Monday, May 02, 2011

The Death of Bin Laden and What Comes After

US Special Forces from SEAL Team Six carried out a daring raid last night and killed Osama bin Laden in a large compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan last night, which is located 30 miles north of the capital of Islamabad and 120 miles from the Afghan border. The news hits hard here in the New York City metro area where al Qaeda carried out the deadliest terror attack in history, murdering more than 3,000 people and destroying the World Trade Center. For the families of those killed or injured in the attacks, this is a bittersweet moment since they will never get closure - they will always be lacking their loved ones who were so cruelly taken from them on the orders of bin Laden.

Once the news was broadcast following President Obama's official announcement last night, the area around Ground Zero was one of jubilation and reflection (more here). This morning, broadcasters and hundreds of police were controlling the gathered crowds and those trying to make their way to jobs in and around Lower Manhattan.

The details of the raid and the years of painstaking intel work that tracked down leads is one that will be studied for years to come. This was an operation that began with a single lead several years ago - that there was a single trusted courier who transmitted information from bin Laden to others, which as more evidence was gathered firmed up to the point that President Obama was briefed, set up a command group under CIA Director Leon Panetta, and tasked SEAL Team 6 with the operation to capture bin Laden.
A trusted courier of Osama bin Laden’s whom American spies had been hunting for years was finally located in a compound 35 miles north of the Pakistani capital, close to one of the hubs of American counterterrorism operations. The property was so secure, so large, that American officials guessed it was built to hide someone far more important than a mere courier.

What followed was eight months of painstaking intelligence work, culminating in a helicopter assault by American military and intelligence operatives that ended in the death of Bin Laden on Sunday and concluded one of history’s most extensive and frustrating manhunts.

American officials said that Bin Laden was shot in the head after he tried to resist the assault force, and that one of his sons died with him.

For nearly a decade, American military and intelligence forces had chased the specter of Bin Laden through Pakistan and Afghanistan, once coming agonizingly close and losing him in a pitched battle at Tora Bora, in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. As Obama administration officials described it, the real breakthrough came when they finally figured out the name and location of Bin Laden’s most trusted courier, whom the Qaeda chief appeared to rely on to maintain contacts with the outside world.

Detainees at the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, had given the courier’s pseudonym to American interrogators and said that the man was a protégé of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the confessed mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.

American intelligence officials said Sunday night that they finally learned the courier’s real name four years ago, but that it took another two years for them to learn the general region where he operated.

Still, it was not until August when they tracked him to the compound in Abbottabad, a medium-sized city about an hour’s drive north of Islamabad, the capital.

C.I.A. analysts spent the next several weeks examining satellite photos and intelligence reports to determine who might be living at the compound, and a senior administration official said that by September the C.I.A. had determined there was a “strong possibility” that Bin Laden himself was hiding there.

It was hardly the spartan cave in the mountains where many had envisioned Bin Laden to be hiding. Rather, it was a mansion on the outskirts of the town’s center, set on an imposing hilltop and ringed by 12-foot-high concrete walls topped with barbed wire.

The property was valued at $1 million, but it had neither a telephone nor an Internet connection. Its residents were so concerned about security that they burned their trash rather putting it on the street for collection like their neighbors.

American officials believed that the compound, built in 2005, was designed for the specific purpose of hiding Bin Laden.

Months more of intelligence work would follow before American spies felt highly confident that it was indeed Bin Laden and his family who were hiding in there — and before President Obama determined that the intelligence was solid enough to begin planning a mission to go after the Qaeda leader.
The US didn't let any other country in on the intel gathered about bin Laden or even alert Pakistan to the impending operation. They didn't want anyone else to jeopardize the mission, including the possibility that someone within the Pakistani military or intel services could tip off bin Laden and allow him to once again escape.

Bin Laden, however would not come quietly, and he returned fire. Members of the team killed bin Laden and extracted his body to a base in Afghanistan where he was positively identified with facial recognition software and other means. From there, his body was buried at sea.

Now, there was speculation that no country would accept his remains as being the reason that his body was buried at sea, but I think the more likely explanation is that the US simply didn't want his burial location to turn into a rallying cry for al Qaeda and those loyal to the jihad. A burial at sea wipes eliminates that possibility, but the ideology lives on.

Al Qaeda has been seriously damaged by the attack and death of bin Laden, but the group is far from defanged. Ayman al Zawahiri is still at large, and the terror group continues to receive shelter from Taliban and utilizes the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan as a base of operations.

The terror group will continue to attempt further attacks, and it's important to note that while bin Laden was the face and major fundraiser for the group and pressed home the notion of jihad, Zawahiri and others have been the more public figures in the past several years. Expect Zawahiri to take a more active role in leading al Qaeda and spreading the jihadist rhetoric and ideology, along with Anwar al-Awlaki. Both men have been spreading jihadi ideology online and rallying others to their cause.

As noted above, the US didn't let Pakistan's government know about the mission until it was completed. There's damned good reasons for that - the Pakistani government is far from reliable and the ISI is likely harboring further Taliban and al Qaeda within the country and not acting against the terror group whose leader lived in comfort just yards from Pakistan's army military academy where the country's army trains its cadre of leaders and in a city where many in the army go to retire. A Pakistani army division headquarters is located there as well, making this a major center for the Pakistani military.

More reactions here and at memeorandum.

Bin Laden's death doesn't mean the end of the conflict against al Qaeda and the Islamic extremists who justify attacks against the US and the West. It just means that there will be a new face associated with terror attacks to come. That doesn't mean that his death shouldn't be lauded for eliminating a scourge of humanity whose actions set in motion the worst terror attacks in history and tremendous bloodshed and misery for many throughout the world.

The successful raid also raises new questions about what the Pakistani intel service (ISI) knew, and how the Pakistanis were unable to located bin Laden when he was living so openly and so close to major Pakistani military installations.

Finally, I want to personally thank all those who stuggle to keep us safe and go after these terrorists, along with President Obama for green-lighting the mission and enabling the military and intel services to coordinate and execute the mission with precision and professionalism.

Here's a map showing the final location of where bin Laden lived before the raid:

View Larger Map

This is perhaps the most poignant of all the photos taken in the past 48 hours and was captured by a NYT cameraman:

Pakistanis are both stunned by the news, and many are angered over the attack on bin Laden. Former Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf is angered at the violation of Pakistan's sovereignty. Considering that Pakistan's own ISI routinely ignores Afghanistan's sovereignty by providing aid and comfort to Taliban and al Qaeda, and refuses to deal with embedded Taliban and al Qaeda within Pakistan's own territory, they government in Islamabad is going to be on the hot seat to explain how they completely missed the fact that bin Laden was living large just yards from the Pakistani military academy.

Clearly, this is going to lead to a re-evaluation of US-Pakistani relations - both the public declarations and the private behind the scenes level discussions. Pakistan's ISI and military simply can't be trusted, especially with time sensitive information to maintain operational security, and that was a major reason that President Obama kept the mission close to the vest and didn't inform any US allies, lest any information leak before the mission was carried out.

This also means that the Islamists in Pakistan may carry out additional attacks against the US/NATO/ISAF supply lines, and perhaps the Pakistani military may no longer give NATO/US/ISAF forces the logistical support they have had in the past (although the Pakistani military hasn't exactly done a great job protecting those convoys in the past). President Obama must have weighed the potential repercussions of taking this action versus informing Pakistan, etc., and found that the benefits outweighed the potential fallout/blowback. I think that was the right move.

From Marc Ambinder's overview of the JSOG DevGru/Seal Team 6 operation this nugget of information:
After bursts of fire over 40 minutes, 22 people were killed or captured. One of the dead was Osama bin Laden, done in by a double tap -- boom, boom -- to the left side of his face. His body was aboard the choppers that made the trip back. One had experienced mechanical failure and was destroyed by U.S. forces, military and White House officials tell National Journal.
So, who was captured along with who else was killed in the raid? That's going to make for some interesting reading down the line.

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