WASHINGTON — Holed up in a compound in Pakistan, Osama bin Laden was scheming how to hit the United States hard again, according to newly uncovered documents that show al-Qaida plans for derailing an American train on the upcoming 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
Details of the plan emerged Thursday as some of the first intelligence was gleaned from the trove of information found in bin Laden’s residence when Navy SEALs killed the al-Qaida leader and four of his associates. They took his body and scooped up computers, DVDs and documents from the compound where U.S. officials think he had been living for as long as six years.
The confiscated materials reveal the rail attack planning as of February 2010. One idea outlined in handwritten notes was to tamper with an unspecified U.S. rail track so that a train would fall off the track at a valley or a bridge. Counterterrorism officials said they believe the plot was only in the initial planning stages, and there is 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 Associated Press.
Other intelligence pulled from the compound represented a terrorist wish list but has revealed no specific plan so far. Some documents indicated a desire to strike the U.S. with large-scale attacks in major cities and on key dates such as anniversaries and holidays. But there never was any sign that those were anything more than ambitions, said a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the intelligence.
Even before the raid, intelligence officials for years had warned that al-Qaida was interested in attacking major U.S. cities on prominent dates on the American calendar.
Monday’s raid by helicopter-borne SEALs was fraught with risk, sensationally bold and a historic success, netting a man who had been on the run for nearly a decade after his terrorist organization pulled off the devastating Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. During the raid, the SEALs met far less resistance than the Obama administration initially described. The commandos encountered gunshots from only one man, whom they quickly killed, before sweeping the house and shooting others, who were unarmed, a senior defense official said in the latest account.
The New York Times and Washington Post reported Thursday on their websites that a CIA surveillance team had been watching bin Laden’s residence from a rented house near the compound for months. The agency declined to comment on the reports.
President Barack Obama visited New York’s ground zero on Thursday during a somber and understated event where he avoided mentioning bin Laden by name.
The U.S. account of what happened inside bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound is so far the only one most Americans have. Pakistan has custody of the people rounded up afterward, including more than two dozen children and women. Differing accounts purporting to be from witnesses have appeared in Pakistani and Arab media, and on the Internet.
Intelligence analysts have been reviewing and translating the material seized from the compound, looking for information about pending plots and other terror connections. In light of the intelligence indicating al-Qaida was considering an attack on a U.S. railway, the FBI and Homeland Security told local officials to be on the lookout for clips or spikes missing from train tracks, packages left on or near the tracks and other indications that a train could be vulnerable.
“While it is clear that there was some level of planning for this type of operation in February 2010, we have no recent information to indicate an active ongoing plot to target transportation and no information on possible locations or specific targets,” Thursday’s warning to law enforcement said.
Homeland Security spokesman Matt Chandler said, “This alleged al-Qaida plotting is based on initial reporting, which is often misleading or inaccurate and subject to change.” He said the government has no plans to issue an official terror alert because of it.
On Monday, the FBI and Homeland Security warned law enforcement officials around the country that bin Laden’s death could inspire retaliatory attacks in the U.S., and terrorists not yet known to the intelligence community could be operating inside the country.
The transportation sector — including U.S. railways — continue to be attractive targets for terrorists. In the past few years, U.S. officials have disrupted other terror plots that targeted rails, including a 2009 plan to bomb the New York City subway system.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she’s urged the homeland security secretary to increase the country’s threat level while the material seized from bin Laden’s compound is reviewed.
“I continue to question the secretary’s decision not to increase the threat level,” said Collins, the top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Counterterrorism officials have been meeting regularly since bin Laden was killed to evaluate the threat to the U.S.