Monday, May 2, 2011

A massive house with no telephone or internet connection led to bin Laden

Washington: A large mansion in a massive compound with 12 feet to 18 feet tall walls topped with barbed wire. No telephone or internet connection to the house. And seldom seen residents who burnt their trash rather than dispose it as other neighbors did.

These were the slender leads that eventually took US spooks and seals to the world's most wanted fugitive. Osama bin Laden lived not in a cave in some frontier mountain redoubt, but in a suburban neighborhood in a million-strong city just an hour's drive from Islamabad, right under the eyes of the Pakistani military.

No one is particularly surprised about this. In fact, going by the track record of major Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives captured so far, it would seem that images of them hiding in caves are overblown. Most of them have been captured in Pakistani cities -- Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in Rawalpindi, Mullah Biradhar in Karachi, and other operatives in places like Faisalabad and Multan. It would seem the terrorists like their comfort -- or at least they are kept in comfort.

Details of how the US homed in on bin Laden are still sketchy, but this much is known based on what President Obama himself said and background briefing by officials.

Right from the moment he took office, Obama resolved to hunt down bin Laden, a goal that his predecessor Bush (who once suggested he did not want to personalize the bin Laden hunt) appeared to have taken his eyes off from. The new President called in the CIA chief and told him to devote whatever resources were needed to nail bin Laden, even as he shifted the focus from the war on Iraq to the Af-Pak theater.

Last August or September, the CIA team tasked with the bin Laden hunt succeeded in developing leads obtained from a Guantanamo detainee four years ago about two brothers who had acted as couriers for bin Laden. It took several months to establish their identity and then their coordinates. U.S officials said this was because of ''extensive operational security on their part,'' but added that ''the fact that they were being so careful reinforced our belief that we were on the right track.''

In August 2010, the U.S team got to know with some degree of certainty that they were in Abbottabad, a military cantonment 60 kms north of Islamabad, where they had built a house in an ''extraordinarily unique compound.'' The design of the compound and the mansion, and the activities surrounding it, indicated it held someone important.

"Intelligence analysts concluded that this compound was custom built to hide someone of significance. We soon learned that more people were living at the compound than the two brothers and their families,'' one U.S official explained. ''Our best assessment, based on a large body of reporting from multiple sources, was that bin Laden was living there with several family members, including his youngest wife.''

"Everything we saw -- the extremely elaborate operational security, the brothers' background and their behavior, and the location and the design of the compound itself was perfectly consistent with what our experts expected bin Laden's hideout to look like,'' the official added.

Between March 14 and April 28, President Obama held five national security meetings with his top aides to decide on how to approach the problem at a time ties with Pakistan were at all all-time low because of the Raymond Davis episode. The incident made it all the more dicey to employ American forces for an airborne attack, particularly given past U.S experience in Iran and Somalia, and the Pakistani military's virulent response to any suggestion of U.S ground action inside Pakistan, much less at the doors of a military cantonment.

Still, Obama gave the go-ahead for the operation over the weekend. Three US choppers carrying elite Navy Seals were deployed on Saturday night/Sunday early a.m. No Pakistani personnel were involved.

Although the operation lasted just 40 minutes, U.S officials acknowledged the team ran into resistance. Bin Laden, who was living in the compound with his eldest son and his youngest wife, himself fought before being shot in the head in the firefight. The two couriers who were also with him also died, as did his son and another woman who was used as a human shield. Two other women in the compound, which also had children, were wounded. It is not clear if his wife survived.

There were other mishaps. A U.S chopper involved in the attack developed a malfunction at some point and crashed in the neighborhood. This was reported in the Pakistani media several hours before news of bin Laden's death emerged, with no mention of American involvement or the hunt for bin Laden. Pakistani officials had shut down the area and kept out the media on orders from the U.S.

Only in the morning in Pakistan, when the wreckage from the chopper (which the U.S reportedly destroyed) was cleared, did the story emerge that the smoldering house in the Abbotabad suburb had hosted Osama bin Laden. He has been shot and killed by U.S forces, who had even taken away his body from Pakistan.

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