Osama bin Laden dead: How the US found him
Years of 'persistent hard work' led US intelligence to a complex about 50 miles northeast of Islamabad, Pakistan, where a 40-minute US special forces strike left Osama bin Laden dead.
The strike team that killed bin Laden was small, with limited weapons. But years of painstaking intelligence work provided that team with the precise location of Al Qaeda’s leader.
The result was a 40-minute operation that may rank as one of the greatest raids in US military history. Al Qaeda surely will live on. But the elimination of its inspiration and founder must still be a crushing blow to the Islamist organization, as the tenth anniversary of its September 11 attacks on America approaches.
“By any measure, the operation was a tremendous success,” says Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, director of the homeland security and counterterrorism program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
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As described by senior administration officials, the intelligence process that led in the end to a walled compound a half-mile from a Pakistani military academy was a slow and careful manhunt.
It began with a detainee. According to US officials, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, gave interrogators the pseudonym of a man he described as Osama bin Laden’s most trusted courier. This person was also a protégé of Mr. Mohammed and a trusted aide of Abu Faraj al-Libbi, a former Al Qaeda number three who was captured in 2005.
“They indicated he might be living with and protecting bin Laden,” said a senior administration official at a background briefing for reporters.
But they did not know this person’s real name. For years, US intelligence searched for him in vain.
Then, four years ago, they uncovered his identity. US officials won’t say how this was done. It took two more years of persistent effort to figure out in which areas of Pakistan the courier and his brother worked.
Still, US analysts could not figure out exactly where this courier lived. His tradecraft – measures taken to guard his own security – was too good.
But the care he took to cover his tracks led analysts to believe that he was doing something very sensitive for the Al Qaeda organization.
Last August, the US finally identified his home – and they were shocked when they did. It was a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, about 75 miles north of Islamabad. The house was large – about eight times larger than the average for the area. It was surrounded by 12- to 18-foot walls topped with barbed wire. Internal walls sectioned off different areas of the compound.
“The physical security measures of the compound are extraordinary,” said a senior administration official.