Bin Laden Was Mostly Disconnected From The World

Bin Laden spent the last half-decade in a compound where his only contact with the outside world was a few couriers.

Over at my Forbes blog, I comment on the intelligence that was required to take bin Laden down. Of particular interest, to me, is that yes, bin Laden did spend the past half-decade holed up in a compound near Islamabad. But all is not quite what it seems.

As it turns out, though, the compound was completely unwired. No telephone. No internet. No satellite. The only contact that bin Laden had with the outside world was with a handful of handpicked couriers who operated under very intense security protocols. Basically, the way we found out where bin Laden was was by following the couriers around.

Even when the compound was subjected to satellite surveillance, it was still a guess that bin Laden and his family were living there. A high confidence guess, but a guess nonetheless.

So while I agree with my colleague Doug that Pakistan has some explaining to do, given that it took several years of intense ground work and satellite coordination to pinpoint bin Laden’s location, it’s not entirely inconceivable that, as fragmented as Pakistan’s government is, they didn’t know where he was.

Still, I think the President’s decision to not inform Pakistan until after the fact was a wise one.

FILED UNDER: Asia, Intelligence, Middle East, National Security, Terrorism
Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.

Comments

  1. James Joyner says:

    I’m reminded of Battlestar Gallactica–both versions–here. From Osama’s standpoint, we were the Cylons. And his only hope of survival was disconnecting from the network.

  2. Hey Norm says:

    “We made a decision after 9/11 that I think was crucial. We said, ‘This is a war – it’s not a law enforcement problem,’ Dick Cheney
    “…Basically, the way we found out where bin Laden was was by following the couriers around…”

  3. […] of my colleagues here at OTB, Doug Mataconis and Alex Knapp have already started asking questions, Doug drolly remarking that Pakistan had “some […]

  4. James Joyner says:

    @Hey Norm: Yes, law enforcement techniques are the proper way to find and arrest/kill an individual. War techniques are the proper way to close with and destroy a large cadre of trained, angry men with guns. The first has significant symbolic value. The second has significant security value.

  5. mantis says:

    War techniques are the proper way to close with and destroy a large cadre of trained, angry men with guns. The first has significant symbolic value. The second has significant security value.

    I think one can serve the other, too, as I said on the other thread.

  6. James Joyner says:

    @mantis: Absolutely. Glad we got him. Just say’ that some are acting like Obama single-handedly won the war on terrorism last night. Not so much.

  7. mantis says:

    Just say’ that some are acting like Obama single-handedly won the war on terrorism last night. Not so much.

    Oh, I agree, I’m just excited at the opportunities this presents to do some real damage to the terrorist networks.

  8. CB says:

    eh, and some on the right are acting like obama had nothing to do with it. the partisans will always find ways to embarrass themselves.

    regardless of the reactions from the kneejerkers, i tend to agree with dr joyner that the operational impact this will have is fleeting, and the chest thumping being done by both left and right strikes me as little more that empty triumphalism. can we remember for a second that OBL had little if anything to do with the organization of the actual attacks?

    cathartic though the news may be, i wish the cheering came with a bit more humility and perspective.

  9. Tlaloc says:

    Just say’ that some are acting like Obama single-handedly won the war on terrorism last night. Not so much.

    Yes but our military actions have been actively losing us the war on terrorism. Law enfrcement was always the right answer. Going to war was always the wrong answer. We know that since the AQ tactic was to provoke us into going to war in multiple locations at once, bleeding us dry. We killed Osama but they’re winning the war.

  10. James Joyner says:

    @Tlaloc: “We killed Osama but they’re winning the war.”

    This is simply false. They’ve failed to achieve each and every one of their political objectives and are much weaker now than on 9/11.

    There’s a strong argument to be made that we’ve overreacted in some cases, constrained our own freedoms unnecessarily, and so forth. I’ve made them. Our own reaction has cost us more blood and treasure than did the 9/11 attacks. But we’ve got the wherewithal to survive and thrive; they don’t.

  11. Tlaloc says:

    This is simply false. They’ve failed to achieve each and every one of their political objectives and are much weaker now than on 9/11.

    It’s really not. Look at their political objectives:

    On March 11, 2005, Al-Quds Al-Arabi published extracts from Saif al-Adel’s document “Al Quaeda’s Strategy to the Year 2020”.[36][37] Abdel Bari Atwan summarizes this strategy as comprising five stages:

    1. Provoke the United States into invading a Muslim country.
    2. Incite local resistance to occupying forces.
    3. Expand the conflict to neighboring countries, and engage the U.S. in a long war of attrition.
    4. Convert Al-Qaeda into an ideology and set of operating principles that can be loosely franchised in other countries without requiring direct command and control, and via these franchises incite attacks against countries allied with the U.S. until they withdraw from the conflict, as happened with the 2004 Madrid train bombings, but which did not have the same effect with the 7 July 2005 London bombings.
    5. The U.S. economy will finally collapse under the strain of too many engagements in too many places, similarly to the Soviet war in Afghanistan, Arab regimes supported by the U.S. will collapse, and a Wahhabi Caliphate will be installed across the region.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al_qaeda#Strategy

    1, 2, and 3 have definitively happened. We’ve been playing into their hands every step of the way because they’ve thought about this while we’ve been reacting. They may be weaker but so are we. And the former is not guaranteed by any means.

    But we’ve got the wherewithal to survive and thrive; they don’t.

    They have over a billion potential recruits. We have an economy turning into dust. Theirs is a religious movement, and I think we both know how well oppression works to stamp those out. We’ve seen our moral authority eroded by a large numebr of missteps. I think you are hugely mistaken as to the resiliency of these two combatants.

  12. hey norm says:

    but james,
    we have never been fighting “…a large cadre of trained, angry men with guns…” well i guess it depends on your definition of large. and if you confuse the misadventure in iraq as part of the effort.
    most of our successes, and successes around the world, against radical islamisists have been through police work.

  13. Tlaloc says:

    Consider that in the last year Egypt and Turkey have both been pushed towards hardline fundamentalism (the former more than the latter but turkey is getting there). Pakistan is rife with fundamentalism and could deliver established nuclear weapons tech into the hands of terrorists. Muslims from India to England have been radicalized against us. Fatah and Hamas have joined together in a unity government. Everywhere you look the anti-american forces are gaining ground, because we’ve done just about everything possible to encourage them!

    We are in serious risk of losing the entire region geopolitically, as in making ourselves so toxic to the people of the region that the rulers have no choice but to distance themselves from us and any cause we champion.

  14. CB says:

    They have over a billion potential recruits. We have an economy turning into dust. Theirs is a religious movement, and I think we both know how well oppression works to stamp those out. We’ve seen our moral authority eroded by a large numebr of missteps.
    —-

    all due respect, but i disagree with most of these assertions.

    they do not have a billion potential recruits. the vast majority of the muslim world does NOT have sympathy for AQ, especially when muslim populations have taken the brunt of AQ’s attacks.

    as for our economy turning to dust, lets not overstate the facts. on shaky ground, yes. decimated, no.

    true religious movements can be the hardest to root out, especially in the face of foreign, or domestic, oppression. but i would argue that AQ, at least at an operational level, is more political than about religious. to the extent that it becomes difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins, ill agree with you, but i think AQ and its global impact has become more nuanced than simply being a vessel for expressing religious grievances.

    and yeah, our moral standing has eroded somewhat, but relative to who? al qaeda? i think thats a battle we are still winning.

  15. anjin-san says:

    just curious james. who is acting like obama single handedly won the war on terrorism? I don’t recall seeing that anywhere.

  16. TG Chicago says:

    Seems like the fact that he was totally disconnected made the compound even more suspicious. Perhaps they should have had an internet connection, but only use it to check the cricket scores and the weather. Might have been easier to blend in.

  17. TG Chicago says:

    @Knapp:

    No satellite.

    Maybe, maybe not….

    A senior official said the property, valued at $1 million, had no Internet or phone service. But photos of the property appeared to show a satellite dish at the property — a discrepancy that was not immediately explained.

    I guess it’s hard to tap a satellite dish, so you can imagine why this might have been allowed while phone and internet were not.

  18. James Joyner says:

    @anjin-san:

    Well, Peter Beinart for one. But I’ve seen an inordinate amount of triumphalism about this in the comments here and on Twitter. And, hell, Obama himself called this the single most important action against terrorism since 9/11, which is plainly asinine.

  19. mantis says:

    And, hell, Obama himself called this the single most important action against terrorism since 9/11, which is plainly asinine.

    Actually, he said against al Qaeda, not “against terrorism.”

    The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda.

    Which achievements do you consider more significant?

  20. James Joyner says:

    @mantis: “Which achievements do you consider more significant?”

    The killing of thousands of jihadis, including most of al Qaeda’s senior talent, over the last decade.

    As noted in my early morning post:

    It remains to be seen what impact the death of al Qaeda’s spiritual leader will have on the movement. But nearly ten years of fighting in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere has long since rendered the organization a shadow of its former self.

    Osama has been so far under ground these past several years that many in the expert community thought he was already dead. Al Qaeda has long since transmogrified into a brand name more so than a central planning hub for major attacks.

    Getting one man has long since stopped mattering, because we took out most of his army.

  21. Alex Knapp says:

    Getting one man has long since stopped mattering, because we took out most of his army.

    That’s what they thought about Napoleon, too, which is why exile to Elba seemed to be a good enough solution. It didn’t quite work out, though…..

  22. mantis says:

    I don’t think her name has been released yet, or who she was in relation to bin Laden, but I’d like to take a moment to recognize that the woman bin Laden used as a shield during the raid will be his last victim.

    I wonder if the fact that he used a woman as a human shield, likely a Muslim woman and ally or family member, will make any in the Muslim world look upon him differently. That’s about as cowardly as you can get.

  23. TG Chicago says:

    @Joyner: to disprove Obama, you need to point to one single, discrete achievement that was more significant.

    You said the more significant achievement is “The killing of thousands of jihadis, including most of al Qaeda’s senior talent, over the last decade.”

    But that didn’t happen in one single event. It happened, as you say, over the last decade. Surely it’s not fair to count a decade’s worth of extremist-killing as if it was one individual event.

  24. mantis says:

    I concur with TG here, James. The net result of nine years of war (or four, or whatever length of time you refer to) is not exactly an “achievement” comparable to the killing of bin Laden. It’s more like the collective result of many, many achievements.

  25. James Joyner says:

    @TG Chicago: The invasion of Afghanistan? The toppling of the Taliban? Destruction of various major compounds? The killing of numerous active senior commanders?

    All were much wore impactful than this, which is basically the tying up of a loose end.

  26. mantis says:

    Brennan is saying that bin Laden’s human shield was one of his wives.

  27. James Joyner says:

    @mantis: “It’s more like the collective result of many, many achievements.”

    Sure. But so is getting bin Laden. It wouldn’t have been possible without what went before. And he would almost certainly have killed thousands more in the interim.

  28. mantis says:

    Sure. But so is getting bin Laden. It wouldn’t have been possible without what went before. And he would almost certainly have killed thousands more in the interim

    Interesting thinking. Then really, those achievements aren’t theirs at all, because none of it would have been possible without centuries of developing weapons technology and tactics. Plus, they wouldn’t know where they were going without maps, so really this accomplishment belongs to the cartographers. And what about the fancy communications technology they use? This could go on forever.

    You’ve descended into semantics, and the logical conclusion of your argument is that no one really accomplishes anything because they all stand on the shoulders of those before them. It’s pretty silly. I’m done.

  29. mantis says:

    Ok, almost done.

    “It’s more like the collective result of many, many achievements.”

    Sure. But so is getting bin Laden.

    One death is not a collective result. It’s a single achievement. The “killing of thousands of jihadis, including most of al Qaeda’s senior talent, over the last decade,” is the collective result of many achievements. And yes, each one involved more than just a man and a bullet, and couldn’t have been achieved without many other things happening before. I don’t think anyone disputes that.

  30. Ignacio says:

    It was a huge milestone. Not just killing him, but the intelligence that the operation has made available from stuff grabbed at Osama’s hideout and from the slightly shame pointed to Pakistan’s direction.

    Now America can bomb terrorists out without having to check whether Bin Laden is amongst the victims, for example.

    And unlike Bush, Obama did re-purpose the Army to battling the terrorists rather than to keep an increased focus on Iraq.

    Sure, Bin Laden has been just one more terrorist amongst the hundreds that Obama has definitely taken out from priorities that he set.

    Bush just had different priorities.

    Obama also gets kudos for sending real troops rather than bombs after Bin Laden. The bet paid off.

  31. TG Chicago says:

    @Joyner

    The invasion of Afghanistan?

    An invasion isn’t a de facto success.

    The toppling of the Taliban?

    This is arguable, though I’m not sure it happened as one single discrete event. The Taliban still has not surrendered.

    Destruction of various major compounds? The killing of numerous active senior commanders?

    You’re not being specific here.

    This event is getting headlines around the world, far more than any other event related to the 9/11 attacks since…. the 9/11 attacks. But still you insist it’s not very significant. Weird that such an insignificant event is getting such universal attention.

    In fact, the most recent 8 posts on this site are all about this trifling affair. I suppose the guy in charge of that site should be focusing on more significant topics.

  32. anjin-san says:

    The invasion of Afghanistan? The toppling of the Taliban? Destruction of various major compounds? The killing of numerous active senior commanders?

    All were much wore impactful than this, which is basically the tying up of a loose end.

    Ah, so the killing of the endless line of “second in commands” is more significant than the killing of bin laden? Please.

    But, what can we expect? A huge victory for our country and for Obama has the GOP in damage control mode. How could it be otherwise? The GOP is now a single issue party, and the single issue is damage Obama by any means.

    A commentator here mentioned “mojo” earlier today, and it is a very good point. Mojo matters. America lost it in Vietnam. We started to get it back after Grenada – geopolitically and historically a flyspeck, but very important to the psyche of our country at the time. We got pretty much the rest back in Gulf 1.

    9.11 took it away, in the space of one day. We started to get it back in Afghanistan, Bush was making the right moves. Then he let the PNAC crowd take the drivers seat, and we lost it again in Iraq.

    bin laden was a huge thorn in the American psyche. We just have not walked as tall since that day (the bogus bush admin swagger over Iraq does not count). And he was a beacon to Muslim radicals – the very face of their movement.

    Now he is at the bottom of the ocean. And everyone knows he was an ineffectual, middle-aged man who hid out and lived in luxury while others did the fighting. And he died when an American blew his brains out. These are the things that get the mojo back. Or take it away, in bin laden’s case, along with his life.

    And a black guy named Barack Hussien Obama was in the drivers seat when it happened. If you can’t be proud of that, at least deal with it.