Mark Bowden of Black Hawk Down fame has just weighed in on the mission to kill bin Laden with a book titled The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden (Atlantic Monthly Press). Much of the excerpt that Vanity Fair published chronicles how President Obama et al chose between a drone strike, precision bombing, and an assault by Navy SEALs, as well as how the attack was carried out. The first priority, of course, was determining if bin Laden and his people actually resided at the Abbottabad compound.
Here, in part, was what attracted the CIA to the site.
Panetta brought two of the agency’s bin Laden team leaders to the Oval Office. They handed Obama classified pictures and maps and walked him through the material. What had first intrigued them was the compound itself. Unlike most homes in that affluent neighborhood, it did not have Internet or phone connections. The walls were unusually high, topped by two feet of barbed wire. There was no way to see inside the house itself, from the ground or from above. The agency had learned that the compound was home not only to [bin Laden courier] Ibrahim Ahmed’s family but to his brother Abrar’s family as well. They went by assumed names: Ahmed called himself Arshad Khan, and the brother went by Tariq Khan. They had never been wealthy, but their accommodations were expensive. The brothers were also wary. They burned their trash on-site. None of their children attended school. In telephone calls to distant family members, always made from locations away from the compound itself, they lied about where they were living. The C.I.A. has been known to misinterpret many things, but one thing it recognizes is high operational security.
At first glance, it seems as if bin Laden and Ahmed had thrown caution to the winds by hiding in plain sight in Abbottabad. However, when it came to behaving like normal citizens, they apparently lost their nerve. In other words, they failed to take their security to the next level and realize that their very cautiousness was a red flag. It’s true that bin Laden couldn’t walk the streets. But they could have taken their garbage out!
More to the point, use of phones and the Internet — innocuously, of course — would have provided the perfect cover.