Tuesday, June 15

CIA spying on Bin Laden: the key was in the messenger

An archival image of Osama Bin Laden.

An archival image of Osama Bin Laden.

The spy services The most powerful in the world, the US, spent 10 years finding the world’s most wanted terrorist, Osama Bin Laden, a hunt for which the most sophisticated technology and means were used, but in which the human factor was vital. In the end the clue was in the messenger: the clue that led to Bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad (Pakistan) was a telephone call intercepted by the US, made by the trusted messenger of the head of Al Qaeda, Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti.

The retired Naval Intelligence officer Erik Dahl has analyzed how the search process was for the terrorist, whose death marks ten years this Sunday, and has done so using sources open to the public, since there are still numerous classified documents. Dahl explained to Efe that the hard work of gathering information from around the world, crossing it and following leads, as the police do in their investigations, was key in this process. “Is a fascinating story which shows that this did not happen because we had satellites around the Earth. Those were not the tools, what there were were people on the ground, people in complicated places like Pakistan who found the clues that led to the messenger, “said this professor at the Naval Graduate School in Monterrey (California).

Al Kuwaiti served as a link between Bin Laden and his militants, because the three-story residence occupied by the leader of Al Qaeda I had no phone lines or internet. According to the revelations of US officials, every time Al Kuwaiti or other people from Bin Laden’s personal environment wanted to talk on the phone, they drove for more than an hour and a half before putting the battery in their cell phones. Through the messenger, the US spies located the residence of Abbottabad, where they detected a person who went for a walk every day to an inner courtyard of the house, but never went outside.

Thanks to satellite images, US Intelligence managed to gather enough information to identify the passerby as Bin Laden by his complexion and heightas they never got a clear enough face image. The target was already identified and it only remained to wait for the optimal conditions to occur to decide the date of the US military operation: May 2, 2011.

That night there was a waning moon and a temperature of 32 degrees in Abbottabad. Retired Admiral William H. McRaven, who oversaw the military operation, pointed out in a recent interview with the CTC Sentinel magazine of the prestigious West Point Military Academy, that they relied on the lunar cycle to be as dark as possible and needed the temperatures were not too high. It had taken the US intelligence services a decade since the 9/11 attacks to find Bin Laden’s whereabouts and they did not want to risk that something could go wrong.

Hidden in Islamabad

Ten years of meticulous work in which imagination was important, although sometimes it won’t work. Dahl’s favorite anecdote is when, a few years after 9/11, the CIA turned to an ornithology expert to identify the type of bird that was heard chirping in the background in a Bin Laden video. In a Tom Cruise movie “the teacher would have said ‘Ah, that bird’ is only found within 15 kilometers of a specific place in the mountains on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and we would have turned to Tom Cruise, who would have found it But instead, the professor said ‘I don’t know, there’s no way to say it,’ this expert joked.

The imagination did not work at that moment, but it sheds light on the stratagems that the US had to devise to find the whereabouts of Bin Laden. According to the Professor of Homeland Security at Saint Johns University Keith Cozine, If it took ten years to find out Bin Laden’s whereabouts, it was because they looked in the wrong place. “The common view was that he would be hiding in a more remote location, and not in Abbottabad, which is basically close to the Pakistani version of West Point, “he reminded Efe Cozine.

That Bin Laden lived in Abbottabad, 60 kilometers from Islamabad, was far from what was thought for years, because he basically assumed that was hidden “in plain sight”. That search was one of the most important in the history of espionage in the United States, from which applicable lessons have been drawn in recent years, such as in the assassination of the leader of the Islamic State (IS) group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in 2019 during a US operation in northern Syria.

In the opinion of Colin Clarke, director of Policy and Research at the intelligence consultancy The Soufan Group, if there is an applicable lesson to date, it is that Washington “never really trusted Pakistan”, since there was a fear that it would warn Bin Laden. In light of the impending US military withdrawal from Afghanistan, Clarke believes it is “naive” to think that the US depends on Pakistan to maintain stability on Afghan soil, as Islamabad will do nothing in Washington’s interests unless that is aligned with their own. Ten years after the death of Bin Laden and after that of the leader of the Islamic State group in 2019, their organizations still survive but are much more weakened. And those responsible for US intelligence now have other priorities beyond terrorism, in a world in which, for example, the country competes for world hegemony with China.


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