 2005, had 10 rooms. It was designed as a multifamily residence, with four gas connections and four hookups for electricity.
That arrangement was in keeping with the way bin Laden had lived in Saudi Arabia and Sudan, where his wives lived in separate apartments with their children within a larger family property.
By any measure, the compound was densely populated. In addition to bin Laden's three wives, residents included bin Laden's adult son Khalid, who probably was married; Arshad and Tariq Khan — the men believed to be the courier and his brother — and their wives; plus, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials, around 18 children. That means 25 to 28 people.
Yet, utility bills from the property were less than those of even a modest household in the area.
The bin Ladens' four gas bills for March totaled no more than $18. By comparison, the family of a local journalist, a household of five, spent about $54 for gas that month.
Electric bills for April were similarly modest. The four bills, all in the name of "Muhammad Arshad," totaled about $83.
Pakistani officials said bills that low never would have triggered suspicion that a large number of unseen residents were living in the compound.
One unanswered question is why the bin Laden household was buying and selling jewelry while living in Abbottabad. Receipts from jewelry stores were among items found in the house.
Investigators are considering the possibility that trading in gold was one way the compound financed its stay in Abbottabad.
Pakistani officials found three jewelry receipts at the house, all from 2008. Two were from a store in Abbottabad and the other from a shop in Rawalpindi, a three-hour drive south.
Muhammad Nawaz Qureshi, owner of New Friends Jewelers in Rawalpindi, confirmed that he last receipt was his, and produced a copy of it.
He said he couldn't remember the transaction, in which, according to the receipt, Muhammad Khan, a presumed alias, bought six gold bangles and two gold rings for babies for a total of 135,000 rupees, about $1,588, and paid for them by trading a necklace valued at 120,000 rupees and paying 15,000 in cash to make up the difference.
The items would be worth about 300,000 rupees ($3,500) today, Qureshi said.
"Most customers don't keep the receipts," he said. "If they keep them, it usually means that they mean to sell the jewelry later on, as receipts are required to be shown for that."
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