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Bin Laden Was Worried About Arab Spring, Says US Intelligence Chief

A roadside vendor in Pakistan sells newspapers with headlines about the death of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, Lahore, May 3, 2011.
A roadside vendor in Pakistan sells newspapers with headlines about the death of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, Lahore, May 3, 2011.

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  • Listen to entire Clapper interview with VOA's Gary Thomas

It was nearly one year ago - May 2, 2011 - that U.S. commandos killed the world’s most wanted terrorist. After a decade of false leads and dead ends, Osama bin Laden was cornered in a walled compound in the city of Abbottabad, Pakistan, not far from that country’s elite military academy, and shot dead. His body was buried at sea.

Map showing Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden's compound was located.
Map showing Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden's compound was located.
A treasure trove of intelligence in the form of documents and computer drives was found in the compound, giving intelligence officers invaluable insights into bin Laden and al-Qaida.

In a rare interview, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told VOA that at the time of his death Osama bin Laden was concerned that his al-Qaida movement was being sidelined by the forces of what came to be known as the “Arab Spring.”

"They [Arab Spring protests] weren’t fomented or inspired," Clapper said. "They weren’t a global jihadist sort of thing. They had other aspirations, other motivations. And so I think there was some concern to the extent that he was aware of all this - again, given his isolation - that would cause him and his movement to be marginalized."

Listen to entire Clapper interview with VOA's Gary Thomas

Clapper said officers were somewhat surprised at bin Laden's isolation.

"He used to commission or swear in new members, he proselytized personally, he engaged," Clapper said. "And of course all that came to an end. And so while his value, his importance, I believe, was his iconic identification and the ideology he represented. And so he was still issuing at least philosophical guidance, some of it operational, some of it aspirational, and frankly, in my mind, some of it delusional."

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
Clapper said bin Laden had not given up trying to hatch new plots to follow up on the devastating attacks of September 11, 2001 in New York and Washington. But analysts say al-Qaida Core, as intelligence officers call the Pakistan-based original group, slipped in importance even before bin Laden's death.

Professor Audrey Kurth Cronin, a terrorism expert at George Mason University, said al-Qaida attacks have killed more Muslims than non-Muslims, which is a major blunder for a group seeking support in the Islamic world.

"The operation to kill bin Laden had a significant impact on al-Qaida," Cronin said. "But if we look at the movement strategically, al-Qaida had begun to decline some years before that. So it’s not taking away from that operation to point out that the broader sense of support, the degree to which al-Qaida was successfully mobilizing the people it was trying to reach in Muslim majority countries, had already turned pretty sharply some years before then."

What of al-Qaida one year after the death of its leader? Intelligence chief Clapper said al-Qaida Core today no longer poses the same threat as it once did because bin Laden’s lieutenants have also been targeted. But, he added, the West should not let down its guard.

"Al-Qaida Core is, of course, profoundly weakened, but it’s not gone," he said. "And that, I think, underscores the necessity of sustaining the pressure on al-Qaida Core. It is a mere shadow of its former self simply because the leadership, the senior leadership - the ranks below Osama bin Laden - have been severely decimated."

Clapper pointed to how the group has now morphed into so-called “franchises” in Yemen and Africa. But he said most of them do not appear to pose much of a direct threat to the West.

"It has created franchises," Clapper said. "But for the most part, with one exception, they are essentially locally focused and not so much consumed with attacking the [U.S.] homeland. The one exception to that continues to be Al-Qaida on the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, which of all the franchises I view as the most dangerous and most threatening to both Europe and the United States."

Clapper added that there is also concern in intelligence circles that pro-democracy Arab Spring movements in places like Syria, for example, may be hijacked by extremists.

The Director of National Intelligence ascribes the lack of any successful jihadist terrorist plot in the United States since 9-11 to the much improved cooperation among the agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community. But, he added, he never turns down a bit of luck - and there may be some of that involved, too.

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by: Mike
April 29, 2012 8:12 AM
There have always been people who hear little voices telling them to prey on or mislead others. Today we call them bi-polar or something related. Some people have used religious schemes to convince others to follow them and make them politically powerful. OBL was such a person but there are many others. Poor ignorant people are a good recruiting ground for religious manipulation by the clever. OBL is gone but the ignorant are still with us.

by: Terrence
April 27, 2012 10:13 PM
Osama Bin Laden was responsible for thousands of innocent people being killed. In America, in countries around the world where they blew up Embassys and all the innocent civilians killed in Iraq. If 911 did not happen the US would not be in Afganistan or Iraq. IT was all his fault.

by: Tony Quirke
April 27, 2012 2:49 PM
Whether or not you believe in an invisible friend (God or Allah), let your own conscience guide your behaviour. If it feels wrong, it probably is, whatever the snake oil salesman is telling you.

by: Bin Wazir
April 27, 2012 8:09 AM
Robert you ignorance and hatred is astounding. I think a little more education and spelling lessons would help you understand what 1 billion other people (predominantly smarter than yourself) have about Islam and help you spread peace rather than your hate mongering. At any rate with your current views seems like you are no better than BinLaden only difference he unfortunately had balls to do, while all u do is spew hate.

by: Salam
April 27, 2012 6:11 AM
if Osama Biniladin was poor minded person and doing things for Pakistan

by: James
April 27, 2012 5:24 AM
@Paul: No, we need leaders that put the people first, and do not place religious belief in government. Free thought and speech are Enlightenment values, not religious ones.

by: Okoro Leo C
April 26, 2012 9:39 PM
The USA is God's gift to the world. She is contributing immensely in the scientific and technological development of the world, promotion of democratic ideals, promotion of world peace and progress, human development and preservation of human rights, and more especially her relentless war on terror. God bless the USA!

by: Okoro Leo C
April 26, 2012 9:39 PM
The USA is God's gift to the world. She is contributing immensely in the scientific and technological development of the world, promotion of democratic ideals, promotion of world peace and progress, human development and preservation of human rights, and more especially her relentless war on terror. God bless the USA!

by: Robert Makoi
April 26, 2012 8:26 PM
osama bin laden was like unto so-called profet mohammed, the only difference was that O Bin Laden did not proclaim revelations from allah, the only one and only false god.

by: Akira
April 26, 2012 6:32 PM
Paul, it is leaders that put 'GOD then Family' before country and before upholding the rights and dignity of other people that inspired a very small amount of so called 'Miss led Middle Easterners' to threaten/kill others. You say that Christians are being bullied, yet you fail to note that the vast majority of those killed by these groups are not Christian, suggesting that you did not even finish reading the article you responded to with such a holier-than-thou attitude.
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