While the elimination of bin Laden finally settles an old score, the discovery that he had been living “in plain sight” for as long as five years in Pakistan raises troubling questions. It is hard to believe that bin Laden could be living so close to Pakistan’s military academy for so long, without the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence service, knowing about it, and informing top members of their government.
Therefore we must ask, “Are the Pakistanis really are our allies in the war against terror?” The US has long complained about the cozy relationship between the ISI and Afghan terrorist groups, including the Taliban. Now it appears that the Pakistanis had been harboring bin Laden as well.
The US now needs to know how much it can rely on Pakistan in order accurately assess its prospects for success in Afghanistan.
A LONG-AWAITED ANNOUNCEMENT
However, setting the troubling questions aside, the announcement that bin Laden had been killed was a legitimate cause for national celebration.
It came in a rare Sunday night address from the East Room of the White House. President Obama told the nation that he had ordered a small team of US Navy Seals to attack the compound in Pakistan’s Abbottabad Valley, where bin Laden had been hiding since at least last summer, and possibly for as long as five years. The US team killed bin Laden and took custody of his body in what Obama called “the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al-Qaeda.”
US forces flew to bin Laden’s hideout in helicopters about 1 a.m. Monday (late Sunday afternoon Washington time). After a brief but intense firefight, bin Laden was shot in the head. Three other men were also killed. Two of them were bin Laden’s couriers and a third was his adult son. One woman in the compound was killed when she was “used as a shield by a male combatant.” The US troops emerged unscathed from the battle, and according to Obama, special care was taken to avoid civilian casualties.
Bin Laden’s body was initially identified by facial recognition and the statement of one of his wives who was present in the compound after the fighting stopped. The identification was later confirmed scientifically with a DNA match.
His body was quickly transported away from Pakistan and “buried at sea,” in part because the US did not want him to have a gravesite that could become a shrine to his followers.
The killing of the terrorist mastermind who had eluded US forces for nearly a decade drew spontaneous, cheering from freedom-loving people around the world. There were spontaneous and impromptu celebrations held at the White House gates and at Ground Zero, the site of bin Laden’s 9-11-2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.
“We will be relentless in defense of our citizens and our friends and allies,” Obama said in his nine-minute statement. “We will be true to the values that make us who we are. And on nights like this one, we can say to families who have lost loved ones to al-Qaeda’s terror: Justice has been done.”
TRACKING THE COURIER
The key break in the nearly decade-long search for bin Laden came when his most trusted personal courier was identified. He, in turn, unwittingly, led US intelligence to the walled compound.
Bin Laden was able to evade the CIA team hunting him for so long because he never revealed the location of his hideout to al-Qaeda foot soldiers, or even his senior commanders. But bin Laden had to trust his couriers who represented his only link to the outside world. Years earlier he had stopped using all kinds of telephones and the Internet, for fear that they could betray his location.
In a secret CIA prison in Eastern Europe years ago, al-Qaeda’s No. 3 leader, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), gave US authorities the nicknames of several of the couriers.
One man became of particular interest for the CIA when it learned that he had been promoted to succeed KSM as al-Qaeda’s operational leader through the word of a courier who had to have come directly from bin Laden. If they could find that courier, they’d find bin Laden.
It took US intelligence agencies years of work to identify the courier’s real name, but even then, they had no idea where he could be found.
Then in the middle of last year, the courier had a telephone conversation with someone who was being monitored by US intelligence. Once they found the courier, they tracked him. In August 2010, the courier unknowingly led them to the compound in the town of Abbottabad.
THE END OF THE TRAIL
Intelligence officials had known about the house for years, but initially thought that it was not being guarded closely enough to serve as bin Laden’s hideout.
When they put it under surveillance, they saw that very few people ever came or went, and that it was not connected to telephones or the Internet. The occupants were so careful about security that they even burned their garbage. Eventually the CIA decided that bin Laden could be hiding there, but since nobody could get onto the compound without passing through two security gates, there was no way for them to be sure he was there.
“We’ve been staring at the compound for months trying to figure out for sure whether we had enough to go with,” one US official said. Operatives have “been working this target for years, years, years. They finally found the guy who led to the guy who led to the guy who led to the guy, and this is it.”
TOO SECRET TO SHARE
The possibility that bin Laden was really there was too strong for the CIA to ignore, and too secret to risk sharing with counter-terrorism allies such as Britain, Canada and Australia. In addition, the number of people within the US government who were aware of the lead and the later operation to kill bin Laden was strictly limited to those with a real need to know.
By mid-February, US officials were sure enough that a “high-value target” was hiding in the compound that they convinced President Obama to take action, even though, up to until the time he was seen during the raid, they were not sure that bin Laden was there.
Obama held five National Security meetings in the second half of March to discuss the available options. On Friday, morning shortly before flying to Alabama to visit tornado-ravaged communities, Obama gathered senior officials in the Diplomatic Room to tell them that he had decided to approve the operation.
The uncertainty about who was in the compound limited the options available to attack the target. Bombing the compound, which was in a residential neighborhood in a foreign country, presented too many risks. If the target was anybody other than bin Laden, bombing the compound could cause major problems with Pakistan. Bombing could also make it impossible to positively identify the target even if it was bin Laden, or to be sure that he was killed. Another option, going in on the ground with the cooperation of Pakistani forces, was considered to be too much of a security risk.
Obama chose a plan which called for two dozen members of the Navy’s elite SEAL Team Six to carry out the raid, under the direction of the CIA director, Leon Pinetta. The SEAL team then started running practice raids at its US base on a mockup of the compound in Pakistan.
To avoid compromising security, the US did not inform Pakistani authorities about the raid until after it was over. As a result, when the two main helicopters and two backups flying the mission left Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, they used sophisticated technology to avoid detection by Pakistani radar. All through the mission, the US was closely monitoring the Pakistani response to try to avoid a possible confrontation with their defense forces.
Even though a White House spokesman said that the US forces staging the raid were prepared to take bin Laden alive, privately, government officials admitted that the goal of the mission was always to kill bin Laden. That is because keeping him in prison and putting him on trial in the US would have been extremely problematic.
Keeping him at Guantanamo Bay was no longer an option for this administration, and bin Laden would certainly have tried to turn his trial into a forum for his radical Islamic ideology, and an opportunity to play the martyr.
Now, although bin Laden might still become a martyr to his supporters, it will be as an invisible hero, without even a grave to serve as a monument or shrine.
THE HELICOPTER THAT FAILED
Then, with the CIA and White House monitoring the situation in real time, the SEALs stormed the compound. Two US helicopters descended and successfully dropped the SEALs behind the security walls.
“They’ve reached the target,” the team reported to officials in Washington following the action. However, the engine of one of the helicopters overheated, causing it to suffer a hard landing, and it was then unable to take off again. A spare chopper was then used to help bring out the SEALs team and crews.
Thanks to months of satellite surveillance before the raid, the SEALs knew they’d likely find bin Laden’s family on the second and third floors of one of the buildings. The SEALs secured the rest of the compound first before proceeding to the room where they believed bin Laden would be hiding. They had to fight their way to the room on the third floor where bin Laden had been sleeping. “We have a visual on Geronimo [the code name for bin Laden],” the team reported.
In the firefight, bin Laden used a woman as a human shield. She was later identified as the wife of one of the couriers. Eventually, the SEALs killed him with a bullet to the head. The team reported, “Geronimo EKIA [Enemy Killed In Action].” The entire operation took less than 40 minutes.
An unexpected bonus from the raid was the discovery of a huge amount of raw data on the terrorists’ computers. The SEALs team took home a potential treasure trove of hard disks and thumb drives for analysis by US counter-intelligence experts. “Can you imagine what’s on Osama bin Laden’s hard drive?” one US official asked. “It’s going to be great even if only 10% of it is actionable,” he said.
BURIAL AT SEA
Hours after the firefight, bin Laden’s body was flown to Afghanistan, so that its identity could be verified by DNA analysis. After that, the body was flown to the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson which was cruising in the Arabian Sea. US officials say that the body was treated respectfully, in accordance with traditional Islamic practice. It was washed, wrapped in a white sheet, placed in a weighted bag, and then buried at sea, while the appropriate Arabic words were pronounced.
US Muslim leaders generally accepted the way in which the government disposed of bin Laden’s body, but some foreign Muslim clerics complained that Islamic tradition called for him to be buried on land, with his head facing Mecca.
ISRAEL’S ARABS MOURN BIN LADEN
In Israel, news of bin Laden’s death prompted a riot Monday night in the Arab village of Silwan in East Yerushalayim. In addition, the Hamas leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, told reporters that the killing of bin Laden was “part of the American policy based on the oppression and bloodshed in the Muslim and Arab world. He had words of praise for bin Laden as someone engaged in jihad, or holy war against infidels.
On Monday, Prime Minister Netanyahu called President Obama to congratulate him personally on the killing of bin Laden. The Israeli leader told the president that the killing of bin Laden “sent a message of the United States’ determination to fight terrorism.” Obama responded by thanking Netanyahu for his support and renewed the US commitment to fight terrorism.
Earlier, Netanyahu declared that Israel share “the joy of the American people.” He called the operation to eliminate the al Qaeda leader a “resounding victory for justice, freedom, and the values shared by all democratic countries fighting shoulder to shoulder against terror.”
A SIGNIFICANT VICTORY FOR THE US
Bin Laden’s killing provides a significant victory for the US at a time when political turmoil is upending long-standing US relationships in much of the Muslim world.
It also comes nearly 10 years after bin Laden orchestrated the deadliest terrorist attack on US soil. Al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four passenger jets. Two of them were flown into the World Trade Center, a third was flown into the Pentagon, and after a struggle between the hijackers and the passengers, the fourth jet crashed in rural Shanksville, Pa. Altogether, almost 3,000 people were killed.
“Today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people,” Obama said Sunday. “The cause of securing our country is not complete, but tonight we are once again reminded that America can do whatever it is we set our mind to. That is the story of our history.”
PAKISTANHAD TO KNOW WHERE BIN LADEN WAS
For most of the past decade, the US thought that bin Laden was hiding in the border areas of Pakistan under the protection of Islamic tribes. After bin Laden escaped from Tora Bora in December 2001, American intelligence had lost his trail until picking up fresh intelligence about his possible whereabouts last August.
In fact, bin Laden had been hiding in plain sight, for as long as five years, not in a cave, but in the lap of luxury only a two hour’s drive from Pakistan’s capital. This raises serious questions about the extent to which Pakistani officials have been cooperating with the US in combating terrorism.
Nevertheless, following the raid in which bin Laden was killed, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Obama’s chief advisor on counter-terrorism, John Brennan, defended Pakistan’s role in helping the US to fight terrorism, even while acknowledging the ongoing tensions due to questions about whether Pakistan helped to hide Bin Laden and its ongoing disagreements with the US over counter-terrorism strategy.
BIN LADEN’S FORTRESS
Abbottabad is a city of about 100,000 in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, about 65 miles north of Islamabad. The town is named for a British military officer who founded it as a military center and summer retreat. The town houses the headquarters of a brigade of the Pakistan army’s 2nd Division, and Pakistan’s equivalent of the US Army’s West Point military academy.
The five-year-old compound was built like a fortress in one of the city’s most exclusive neighborhoods. It is surrounded by walls as high as 18 feet, topped with barbed wire. Two security gates guarded the only way in. A third-floor terrace was shielded by a seven-foot privacy wall. From the outside, it looked to the CIA like the perfect facility to protect a major terrorist figure of the stature of bin Laden.
THE NEED FOR MORE VIGILANCE
After the killing of bin Laden, US government facilities around the world were placed on heightened alert after the raid. The State Department issued a worldwide travel alert warning of “enhanced potential for anti-American violence given recent counter-terrorism activity in Pakistan.”
CIA director Panetta called for continued vigilance. He said that terror groups around the world, “almost certainly will attempt to avenge” bin Laden’s death. He added, “we have struck a heavy blow against the enemy. The only leader they have ever known, whose hateful vision gave rise to their atrocities, is no more. The supposedly uncatchable one has been caught and killed.”
Throughout the afternoon Sunday, Obama and senior officials monitored the operation in Pakistan using real time feeds in the White House Situation Room. At 3:50 p.m., Obama learned that bin Laden had been tentatively identified as killed in action.
Bin Laden’s capture offered a sense of closure for families of those lost in the 2001 attacks. Basmattie Bishundat, whose son was killed at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, said that she wished she could join those celebrating outside the White House gate in the pre-dawn hours Monday. “I cannot believe it, finally,” she murmured as she watched the news reports. “All kinds of emotions. Finally, a sense of closure. Finally, they’ve got the person who started all of this mess.”
A BITTERSWEET MOMENT FOR BUSH
Obama personally called former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and had his staff notify senior congressional leaders, before announcing bin Laden’s death to the nation.
It must have been a bittersweet moment for Bush who had initially promised the American people that bin Laden would eventually be captured, “dead or alive,” but was unable to fulfill that promise during his years in the White House.
In a statement, President Bush congratulated Obama as well as the military and intelligence personnel who “devoted their lives to this mission. They have our everlasting gratitude,” Bush said. “This momentous achievement marks a victory for America, for people who seek peace around the world, and for all those who lost loved ones on September 11, 2001. The fight against terror goes on, but tonight America has sent an unmistakable message: No matter how long it takes, justice will be done.”
Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s secretary of state, said in her own statement: “Nothing can bring back bin Laden’s innocent victims, but perhaps this can help salve the wounds of their loved ones.”
RUMSFELD SEES BUSH’S VINDICATION
President Bush’s defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, said of bin Laden, “he had become the face of terrorism, radical Islamists in the world, and I think the fact that the coalition of countries shared intelligence and worked the problem seriously for a number of years and were successful, ought to be a signal to other terrorists that while manhunts are difficult, they’re not impossible. The world’s a better place with him gone.”
Rumsfeld suggested that the success in finally getting to bin Laden has justified Obama’s decision to continue the Bush administration anti-terrorism policies. “It certainly points up the fact that the structures that President Bush put into place – military commissions, Guantanamo Bay, the Patriot Act, indefinite detention, and humane treatment, but intensive interrogation to be sure – all contributed to the success we’ve had in the global war on terror.
“The fact that we’ve not had another attack on America for close to a decade, I don’t think anyone would have been bold enough to predict that 10 years ago.”
Rumsfeld added a word of warning. “We do know that al-Qaeda has sought out chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, and we do know they’ve alleged that in the event that Osama bin Laden is killed or captured, they would undertake some additional terrorist attacks on America and on our friends and allies around the world,” he said.
THE END OF A LONG HUNT
The US has been actively hunting bin Laden since the mid-1990’s. He rose to the top of the most wanted list after engineering the simultaneous al-Qaeda bombings of US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, which killed 224 civilians and wounded more than 5,000 people. Two years later, his group was responsible for the suicide bombing attack on the destroyer the USS Cole in Yemen’s port of Aden, killing 17 US sailors and severely damaging the ship. Immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks, the US demanded that the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan turn him over. When the Taliban refused, the US led a coalition which quickly ousted the Taliban from power, and then sought to hunt bin Laden down. US Special Forces, working with coalition fighters of the Northern Alliance, thought they had bin Laden cornered in the mountains of Tora Bora, but after he managed to get away, the US was unable to find him for another nine years, despite putting out a $25 million reward for information leading to his capture, dead or alive.
A BIG BLOW TO AL QAEDA
A senior administration official said the loss of bin Laden is a serious blow to al-Qaeda. It puts the group “on a path of decline that will be difficult to reverse. As the only al-Qaeda leader whose authority was universally respected, he also maintained its cohesion. His likely successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is far less charismatic and not as well respected within al-Qaeda,” the official said.
Other counter-terrorism experts agree that the death of bin Laden is an irreplaceable loss for Islamic terrorism. As long as he was still alive and at large, he served as a source of pride and inspiration for terrorists around the world.
“Every day he was alive was a symbolic victory,” said Dan Byman, director of research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and a staff member on the 9/11 Commission. “This is a man we have hunted with different degrees of intensity for more than 10 years. . . . His successful defiance was damaging to the United States.”
The greatest terrorist threat to the US today is considered to be the al-Qaeda franchise in Yemen. It nearly succeeded in bombing a US-bound airliner on December 25, 2009 and sent two bombs disguised as air cargo to US addresses last fall. Those operations were carried out without any direct involvement from bin Laden.
REACTION FROM CONGRESS
Senior congressional leaders from both parties reacted to the news of bin Laden’s death by issuing statements commending the military for the successful operation.
“Today, the American people have seen justice,” said House Homeland Security Chairman Peter King. “In 2001, President Bush said, ‘We will not tire, we will not falter and we will not fail.’ President Bush deserves great credit for putting action behind those words. President Obama deserves equal credit for his resolve in this long war against al-Qaeda.”
Senator John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urged continued vigilance, saying: “A single death does not end the threat from al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups.”
“The killing of Osama bin Laden closes an important chapter in our war against extremists who kill innocent people around the world,” Kerry added. “We are a nation of peace and laws, and people everywhere should understand that our 10-year manhunt was in search of justice not revenge. Terrorists everywhere must never doubt that the United States will hunt them down no matter where they are, no matter how long it takes.”
Congressman Gary Ackerman said, “We’ve cut the head off of the worm, but they may grow another head.”
Minutes after the news of bin Laden’s death began to spread, many Americans broke out in spontaneous celebrations. Hundreds of people rushed to the gate in front of the White House to chant patriotic slogans and the national anthem.
In New York City, thousands were drawn to the site of the Twin Towers, where new office buildings are now rising from the devastation of Ground Zero, as well as a memorial and in tribute to the victims of 9/11.
The Washington Post contributed to this story