Myths and Questions on bin Laden’s Assassination
By Joseph Fitsanakis* and Ian Allen* | intelNews | 05/03/2011
THE ASSASSINATION OF AL-QAEDA’S leader, Osama bin Laden, has helped dispel several myths about him and the organization he founded in 1988 in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. Among them is the idea that the Saudi-born militant was leading a primitive existence in some remote hillside in Waziristan, sheltered by mountainous tribes that were supposedly loyal to him. Nothing could be further from the truth. Despite his reputation as a hardened mujahedeen, bin Laden had chosen to spend his days in the unmatched comfort of a sprawling luxury compound located only an hour’s drive from Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. The compound is located in a relatively wealthy suburb of the city of Abbottabad, which is also home to the Kakul Military Academy, Pakistan’s elite army training school.
A COMFORTABLE JIHAD
More importantly, the descriptions of bin Laden’s luxurious hideout fly in the face of the predominant view of al-Qaeda as an organization that knows how to blend in with its surroundings. Not only did the compound stand out, but, according to one American official, it was “eight times larger than the other homes in the town”. It featured 3,000 feet of living space, to house bin Laden, his four wives, and several advisors and guards. It appears to have been custom-built to bin Laden’s specifications in 2005, which would explain the existence of numerous built-in security features, including at least two heavily fortified security gates, seven-foot-high perimeter walls, and even solid blast-proof enclosures on all balconies.
These uncommon architectural features were bound to attract the attention of locals, who soon took to calling the building “Waziristani Haveli” (the Waziristan Mansion). Word of the suspicious compound eventually reached Pakistani and American intelligence officers. Once the latter realized that the otherwise state-of-the-art villa had no telephone or Internet services installed, and that its secretive residents burned their own trash (obviously in order prevent outsiders from snooping through it), it was a matter of time before US forces began monitoring the building and the surrounding area.
DID THE PAKISTANIS KNOW?
Bin Laden’s unlikely hiding place has surprised many security observers, who have blasted the Pakistani government and intelligence services for allegedly knowing the al-Qaeda leader’s whereabouts and sheltering him from the Americans. This view rests on the documented operational ties between the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate and al-Qaeda, especially during the 1980s and 1990s. But this, in itself, does not point to any evidence of high-level collusion between the ISI and al-Qaeda —which would necessarily be required to provide shelter to a figure of bin Laden’s significance. By the same token, Washington maintained close ties with al-Qaeda-linked mujahedeen during the Cold War, when both sides were fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. But this does not mean that these ties are still present today.
It is true that Islamabad’s response to the assassination of bin Laden has been muted, to say the least. The offices of the country’s President and Prime Minister, as well as the ISI, have remained silent over the issue. But this silence is more likely rooted in the government’s embarrassment rather than in its guilt over alleged ties with al-Qaeda. It is also true that US President Barack Obama did not thank Pakistan in his address to the nation on Sunday night, despite the fact that the Pakistani government’s permission (expressed or tacit) must have been essential in facilitating the covert operation in Abbottabad. Yet it is equally true that President Obama did mention that intelligence sharing between America and Pakistan had provided some of the initial clues as to bin Laden’s hideout —a claim that was subsequently confirmed by sources within the ISI.
This, however, should not be taken to imply that the US notified Pakistan of the actual assassination operation. It is worth noting that some sources in Pakistan claim that the assassination was carried out by the Pakistani military, and that bin Laden’s body was taken by US forces after he was killed by Pakistani soldiers. But such reports are isolated and unreliable. It would appear more likely that bin Laden was assassinated in an operation commanded strictly by the US, which was initiated from Afghanistan —although some sources insist that it was initiated from within air bases in Pakistan. If the Pakistanis were notified at all, this would have been late in the operation and in very vague terms.
DID THE US INTEND TO KILL BIN LADEN?
There are conflicting reports about the intended goal of the operation. Reuters quotes an unnamed “US national security official” who claims that “this was a kill operation”, and that the US forces’ mission was to assassinate, not capture, the al-Qaeda mastermind. Yet it needs to be remembered that this was an intelligence-led operation involving one of the most lucrative intelligence sources in the US-led war on terrorism. Aiming to kill bin Laden would go against standard intelligence practice, which primarily aims at capturing, not eliminating, crucial intelligence assets. The truth, therefore, must be somewhere in the middle. The primary goal of the operation must logically have been to capture bin Laden alive, if at all possible. Killing him would have been a secondary goal, especially if significant resistance was encountered at the compound. Reports from the ground suggest that bin Laden was shot in the head “while shooting back”. It would be risky to try to assess bin Laden’s psychology at the time of the raid, but, judging by his general religious disposition and operational demeanor, it would be safe to assume that he would have consciously tried to die as a martyr, rather than be captured alive by US forces.
WHAT HAPPENS NOW?
The answer to this question is anyone’s guess. According to CIA Director Leon Panetta, al-Qaeda (or al-Qaeda-inspired groups) will “almost certainly” attempt revenge strikes. Yet this is hardly risky forecasting. It is far more difficult to predict the intensity and general location of possible revenge strikes. Future strikes within Pakistan should be considered near-certain. But is al-Qaeda capable of striking inside the United States? If so, how long will it take it to prepare such strike or strikes? These are the questions currently in the minds of members of America’s intelligence community.
Equally interesting is the question of what happens to bin Laden’s compound, as well as to its contents. One of the more surprising aspects of the entire episode concerns reports that the US forces were in and out of the compound in 45 minutes. This would only make sense if a massive retaliatory attack was expected at the site. One would imagine that the US forces would want to carefully search the entire compound, something which would take hours, if not days, if it were to be done properly. Was the compound searched, and if so, what was found? According to ABC News, three US helicopters left the scene carrying with them “computers”, as well as several male captives.
One final question in this section concerns bin Laden’s body. According to the US government, the corpse was disposed of at sea. The presumed reason for this is to prevent the unintended establishment of a martyr’s shrine —although it can be argued that bin Laden’s hideout may become just that. However, was this the intended plan of action at the beginning of the operation? Michael Scheuer, who headed the CIA’s bin Laden unit in the 1990s, notes that the US actually offered bin Laden’s body to Saudi Arabia (bin Laden died stateless, but was a Saudi citizen for most of his life), but that the Kingdom politely declined the offer…
* Ian Allen has spent nearly twenty-five years working in intelligence-related fields, and is now active in intelligence consulting. He has worked in North America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. He is currently living and working in South Korea. He is co-founder and Editor of intelNews.org. His latest writings for intelNews.org are available here.
* Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis has been writing and teaching on the politics of intelligence for over ten years. His areas of academic expertise include the institutional analysis of the intelligence community; the interception of communications; and the history of intelligence with particular reference to international espionage during the Cold War. He is co-founder and Senior Editor of intelNews.org. His latest writings for intelNews.org are available here.