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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.

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.