As the White House grapples with whether to release grizzly photographic evidence of the al-Qaida leader’s demise, we’re learning more information about the Obama administration’s plan to get bin Laden, and how the mission went down.
1. Bin Laden had plans to flee if he was ever found out, and assumed he’d be tipped off (hello, Pakistan!)
Politico reports that the terror leader had 500 Euros and two phone numbers sewn into his clothing when U.S. Navy Seals caught him in his Abbottobad lair.
CIA Director Leon Panetta told lawmakers about the items found in bin Laden’s clothing in response to a question about why he wasn’t guarded by more security personnel at his relatively luxurious home in a military town north of Islamabad. The answer, according to one source: Bin Laden believed “his network was strong enough he’d get a heads-up” before any U.S. strike against him.
2. The U.S. may have believed in the “heads up” theory, too…
From TIME Magazine:
In his first interview since commanding the mission to kill Osama bin Laden, CIA chief Leon Panetta tells TIME that U.S. officials feared that Pakistan could have undermined the operation by leaking word to its targets. Long before Panetta ordered Vice Admiral William McRaven, head of the Joint Special Forces Command, to undertake the mission at 1:22 p.m. on Friday, the CIA had been gaming out how to structure the raid. Months prior, the U.S. had considered expanding the assault to include coordination with other countries, notably Pakistan. But the CIA ruled out participating with its nominal South Asian ally early on because “it was decided that any effort to work with the Pakistanis could jeopardize the mission. They might alert the targets,” Panetta says.
3. Bin Laden was not armed when he was killed, and the woman who was killed by SEAL Team 6 was not his wife.
From the New York Times:
Members of a Navy Seals team burst in on Bin Laden in the compound where he was hiding and shot him in a room on an upper floor, after a fierce gun battle with other operatives of Al Qaeda on the first floor.
Bin Laden’s wife, who was with him in the room, “rushed the U.S. assaulter and was shot in the leg but not killed,” said the White House spokesman, Jay Carney, reading from the brief account, which was provided by the Defense Department. “Bin Laden was then shot and killed. He was not armed.”
Mr. Carney said that Bin Laden’s lack of a weapon did not mean he was ready to surrender, and he and other officials reiterated that this was a violent scene, that there was heavy fire from others in the house, and that the commandos did not know whether the occupants were wearing suicide belts or other explosives.
4. Bin Laden may not have used a woman as a human shield, but he was surrounded by women, and children, at his Abbottobad hideout.
From Al Arabiya news:
Besides recovering four bullet-riddled bodies from the compound, Pakistani security agencies also arrested two women and six children, aged between 2 and 12 years, after American forces flew toward Afghanistan. Some reports suggest 16 people, including women and children, were arrested from the house, most of them Arab nationals.
A Pakistani security source told Al Arabiya that Bin Laden family members had been transported to Rawalpindi, which is near Islamabad. He added, “They are now under treatment in the military hospital of Rawalpindi, where they have been transported in an helicopter.” A source told Al Arabiya that Bin Laden’s had been injured either in her leg or her shoulder.
He added that the members of the household were children and Bin Laden’s wife, in addition to a Yemeni woman. He added that the woman might be the personal doctor of the family. Bin Laden was known to be afflicted with renal failure.
Sources speculated that US Forces could not arrest these family members because there weren’t enough places for them in the helicopter, after they lost another chopper during the operation.
Learn more about bin Laden’s fifth and “favorite” wife, Amal Ahmed Abdul Fatah, who was apparently given to the terror leader as a “gift” when she was a teenager, from ABC News.
5. The mission directive was to kill bin Laden, but contingencies were made for the remote possibility that he’d try to surrender.
Again, from the Times story:
Leon E. Panetta, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said in an interview with NBC News on Tuesday that the troops’ orders were to kill Bin Laden. “But it was also, as part of their rules of engagement, if he suddenly put up his hands and offered to be captured, then they would have the opportunity, obviously, to capture him,” he said.
The Times also reports that the president put a premium on protecting the commandos, not wanting to give the al-Qaida leader the chance to kill a member of the U.S. armed forces.
And not for nothing, but there is no information indicating the SEALs ever were directed to capture bin Laden family members. From the TIME story:
[CIA Director Leon] Panetta only learned that the President had been convinced by his arguments on Friday, when Obama said he was authorizing the helicopter mission and made his order official in a signed letter. After he received the order, Panetta told McRaven of the President’s decision and instructed him to launch. He told him the mission was “to go in there [and] get bin Laden, and if bin Laden isn’t there, get the hell out!”
6. Right to the end, the U.S. didn’t have absolute certainty that bin Laden was in that compound.
More from TIME:
… Panetta concluded that the evidence was strong enough to risk the raid, despite the fact that his aides were only 60%-80% confident that bin Laden was there, and decided to make his case to the President. At the key Thursday meeting in which President Obama heard the arguments from his top aides on whether or not to go into Pakistan to kill or capture bin Laden, Panetta admitted that the evidence of bin Laden’s presence at the compound was circumstantial. But “when you put it all together,” Panetta says he told the room, “we have the best evidence since [the 2001 battle of] Tora Bora [where bin Laden was last seen], and that then makes it clear that we have an obligation to act.”
Obama decided that Panetta’s arguments trumped two other options: striking the compound remotely or waiting until more evidence was available to prove bin Laden was there. “If I thought delaying this could in fact produce better intelligence, that would be one thing,” Panetta says he argued, “but because of the nature of the security at the compound, we’re probably at a point where we’ve got the best intelligence we can get.” (See photos of bin Laden’s Pakistan hideout.)
For weeks, Panetta had been pushing the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to try to get photographic confirmation of the presence of the bin Laden family. “NGA was terrific at doing analysis on imagery of that compound,” he says, but “I kept struggling to say, ‘Can’t you at least try to get one of the people that looks like [bin Laden]?’ ” NGA produced photographs of the two couriers and their families that McRaven’s Navy Seal team used to identify players in the compound as they made their way toward bin Laden.
7. Sorry, Bushies. Torture did not bring down bin Laden
From the AP:
Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, detainees in the CIA’s secret prison network told interrogators about an important courier with the nom de guerre Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti who was close to bin Laden. After the CIA captured al-Qaida’s No. 3 leader, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, he confirmed knowing al-Kuwaiti but denied he had anything to do with al-Qaida.
Then in 2004, top al-Qaida operative Hassan Ghul was captured in Iraq. Ghul told the CIA that al-Kuwaiti was a courier, someone crucial to the terrorist organization. In particular, Ghul said, the courier was close to Faraj al-Libi, who replaced Mohammed as al-Qaida’s operational commander. It was a key break in the hunt for in bin Laden’s personal courier.
“Hassan Ghul was the linchpin,” a U.S. official said.
Finally, in May 2005, al-Libi was captured. Under CIA interrogation, al-Libi admitted that when he was promoted to succeed Mohammed, he received the word through a courier. But he made up a name for the courier and denied knowing al-Kuwaiti, a denial that was so adamant and unbelievable that the CIA took it as confirmation that he and Mohammed were protecting the courier. It only reinforced the idea that al-Kuwaiti was very important to al-Qaida.
If they could find the man known as al-Kuwaiti, they’d find bin Laden.
In other words, two of the high profile detainees who were waterboarded by the CIA — al Libi and KSM, denied knowing the courier. The man said to be the lynchpin of the investigation, Hassan Ghul, who was captured in 2004, was not waterboarded, and was said to have been “quite cooperative.” More on those points, via another piece in today’s New York Times:
Glenn L. Carle, a retired C.I.A. officer who oversaw the interrogation of a high-level detainee in 2002, said in a phone interview Tuesday, that coercive techniques “didn’t provide useful, meaningful, trustworthy information.” He said that while some of his colleagues defended the measures, “everyone was deeply concerned and most felt it was un-American and did not work.”
Obama administration officials, intent on celebrating Monday’s successful raid, have tried to avoid reigniting a partisan battle over torture.
“The bottom line is this: If we had some kind of smoking-gun intelligence from waterboarding in 2003, we would have taken out Osama bin Laden in 2003,” said Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council. “It took years of collection and analysis from many different sources to develop the case that enabled us to identify this compound, and reach a judgment that Bin Laden was likely to be living there.”
And one more, from Wired’s Spencer Ackerman:
Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was captured in Pakistan in 2003, with al-Libbi following suit in 2005. A U.S. official tells the Associated Press reports that Mohammed gave up the courier’s nom de guerre, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, while in one of the CIA’s brutal “black site” prisons. As Marcy Wheeler notes, that’s not the same thing as saying the 183 waterboarding sessions Mohammed received led interrogators to the nom de guerre. But let’s be charitable to them and presume it did. According to the Washington Post, al-Libbi confirmed the alias as well.
From what we know so far, that’s about all waterboarding yielded for the hunt for al-Kuwaiti.
The senior administration official told reporters on Sunday that “for years, we were unable to identify his true name or his location.” It took until “four years ago” — 2007, then — for intelligence officials to learn al-Kuwaiti’s real name. By then, President Bush had ceased waterboarding and shuttered the black sites, moving the detainees within them, including Mohammed and al-Libbi, to Guantanamo Bay. In a Monday interview, Donald Rumsfeld said “normal” interrogation techniques were used at Gitmo on those detainees.
8. What did crack the bin Laden case was good old fashioned phone surveillance.
More from that AP story:
It took years of work before the CIA identified the courier’s real name: Sheikh Abu Ahmed, a Pakistani man born in Kuwait. When they did identify him, he was nowhere to be found. The CIA’s sources didn’t know where he was hiding. Bin Laden was famously insistent that no phones or computers be used near him, so the eavesdroppers at the National Security Agency kept coming up cold.
Ahmed was identified by detainees as a mid-level operative who helped al-Qaida members and their families find safe havens. But his whereabouts were such a mystery to U.S. intelligence that, according to Guantanamo Bay documents, one detainee said Ahmed was wounded while fleeing U.S. forces during the invasion of Afghanistan and later died in the arms of the detainee.
But in the middle of last year, Ahmed had a telephone conversation with someone being monitored by U.S. intelligence, according to an American official, who like others interviewed for this story spoke only on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive operation. Ahmed was located somewhere away from bin Laden’s hideout when he had the discussion, but it was enough to help intelligence officials locate and watch Ahmed.
In August 2010, Ahmed unknowingly led authorities to a compound in the northeast Pakistani town of Abbottabad, where al-Libi had once lived. The walls surrounding the property were as high as 18 feet and topped with barbed wire. Intelligence officials had known about the house for years, but they always suspected that bin Laden would be surrounded by heavily armed security guards. Nobody patrolled the compound in Abbottabad.
9. The U.S. has now brought all but one of the original 9/11 conspirators down, either capturing or killing them.
When President Barack Obama visits the site of the Sept. 11 terror attacks tomorrow, he’ll be able to say that with the death of Osama bin Laden the U.S. has caught or killed almost everyone allegedly responsible for the carnage.
Now U.S. authorities will aim to capture the last major figure involved in the attacks who remains free, Ayman al- Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s No. 2 leader. Information on computers and other items taken from the compound where bin Laden was hiding, combined with questioning of current detainees, may help lead them to Zawahiri and new al-Qaeda leaders.
… The U.S. is holding seven alleged conspirators in the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon at the military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Two others were killed in Afghanistan in 2001, according to GlobalSecurity.org, a research group in Alexandria, Virginia. In addition to Zawahiri, two other alleged conspirators identified by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, also known as the 9/11 Commission, remain at large.
10. Bin Laden’s death will not end the threat of terrorism, but it could help hasten the end of the war in Afghanistan.
From the Washington Post:
The Obama administration is seeking to use the killing of Osama bin Laden to accelerate a negotiated settlement with the Taliban and hasten the end of the Afghanistan war, according to U.S. officials involved in war policy.
Administration officials think it could now be easier for the reclusive leader of the largest Taliban faction, Mohammad Omar, to break his group’s alliance with al-Qaeda, a key U.S. requirement for any peace deal. They also think that bin Laden’s death could make peace talks a more palatable outcome for Americans and insulate President Obama from criticism that his administration would be negotiating with terrorists.
“Bin Laden’s death is the beginning of the endgame in Afghanistan,” said a senior administration official who, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal policy deliberations. “It changes everything.”
Another senior official involved in Afghanistan policy said the killing “presents an opportunity for reconciliation that didn’t exist before.” Those officials and others have engaged in urgent discussions and strategy sessions over the past two days about how to leverage the death into a spark that ignites peace talks.
And that, if it were to happen, would be good news to Americans.