How they found bin Laden

May 2, 2011

The lead up to Sunday’s assault on the compound which held Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, less than a hundred miles from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, involved the work of multiple governmental agencies, including the CIA and JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command, and the elite counterterrorism unit Seal Team 6.

Sometime before 2007, during the interrogations of “high value targets” at CIA sites overseas, certain prisoners mentioned the nickname of one of the couriers who worked closely with bin Laden.

The courier’s real name was uncovered in 2007. Then, in 2009, U.S. forces tracked him to a compound in Abbottabad.

Elements of the compound’s makeup seemed suspicious, including18-feet high walls and a complete lack of connection—no internet or phone lines going in or out—to the outside world.

Last August, President Obama was informed of this “circumstantial” evidence, including the fact that the compound burned much of its trash. Beginning this year, Seal Team 6 began its preparations to enter and attack the compound.

The compound was less than a thousand feet from the Pakistan Military Academy.

While Pakistani intelligence provided crucial assistance at various points in the manhunt, it is uncertain whether they were informed, or knew themselves, of the location of bin Laden’s compound.

David Ignatius’s excellent Washington Post article on the story of the bin Laden collects much of this information and more, including when Pakistan’s government was informed about the mission, what their reaction was, and what this means for the future of the al-Qaeda terrorist organization:

CIA Director Leon Panetta, who directed the operation, told Pakistan nothing until the helicopters had left Abbottabad to return to Afghanistan. But U.S. officials describe the subsequent Pakistani reaction as helpful. Pakistani officials urged President Obama to make his unusual pre-midnight announcement so that when Pakistan woke up Monday morning, the public would know the United States had attacked Bin Laden, not a Pakistani target. And Islamabad promised to try to mitigate Pakistani popular anger, which officials did by issuing a supportive statement Monday.

Does bin Laden’s demise mean the death of al-Qaeda? CIA analysts won’t go that far. But they have concluded that the operation “will accelerate its demise” and that the battered organization is now at a “tipping point” that could lead to collapse.

The hidden trophy of Sunday’s raid: The JSOC team captured intelligence materials from the compound, perhaps including computers or flash drives that might reveal the location of Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the organization’s new commander. “That’s where we’re going next,” says one U.S. official involved in planning the operation.