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Context of 'December 2010: CIA Director Panetta Briefs Obama on Bin Laden’s Hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan'

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A key mistake by Osama bin Laden’s courier Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed (a.k.a. Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti) lead US intelligence to exact location of bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan (see May 2, 2011). US intelligence already had a good idea that Ahmed was a courier working for bin Laden, and in the summer of 2009, he used a cell phone that allowed analysts to determine he was living somewhere in northwest Pakistan (see Summer 2009). But he drove an hour or two before making his calls, and he changed the SIM cards in his phone, making it impossible to pinpoint his exact location. After a flurry of calls in the summer of 2009, he did not use his phone for nearly a year. [ABC News, 5/19/2011]
Phone Call Is Key Mistake - But then, around July 2010, he accepts a call that provides the key intelligence breakthrough. The call is from an unnamed old friend, but the friend’s calls are already being monitored by US intelligence for his al-Qaeda links. The friend asks Ahmed innocuous questions, like where have you been and what are you doing now. Ahmed vaguely replies, “I’m back with the people I was with before.” Bob Woodward of the Washington Post will later report, “There was a pause, as if the friend knew that [Ahmed’s] words meant he had returned to bin Laden’s inner circle, and was perhaps at the side of the al-Qaeda leader himself. The friend replied, ‘May God facilitate.’” [Washington Post, 5/6/2011]
Exact Neighborhood Is Located - According to one account, when Ahmed takes this call, apparently he is in or near the town of Peshawar (about 120 miles from Abbottabad). He is soon spotted there, and then continually monitored. It will take several weeks before he returns to Abbottabad, and the exact location of bin Laden’s hideout there is discovered. [New York Times, 5/2/2011] According to another account, Ahmed is either inside bin Laden’s compound or very close to it when he takes the call, because the NSA is quickly able to determine the exact neighborhood where the call was received. From there, the CIA and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency search aerial satellite photographs and deduce which house in the neighborhood likely belongs to bin Laden. [ABC News, 5/19/2011] Either way, apparently his hideout will be discovered by US intelligence on August 1 (see August 1, 2010).
Bin Laden's Compound Already Known to CIA? - According to the Associated Press, the CIA had already known “for years” that bin Laden’s compound was linked to al-Qaeda, but they had dismissed it as not very important since there were no security guards patrolling it. In any case, the compound is located (or relocated), and US intelligence starts to monitor it. [Associated Press, 5/2/2011]

Entity Tags: US intelligence, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed, Central Intelligence Agency, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, War in Afghanistan

An illustration of the Abbottabad compound.An illustration of the Abbottabad compound. [Source: CIA]US intelligence officials come to believe more strongly that they have found Osama bin Laden. US intelligence officials have tracked al-Qaeda courier Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed (a.k.a. Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti) to a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in August 2010 (see July 2010), and by September they are so convinced that bin Laden is hiding there that they inform President Obama about this (see September 1, 2010). Bin Laden is not directly seen by surveillance, but there are many clues suggesting he could be there:
bullet Most importantly, Ahmed fits the profile of an ideal courier for bin Laden, and Ahmed lives at the compound.
bullet The compound is surrounded by 12- to 18-foot high walls topped with barbed wire.
bullet However, there is no telephone or Internet in the compound. This would seem to be an unusual security precaution, but it also makes the compound hard to monitor.
bullet The compound sits on a large plot of land and is about eight times larger than the other homes in the neighborhood.
bullet The people in the compound burn their trash instead of leaving it out for collection, like the other neighbors.
bullet The main three-story building in the compound has few outside windows.
bullet Ahmed and the others known to live in the compound have no known source of wealth that could explain how they pay the expenses of running the compound. [CNN, 5/2/2011]
bullet There are no balconies, except for those covered with more high walls. Balconies are a standard feature for wealthy houses like this one in Pakistan. One neighbor will later comment: “It’s not a proper house. It’s more like a warehouse. It’s not like a home where anyone would want to live.” [Daily Telegraph, 5/3/2011]
A senior Obama administration official will later say, “When we saw the compound where the brothers lived, we were shocked by what we saw—an extraordinarily unique compound.” He adds that intelligence analysts conclude the compound was “custom-built to hide someone of significance.… Everything we saw… was perfectly consistent with what our experts expected bin Laden’s hideout to look like.” [CNN, 5/2/2011] However, according to the Associated Press, US intelligence has known about the compound “for years,” but it did not think bin Laden would live there because there were no security guards. [Associated Press, 5/2/2011] Months later, a US strike force will assault the compound and kill bin Laden (see May 2, 2011).

Entity Tags: Osama bin Laden, Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed, Barack Obama, Leon Panetta, US intelligence

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, War in Afghanistan

US intelligence begins intensively spying on the Abbottabad, Pakistan, compound where they strongly suspect Osama bin Laden is hiding (see August-September 2010). The compound was discovered on August 1, 2010 (see August 1, 2010). The Washington Post will later report that “virtually every category of [intelligence] collection in the US arsenal” is used, including satellite imagery and attempts to record voices inside the compound.
CIA Safehouse - The efforts include a CIA safehouse located somewhere near the compound. Abbottabad is a tourist town with pleasant weather and colonial era charm, enabling strangers to easily come and go without attracting suspicion. The CIA takes advantage of that atmosphere to send CIA operatives and informants into the town to gather information. A former US official will say, “The [main compound building] was three stories high, and you could watch it from a variety of angles.” Moving there “was his biggest mistake.” [Washington Post, 5/6/2011]
Escape Tunnel? - Analysts even study the water tables in the area in an attempt to figure out if bin Laden could have an escape tunnel. They conclude the soil is too wet to build a tunnel. [ABC News, 5/19/2011]
Intelligence Allegedly Still Lacking - The surveillance is so extensive that in December 2010, the CIA has to secretly get Congress to reallocate tens of millions of dollars within various agency budgets to help fund it. But US intelligence is allegedly unable to get a clearly identifiable picture or voice recording of bin Laden before the raid that eventually kills him. The CIA safehouse is abandoned shortly after the May 2, 2011 raid that kills bin Laden (see May 2, 2011), since it has served its purpose. [Washington Post, 5/6/2011]

Entity Tags: US intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, Osama bin Laden

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, War in Afghanistan

CIA Director Leon Panetta informs President Obama that Osama bin Laden may be living in a certain compound in Pakistan that is being monitored. (Some accounts say Obama is informed in August, but most say September, and one account specifies September 1.) [Associated Press, 5/2/2011; CNN, 5/2/2011; New York Times, 5/3/2011; ABC News, 5/19/2011; Wall Street Journal, 5/23/2011] Many of Obama’s top aides are at the top secret meeting as well, including Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Panetta describes the compound and the intelligence leading to it in great detail. An unnamed administration official at the meeting will later say: “It was electric.… For so long, we’d been trying to get a handle on this guy. And all of a sudden, it was like, wow, there he is.” [New York Times, 5/2/2011] The evidence is so tantalizing that the US decides not to say anything about the compound to the Pakistani government, or to even close US allies like Britain or Canada, for fear that intelligence leaks could let bin Laden slip away. [Associated Press, 5/2/2011]

Entity Tags: Osama bin Laden, Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, Joseph Biden, Robert M. Gates, Barack Obama

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, War in Afghanistan

CIA Director Leon Panetta briefs President Obama about the intelligence on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Obama first learned about the compound in September (see September 1, 2010), but now Panetta gives his most persuasive argument on why bin Laden is likely to be hiding in the compound. Obama asks Panetta to come up with a plan for action. [Wall Street Journal, 5/23/2011]

Entity Tags: Leon Panetta, Barack Obama

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, War in Afghanistan

The non-profit whistleblower group WikiLeaks releases documents that may inadvertently speed up the timing of the US effort to raid Osama bin Laden’s hideout. WikiLeaks releases secret military dossiers on about 750 prisoners held at the US base in Guantanamo, Cuba (see April 24, 2011). These documents cover nearly every prisoner held at Guantanamo since the prison opened there in 2002. All the dossiers are published in full and are easily accessible on well known websites, including those of the New York Times, The Guardian, and WikiLeaks. [Guardian, 4/25/2011]
Mentions of Ahmed - Numerous dossiers mention “Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti,” or some variant on that name. This will later be revealed as a commonly used alias for Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed, a trusted courier for bin Laden. In the dossiers, Ahmed is seen as an important al-Qaeda figure and a courier for important al-Qaeda leaders. [Express Tribune, 5/4/2011]
Mentions of Abbottabad - Even more crucially, the dossiers reveal al-Qaeda activity in Abbottabad, the Pakistan town where bin Laden is hiding at this time. For instance, the dossier on al-Qaeda leader Abu Faraj al-Libbi states: “In July 2003, al-Libbi received a letter from Osama bin Laden’s designated courier, Maulawi Abd al-Khaliq Jan, requesting detainee take on the responsibility of collecting donations, organizing travel, and distributing funds to families in Pakistan.… In mid-2003, al-Libbi moved his family to Abbottabad, and worked between Abbottabad and Peshawar.” [Daily Mail, 5/3/2011]
Data in the Dossiers Lead to Bin Laden - In fact, the courier mentioned as “Jan” appears to be Ahmed. “Jan” was a name al-Libbi made up in his interrogations in order to protect Ahmed. US intelligence had figured this out by late 2005. US analysts were able to use information on Ahmed from the interrogation of al-Libbi and other Guantanamo prisoners to find the exact location of bin Laden’s Abbottabad hideout in 2010 (see August-September 2010). Bin Laden will be killed by a US Special Forces raid on his hideout on May 2, 2011, eight days after the dossiers are made public (see May 2, 2011).
Influence on Raid Timing or Not? - The Daily Mail will later suggest: “WikiLeaks may have triggered the killing of Osama bin Laden.… [S]pecial Forces stormed his fortress only days after the website published new secret documents.” [Daily Mail, 5/3/2011] Time magazine will say that according to an aide to Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), “Though there may have been a reference to the compound in one of WikiLeaks’ classified document dumps, there wasn’t a serious concern that the information had become widely known through that source.” [Time, 5/3/2011] Plans for the raid were already well developed before the Wikileaks release (see for instance March 14, 2011). President Obama gives the final okay for the raid on April 29, four days after the release (see April 29, 2011).

Entity Tags: WikiLeaks, Osama bin Laden, Abu Faraj al-Libbi, Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, Domestic Propaganda, War in Afghanistan

Bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound in flames. Apparently, the fires are mainly due to a crashed US helicopter. The picture comes from a neighbor’s cell phone.Bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound in flames. Apparently, the fires are mainly due to a crashed US helicopter. The picture comes from a neighbor’s cell phone. [Source: Reuters] (click image to enlarge)Osama bin Laden is shot and killed inside a secured private residential compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, according to US government sources. The operation is carried out by US Navy SEAL Team Six, the “Naval Special Warfare Development Group.” The covert operation takes place at 1:00 a.m. local time (+4:30GMT). Two US helicopters from bases in Afghanistan fly low over the compound in Abbottabad, and 30 to 40 SEALs disembark and storm the compound. According to White House sources, bin Laden and at least four others are killed. The team is on the ground for only 40 minutes; most of that time is spent searching the compound for information about al-Qaeda and its plans. The helicopters are part of the 160th Special Ops Air Regiment, itself a detachment from the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). The CIA oversees the operation, but the operation is tasked to, and carried out by, Special Forces. When President Obama announces bin Laden’s death, he says: “His demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity. Justice has been done.” Of the soldiers that eliminated bin Laden, and the other military personnel deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and elsewhere, Obama says: “We are reminded that we are fortunate to have Americans who dedicate their lives to protecting ours. We may not always know their names, we may not always know their stories, but they are there every day on the front lines of freedom and we are truly blessed.” The members of Team Six are never identified, and it is unlikely their names will ever be made public. [CNN News, 5/1/2011; ABC News, 5/2/2011] Bin Laden is said to have ordered the 9/11 attacks, among other al-Qaeda strikes against American and Western targets. In a 1997 CNN interview, he declared “jihad,” or “holy war,” against the US. He had been number one on American military and law enforcement “Most Wanted” lists well before the 9/11 attacks. [CNN News, 5/1/2011]

Entity Tags: Osama bin Laden, US Department of the Navy, Obama administration, Al-Qaeda, Leon Panetta, Barack Obama, Bush administration (43), US Naval Special Warfare Development Group, Joint Special Operations Command, Central Intelligence Agency

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline, War in Afghanistan

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