The story of how our intelligence services and special forces tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden is one of extraordinary dedication and in the end, a risky riverboat gamble that almost blew up into tragedy. For despite all the hard work of the intelligence professionals who were pursuing the leads that eventually led to bin Laden’s hideout, when Navy SEALs burst through the door of the mansion they were “not certain” that the terrorist was even there.
What was certain was that the painstaking process that led to a “high degree of certainty” that Osama bin Laden was hiding in that compound in Abbottabad spanned 4 years, two administrations, and dozens of CIA analysts following up hundreds of leads. They eventually tracked one lone man across the entire expanse of Pakistan, zeroed in on his location, and developed the “actionable intelligence” to give policy makers the choice to attack or stand pat.
All of this with no thanks to the Pakistanis — who must now be viewed with even more suspicion about their cooperation with America’s enemies. Osama bin Laden was not hiding in a cave somewhere in the Northwest Frontier Province as many believed. Instead, he was ensconced in relative comfort in an upscale neighborhood in a city — Abbottabad — where an entire regiment of the Pakistani army was based and the country’s military academy was headquartered. The area in which the terrorist was hiding out had many retired Pakistani army officers.
The house was built in 2005 and was designed to house someone of great importance, intelligence analysts believe. One report from Gulf News says that the house was actually a former safehouse for the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI. Given the location of the structure, that is not beyond the realm of possibilities.
The US government did not trust the ISI, as Wikileaks documents show. One document says that “In Pakistan, Osama Bin Laden wasn’t an invisible man, and many knew his whereabouts in North Waziristan,” but whenever security forces approached, the ISI tipped bin Laden off.
Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan flatly told reporters that it was “inconceivable” that bin Laden did not have the support of at least some elements of the Pakistani government. This suspicion led the US to keep the attack a secret from President Zardari and his government until the SEALs were safely out of the country.
The story of how Osama bin Laden was killed begins in the secret prisons abroad and the Guantanamo Bay detention center where some detainees told interrogators of several couriers used by al-Qaeda to avoid electronic surveillance. One such courier piqued the interest of the CIA: a protege of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and a trusted assistant of al-Qaeda number 3 Abu Faraj al-Libbi (captured in 2005). Other detainees mentioned that bin Laden himself trusted this particular courier. However, all the CIA had on the target was his al-Qaeda nickname.
KSM, who had, by this time, been cooperating with his jailers, was confronted with the name of the courier and denied knowing him. The denial spurred the analysts to action and they began a worldwide search for the full name of the courier. Later that year, the CIA learned his full name, it is thought, through interrogations at one or more of the secret prisons the CIA maintained at the time.
It took two more years to focus on where the courier actually lived in Pakistan. No details have emerged as to how this part of the investigation was carried out, but it would imply both human assets and technical surveillance was involved.
Then, in 2009, intelligence began to zero in on where the courier and his brother operated. The fact that the courier was taking extraordinary precautions, strictly adhering to operational security, gave analysts hope that they were indeed on the right track.
The break came in August 2010, when the courier was spotted on an Islamabad street. It should be noted that there was nothing “lucky” about this break. The lead was the product of long hours of painstaking examination of the tiniest slivers of intelligence, agonizing over whether the nuggets of information were valuable, making intelligent judgments about where the information might fit into the overall picture they were developing, and finally being rewarded with a breakthrough.
Luck had nothing to do with it.
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