A smoke bomb, and an orchestrated call to the faithful.
Both were included among 38 scenarios that American intelligence officials theorized could ferret out occupants from a fortified, one-acre compound outside Abbottabad, Pakistan—including, they surmised, Osama Bin Laden.
|Peter Bergen (left) in Q&A with NBC’s Richard Engel.
Photo by Tom Stoelker
In the end, said Peter E. Bergen, CNN’s national security analyst and a Fellow at Fordham Law School’s Center on National Security, American intelligence zeroed in on the world’s most wanted man in part because the compound had no internet connection.
In a Q&A with NBC Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel, Bergen, author of Manhunt: The Ten-year Search for Bin Laden From 9/11 to Abbottabad (Crown, 2012) recounted the quest to produce Bin Laden’s whereabouts. The May 18th event, which drew more than 200 to the McNally Amphitheatre, was sponsored by Fordham Law School’s Center on National Security.
Like the tarp that veiled the solitary acre from overhead surveillance, the lack of electronic links to the outside world insulated Bin Laden from peering eyes. It also isolated the scion of an exceedingly wealthy Saudi family, metamorphosed into the 21st century’s most notorious terrorist.
“He created a prison of his own making,” Bergen said of Bin Laden, who, 10 years after coordinating terror attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people on American soil, was living a hermit-like existence inside a walled-in, three-story structure on a hill overlooking Abbottabad.
But the most significant indication that Bin Laden in fact lived in the compound was his courier’s visits, said Bergen. Establishing the connection between Bin Laden and his courier took both technological prowess and human derring-do.
Although intelligence evidence pinpointed Bin Laden in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, in the days immediately after Sept. 11, political and military reluctance to expose hundreds of troops to a lethal counterattack let him slip away. From there, the trail grew cold, both because of Bin Laden’s and Al Qaeda’s keen awareness of the Americans’ electronic eavesdropping capabilities, and because those close to Bin Laden—thought to be a prophet of Islam—would never have turned him in, said Bergen.
As the 20th hijacker in U.S. custody, Mohammed al-Qahtani, and others yielded more information, the presumed courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, came into focus as a conduit to Bin Laden, Bergen said.
It would take until June 2010 for American intelligence officials to geolocate Kuwaiti’s cell phone and, eventually, the courier himself. Eventually Bin Laden’s courier (and confidant) unwittingly led CIA operatives to the compound.
But despite growing evidence of Bin Laden’s presence at the compound, Obama administration officials were divided on how to attack the compound.
“There was no definitive proof Bin Laden was even living there,” said Bergen, who toured the compound before it was razed.
For a year, the Americans watched the house, all the while coming up with schemes to arrive at certainty of his presence. As the smoke bomb scenario and dozens of others came into play, Obama’s cabinet members thrashed out potential ploys and their consequences, with some discouraging the raid (including Vice President Joseph Biden), others backing a drone attack (then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates), and yet others backing the raid (then-CIA Director Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton).
Estimates on the success of a clandestine raid ranged from 40 percent to 90 percent, Bergen said. Eventually, Obama calculated any operation had even odds of succeeding and gave the orders for the ultra-secret mission.
Three weeks of rehearsals, in North Carolina and in Nevada, on quickly built models of the Abbottabad compound ensued. And on April 30, 2011, Obama—whom Bergen described as “very, very comfortable with the use of military power”—gave the green light to Operation Neptune Spear.
On a moonless night, dozens of Navy SEALS moved covertly from Afghani airspace and into Pakistan. About 90 minutes after the helicopters had lifted off from eastern Afghanistan, Bin Laden spoke his last words to his youngest wife, said Bergen, which were: “Don’t turn on the light.”
Moments later, he was shot once through the eye, and once through his chest.
He had never reached for his nearby AK-47.