Tonight on AC360: New Details on the hunt for Osama bin Laden
April 30th, 2012
04:02 PM ET

Tonight on AC360: New Details on the hunt for Osama bin Laden

It's almost one year to the day al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was attacked and killed by a group of U.S. Navy SEALS at his secret compound in Abbotabad, Pakistan. In his new book "MANHUNT: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden–from 9/11 to Abbottabad," author Peter Bergen reveals astonishing details about tracking the terrorist. Tonight, Anderson speaks with him about inside story, and what Bergen saw in bin Laden's compound before the Pakistani government destroyed it. Read an excerpt from his book and don't miss the interview on AC360° at 8 and 10 p.m. ET.


IT WAS NOT UNTIL 2010 that the CIA had a series of significant breakthroughs regarding the Kuwaiti, the elusive courier. Earlier, with the help of a “third country” that officials won’t identify, the Agency had been able to tie him to his real name, Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed. Still, his whereabouts remained unknown.

Then, in June 2010, the Kuwaiti and his brother both made changes in the way they communicated on cell phones that suddenly opened up the possibility of the “geolocation” of their phones. Knowing this, the Agency painstakingly reviewed reams of “captured” phone conversations of the Kuwaiti’s family and circle of associates. Around this time the CIA conducted a joint operation with Pakistan’s military intelligence service on phone numbers associated with an al-Qaeda “facilitation network.” The Pakistanis did not know that some of these numbers were linked to Abu Ahmed al- Kuwaiti, but they could tell that one of the suspects in the network was speaking in a mix of both Arabic and Pashto, the language of northwest Pakistan, which was unusual. This suspect’s phones were also switched off most of the time and were turned back on only in and around the city of Peshawar in northern Pakistan, not far from the Afghan border.

Finally, in the summer, the Kuwaiti received a call from an old friend in the Persian Gulf, a man being monitored by U.S. intelligence.

“We’ve missed you. Where have you been?” asked the friend.

“I’m back with the people I was with before,” the Kuwaiti responded elliptically.

There was a tense pause in the conversation as the friend mulled this over. “May God facilitate,” the caller finally said, likely realiz- ing that the Kuwaiti was back in bin Laden’s inner circle.

CIA officials took this call as confirmation that the Kuwaiti was still likely working with al-Qaeda, something they had not been en- tirely sure about. The National Security Agency was listening to this exchange and, through geolocation technologies, was able to zero in on the Kuwaiti’s cell phone in northwestern Pakistan. But to find out where the Kuwaiti lived by monitoring his cell phone would go only so far. The courier practiced rigorous operational security and was always careful to insert the battery in his phone and to turn it on only when he was at least an hour’s drive away from the Abbottabad compound where he and bin Laden were living. And Pakistan was a country of 180 million people.
In August 2010 a Pakistani “asset” working for the CIA tracked the Kuwaiti to Peshawar, where bin Laden had founded al-Qaeda more than two decades earlier. In the years that bin Laden had been residing in the Abbottabad compound, the Kuwaiti regularly passed through Peshawar, the gateway to the Pakistani tribal regions where al-Qaeda had regrouped after 9/11. Once the CIA asset had identi- fied the Kuwaiti’s distinctive white Suzuki Jeep with a spare tire on its back in Peshawar, he was able to follow him as he drove home to Abbottabad, more than two hours’ drive to the east. The large compound where the Kuwaiti finally alighted immediately drew interest at the Agency because it didn’t have phone or Internet service, sug- gesting that its owners wanted to stay off the grid.
No one at the Agency believed that the courier would actually be living with bin Laden. CIA officials thought that they would track the courier to his home and then there would be another round of surveillance to see if he would then lead them to bin Laden’s hiding place. But there was something about the Abbottabad compound that piqued their interest. One official remembers her reaction when she first saw the compound: “Holy Toledo! Who in al-Qaeda would the group spend this kind of money on?” Officials calculated that the compound and the land it stood on were worth several hundred thousand dollars—about the cost of the 9/11 operation.
In late August 2010 the top officials in the CIA’s Counterter- rorism Center briefed Panetta about the new bin Laden lead, tell- ing him, “We’ve been tracking suspected couriers, people who’ve got historic ties to bin Laden, and we tracked them back to a place that looks like a fortress.” This got Panetta’s attention. “A fortress? Tell me about that fortress,” he said. The CIA officials described a compound ringed with twelve-foot-high walls, and one section hav- ing eighteen-foot-high walls, and a top-floor balcony on one of the buildings shielded by seven-foot-high walls. They told Panetta the residents of the compound burned their own trash.
“This is very strange,” Panetta said. “It’s very mysterious. It re- quires deeper investigation. I want every possible operational avenue explored to get inside that compound.”
PANETTA BRIEFED PRESIDENT OBAMA and his key national security advisors about this development in the Oval Office, saying, “We have the courier’s name and we have his location in a place called Abbottabad and maybe, just maybe, bin Laden might be there as well.” Panetta showed the group satellite imagery of the compound and compared the area where the compound sat to Leesburg, Vir- ginia—a pleasant historic town thirty miles northwest of Washing- ton. Obama recalls that Panetta “was cautious in saying that they could say definitively this was where bin Laden was. My feeling at the time was: interested, but cautious.”
Tony Blinken, a low-key lawyer who had worked for Bill Clinton on his National Security Council staff and was now Vice President Joe Biden’s top national security advisor, recalls both real interest and some skepticism among the officials listening to Panetta. “This wouldn’t have been brought to the president if it wasn’t serious,” Blinken says, “but there had obviously been instances in the past when we really thought we were hot on the trail, and then for one reason or another we weren’t. And so I think it was a real interest, but also we didn’t want to make too much of it.”
Over the next several months, Panetta became increasingly an- noyed—some CIA officials even say “pissed”—about what he be- lieved was a lack of creativity among the bin Laden hunters. “I want to know what’s going on inside that compound,” Panetta demanded. “I don’t want to just surveil it from the outside. I want to get inside there, I want to get clarity on what is happening there.” Leaders of the Counterterrorism Center were instructed to show Panetta any of the ideas for observing the compound they came up with—even those they discarded. He urged them to consider every form of es- pionage, including getting into sewage lines and implanting devices, putting a telescope in the mountains two kilometers away, even put- ting a camera on a tree inside the compound walls. The Counterter- rorism Center officials came back to him, dismissing one approach after another as too risky or not workable. A few weeks after Panetta suggested putting a camera on a tree inside the compound, the Ku- waiti chopped down the tree in question.
Finally, in the late fall, Jeremy Bash, Panetta’s chief of staff, gathered together the bin Laden hunters at the Agency and said, “Give the director twenty-five operational activities that you could use to get into the compound, or to learn what is happening there, and don’t be afraid of making some of them kind of creative.” The bin Laden hunters came back with a chart with thirty-eight ideas. Some were outlandish. One idea was to throw in foul-smelling stink bombs to flush out the occupants of the compound. Another was to play on the presumed religious fanaticism of the compound’s inhab- itants and broadcast from loudspeakers outside the compound what purported to be the “Voice of Allah,” saying, “You are commanded to come out into the street!”

Other more plausible ideas included coming up with some tech- nology that would enable the Agency to spy on the occupants using the small satellite dish connected to the compound’s sole television, or from a nearby CIA safe house, where agents would pick up the sounds and energy emissions that would result if bin Laden decided to record a new videotape.

After Panetta was confident that the team had exhausted every possible approach, they narrowed it down to three or four avenues. One creative, if ethically questionable, tactic was to recruit Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani doctor from the tribal regions, to mount a bogus vaccination program in and around bin Laden’s neighborhood. The idea was to get access to the compound, take samples of the residents’ blood, and then match those with known samples of bin Laden family DNA that were in the Agency’s possession. In March, Dr. Afridi traveled to Abbottabad, telling locals that he had funds to start a free hepatitis B vaccination drive. So as not to arouse suspicion, Afridi recruited nurses and health workers to administer the vaccinations starting in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of the city rather than in the more affluent Bilal Town. But Afridi’s team was never able to get DNA samples from the bin Laden children.

The analytical case that the Kuwaiti was the key to finding the al-Qaeda leader was first made in a memo by CIA officials in August 2010 titled “Closing In on Usama bin Ladin’s Courier.” A month later, an even more detailed assessment of all the intelligence on the Kuwaiti was bundled into a document titled “Anatomy of a Lead.” It was well understood by the authors of these memos that anything they wrote that focused on bin Laden’s location was going to get a great deal of attention, including from the president. A counter- terrorism official explains: “We had a group who weren’t afraid to say right out front that we believe this leads to bin Laden, putting themselves on the line.”
Almost everyone who was then working on the bin Laden hunt had also worked on the hunt for Ayman al-Zawahiri. And they were keenly aware that seven CIA officers and contractors had died at the forward operating base in Khost, Afghanistan, chasing what at the time seemed to be the most promising lead the Agency had on Zawahiri since 9/11 but turned out to be an al-Qaeda sting opera- tion. Those who died at Khost had been friends and colleagues of the analysts who were now positing that they had the best lead on bin Laden in a decade.

What everyone involved in the bin Laden hunt wanted to avoid at all costs was another weapons of mass destruction (WMD) debacle. The faulty assumption that Saddam Hussein was reconstituting his WMD program, which had been the key justification for the Iraq War, rested in part on a number of dodgy intelligence sources. One of them was an Iraqi defector with the telling alias of “Curveball,” who claimed that Saddam possessed mobile bioweapons labs. This became a central exhibit in the Bush administration’s assertions that Saddam had a biological weapons program. What wasn’t well understood by senior Bush officials and in much of the U.S. intelli- gence community was the fact that Curveball was an alcoholic and a congenital liar.

The damage done by the fabrications of sources such as Curve- ball was compounded by the fact that where there were “dissents” about aspects of Iraq’s supposed WMD program from any of the sixteen U.S. intelligence agencies, they were generally buried in lengthy reports. Aluminum tubes shipped to Iraq in 2001 were believed by the CIA to be parts for centrifuges in Iraq’s uranium- enrichment program, but experts at the Department of Energy were rightly skeptical of this claim, a view that didn’t get any real hearing among policymakers.

The intelligence community was determined to learn from these costly mistakes. This time there would be no repeat of CIA direc- tor George Tenet’s famous “slam dunk” assertion to President Bush that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. The director of terrorism analysis at the CIA, a careful analyst who for four years had been the official who six days every week delivered to President Bush his highly classified President’s Daily Brief, was determined to thoroughly kick the tires of the analytical case on the Kuwaiti. The small cadre of analysts at the CIA who were aware of the intel- ligence on the Kuwaiti subjected it to a formal process of structured analytical techniques, drilling down on key questions: What’s the body of evidence that the Kuwaiti is bin Laden’s courier? Who else could the Kuwaiti be if he wasn’t the courier for al-Qaeda’s leader? Was the Kuwaiti even still working for al-Qaeda?

During October 2010, officials came up with several alterna- tive explanations for the intelligence they had been able to gather on the Kuwaiti: that he had stolen money from al-Qaeda and was now keeping a low profile; that he was working for someone else in al-Qaeda; that he was the courier for some criminal unrelated to al-Qaeda; or that bin Laden’s family, but not bin Laden himself, was living in the mysterious compound. They concluded that they could not rule out any of these alternative hypotheses. A counterterrorism official recalls, “We put an enormous amount of work in exploring all of these hypotheses so the president and his advisors could make an informed judgment about what they planned to do next.” Cogni- zant of the lessons of the WMD fiasco, officials actively encouraged dissent among the analysts leading the hunt for bin Laden. One of- ficial says, “We kept explaining to our group: ‘If you see something that doesn’t make sense you need to raise your hand now.’ ”

During the fall, counterterrorism officials continued to watch the Abbottabad compound and track the Kuwaiti’s movements around northwestern Pakistan. They now had “high confidence” that the Kuwaiti was still a member of al-Qaeda, but they didn’t have any such level of confidence that bin Laden was living in the compound. The Agency listened in to the Kuwaiti’s phone conversations and spied on him as he traveled around Pakistan. CIA officials found it telling that when the Kuwaiti and his family visited other family members in Pakistan, they lied about where they were living, saying they lived in Peshawar. They also lied to neighbors about who they were, what they were doing, and where they were going. They also didn’t let anybody into the compound, the construction of which seemed to be designed to thwart good surveillance from any angle.

As they observed the comings and goings at the compound, one U.S. official says, “We began to believe bin Laden’s family was there. Was bin Laden nearby, given his devotion to them?” A few analysts, such as John, the deputy chief of the Afghanistan-Pakistan section in the Counterterrorism Center, thought that the likelihood of bin Laden being at the compound was as high as 90 percent, but whatever an analyst thought the odds might be, the case that bin Laden was there was always entirely circumstantial.

There continued to be features of the compound that caused some head scratching at CIA headquarters. The first “anomaly” was that the compound was less than a mile from the Pakistani military academy. The second was that it was far from small and obscure, rising fortress-like above many of the neighboring buildings. Third, there were many children living there, a number of whom were old enough to blab about a mysterious “uncle” who never left the com- pound. And the wives and children of the courier and his brother would regularly take trips to visit family members elsewhere in Pakistan. One of those children, seven-year-old Muhammad, even attended a religious school outside Abbottabad. CIA officials were familiar with the idea of “hiding in plain sight,” but the Abbottabad compound seemed to take that concept to a new level.

Robert Cardillo, a veteran intelligence official who briefed Presi- dent Obama three times a week about national security develop- ments around the world, thought that if bin Laden was indeed living in the compound, it was “nuts” that he hadn’t moved in six years. And if bin Laden was living there, how could the Pakistanis not know? After all, he reasoned, this wasn’t in some remote, law- less tribal region, but in a well-policed city. Other facets of the case didn’t sit well with Cardillo either; there were about twenty adults and children living at the compound, which seemed a big security risk for bin Laden to take. And while the courier and his brother practiced rigorous operational security with their cell phones, there were other cell-phone users at the compound who weren’t taking any such precautions. Cardillo had so many nitpicky questions about the intelligence picture surrounding the compound that at one point Michael Vickers, the civilian overseer of Special Operations, said, “You know you’re being Debbie Downer around here.” Cardillo par- ried, “Mike, that’s my job. Thank you.”

In the early fall the CIA set up a safe house in Abbottabad for agents who would survey the compound and built up a “pattern of life” analysis of the people living at the compound. According to a retired senior CIA operations officer who worked in Pakistan after 9/11, Agency officials setting up this type of safe house typi- cally looked for a residence that would attract no attention; every- thing would have to appear to be perfectly normal. This meant there should be no detectable changes made to the profile of the house and its constituent buildings, meaning no proliferation of antennas, no lights on late at night, and no conspicuous new construction. The routine at the safe house would have to be “non-alerting: no sudden uptick in visitors and no comings and goings at odd hours. Also, the cover story for the residents—who they were, where they came from, what their business was in Abbottabad—would have to be rock-solid. Nothing weird. Nothing unusual. Boring is always best. And, always best to provide answers to questions up front rather than hope that the neighbors will reach the conclusion you want. In a place like Pakistan one easy way to do that is simply to make sure that your own household staff is fed the right cover story. All maids, cooks, and drivers talk in environments like that. It’s like a small-town environment. Whatever your maid knows, or thinks she knows, about who you are, where you came from, and what you are up to will be known to every domestic in the neighborhood within days of your arrival.”

The CIA agents monitoring the compound initially observed only the two families of the courier and his brother living there. But after further careful monitoring, they determined that there was a third family living at the compound. Members of this third family never seemed to leave the compound, but a careful observation of their movements and the number of men’s, women’s, and children’s gar- ments hung up to dry on clotheslines indicated that this other family consisted of three women, a young man, and at least nine children, all living in the main building. Were these bin Laden’s wives, chil- dren, and grandchildren? Certainly the composition of this family was consistent with what was known about bin Laden’s immediate family.

DESPITE HAVING SPIES on the ground in Abbottabad and NSA sat- ellites orbiting in space above the compound, the Agency was never able to get an image of bin Laden. It did observe that some individual took a walk every day in the vegetable garden of the compound, but someone had cleverly installed a tarpaulin above the area where that person would walk, so spy satellites never got a good look at him. Analysts called the mysterious person “the pacer.” The pacer never left the compound, and his daily excursions seemed like those of someone in a jail yard who couldn’t leave but was trying to get some exercise. He walked very rapidly in tight circles, then went back in- side. Knowing that bin Laden was quite tall, Panetta instructed his team to check the pacer’s height by comparing it to that of the near- est wall. By measuring the pacer’s shadow, intelligence officials de- termined that the mystery man could measure anywhere from five foot five to six foot eight. This didn’t provide much of a clue.

The CIA went to Congress and successfully lobbied for tens of millions of dollars to be reallocated in the Agency budget to sup- port this ramped-up intelligence effort. Still, officials had what they termed “collection gaps”: they couldn’t see inside the compound, and they couldn’t monitor it around the clock. But counterterror- ism officials were wary of becoming more aggressive in their collection efforts, because this might end up “spooking the targets.” They were concerned that someone as canny as bin Laden, if he really was the pacer, would have some kind of escape plan in place. They also thought it likely that he would have taken the precaution of putting a local police officer on his payroll—someone who would tip him off if there was any sign of an operation to take down the compound.

In November, Panetta, together with the CIA bin Laden hunters, went to Obama and said, “We think there is a strong possibility that bin Laden is in the Abbottabad compound.” The analysts believed this with varying degrees of certainty, with most estimating the probability at 80 percent. The lead analyst, John, was still at about 90 percent, while Michael Morell, the deputy director of the CIA, was at 60 percent.

“Why do people have different probabilities?” Obama asked Pa- netta, who pitched the question to Morell.

“Intelligence is not an exact science,” Morell explained. “Even if we had a source inside the compound saying bin Laden was there, I’d only be at 80 percent because sources are of varying reliabil- ity. Those analysts who are at 80 to 90 percent have been tracking al-Qaeda in recent years and have had great success stopping plots and undermining the organization. They are confident. The folks at the lower end of the range are those who lived through intelligence failures, particularly the Iraq WMD issue.” At one point Morell told the president that when it came to the sheer volume of data points, “the circumstantial case of Iraq having WMD was actually stronger than the circumstantial case that bin Laden is living in the Abbot- tabad compound.”

Morell’s own confidence that bin Laden was at the compound remained steady, at 60 percent, because there was never any direct confirmation that bin Laden was there. On the other hand, there was no good alternative explanation for everything that happened at the compound and the fact that the residents were clearly hid- ing something. Throughout the first weeks of 2011 the circumstan- tial case that bin Laden was living in the Abbottabad compound remained in a sort of stasis. “We got a lot of information over time that didn’t disprove bin Laden was there and didn’t corroborate it either,” says a counterterrorism official. CIA officers from outside the Counterterrorism Center were brought in to see whether the bin Laden analysts might be missing something. They didn’t see any- thing obvious. A CIA analyst who hunted bin Laden says, “We had pulled on a gazillion threads in the last decade, sometimes a ‘sight- ing’ of bin Laden, or some other piece of intelligence, and every time the threads were pulled they quickly unraveled. With this Abbot- tabad thread, every time you pulled on it, it didn’t unravel.”

JOHN BRENNAN, the longtime CIA officer who was now Obama’s top counterterrorism advisor, met regularly with the analysts work- ing the bin Laden case, many of whom he had known and admired for years. Brennan pushed them to come up with intelligence that disproved the notion that bin Laden was living in the Abbottabad compound, saying, “I’m tired of hearing why everything you see confirms your case. What we need to look for are the things that tell us what’s not right about our theory. So what’s not right about your inferences?”

The analysts came back to the White House one day and started their intelligence update, saying, “Looks like there’s a dog on the compound.” Denis McDonough, Obama’s deputy national security advisor, remembers thinking, “Oh, that’s a bummer. You know, no self-respecting Muslim’s gonna have a dog.” Brennan, who had spent much of his career focused on the Middle East and spoke Ara- bic, pointed out that bin Laden, in fact, did have dogs when he was living in Sudan in the mid-1990s. (Indeed, when al-Qaeda’s leader was living in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, he had taken an interest in training police dogs.)

As February turned into March, CIA director Leon Panetta asked a veteran counterterrorism official—who had lived through many years of bin Laden leads not panning out—what percentage she now placed on bin Laden being in the compound. “Seventy per- cent,” she said.
The percentages suggested a kind of precision that didn’t exist in reality. Bin Laden was either living in the compound or he wasn’t. Even after months of observation, no one really knew for sure.

Reprinted from MANHUNT: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden–from 9/11 to Abbottabad by Peter Bergen. Copyright © 2012. Published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

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soundoff (5 Responses)
  1. barbara

    If bin Laden had not been killed, what course of action could have been taken against him??? Please cite the Geneva Convention policies since he was not a citizen of Pakistan, nor was he a combatant by Article 3. He did admit responsibility for the WTC disaster on video, could this be used against him if tried in US for crimes against humanity?

    May 2, 2012 at 5:45 am |
  2. Marian

    Hey listen guys, I am the first to give our soldiers BIG KUDOS!! My husband fought in Nam and never got a thank you for his time. The point is that the president has to give the OK to go for it.If any other guy was in the hot seat he would have been able to say "It happened on my watch!!" I am sorry that this is all happening to get elected but the republicans do not fight fair and I don't think any of them have all it takes to get us out of the mess that the last group put on the country. I can't blame it all on Bush as thist was the first time in our history that the VP had more to do with the running of the country. Bush just wanted to do it to get in history books!! God bless our military for being in another war we should not be fighting!!!! & God Bless America!!!!

    May 1, 2012 at 10:15 pm |
  3. Okereke Iheanyi

    Bin laden has come and gone. Kudos to men of integrity and focus who believe tht justice must be done (US). Obama and his men legacy wil live 4ever.

    May 1, 2012 at 3:45 am |
  4. Marian

    I am upset at the comments about the president. Bush had the chance to get bin laden but did not listen to your cnn reporter chriatiana annanphour (sorry for the spelling) when she said she thought she knew where he was hiding. No one listened. Obama found him and took care of it. Bush thought Saddam Hussien was a better target and he made a real big scene when they killed him. It is a sad day when we a fighting over words and not giving kuddos to the one that took care of the one who was responsible for 9/11!!!!!

    April 30, 2012 at 8:24 pm |
    • Nicole

      Yes, please give kudos to the ONES responsible for gettin Bin laden...the military that went in and got him and the people who did the leg work to find him. Obama didn't do any of that...he was briefed on what was happening. Not planning it or carrying it out. Bush didn't do it, Obama didn't do it. Obama sure didn't find him. If our read the article at all it clearly states that he was briefed that the intelligence community thought they had found him.

      May 1, 2012 at 12:52 am |