Tuesday, May 3, 2011

U.S. Rolled Dice in bin Laden Raid (Wall Street Journal, 3 May 2011)

Courtesy: "Wall Street Journal", 3 May 2011

U.S. Rolled Dice in bin Laden Raid

As two choppers packed with American special forces skimmed their way across a moonless sky toward Osama bin Laden's lair, the mission's planners still weren't even sure their target lived there.
Some of the analysts who assessed the intelligence put the chances as low as 60%.
President Barack Obama had also chosen a risky attack option: A direct raid on the house, deep within Pakistan—potentially putting American fighters in face-to-face combat within a maze-like compound—instead of simply bombing the place from a Stealth aircraft. After a decade of frustration, chasing bin Laden's shadow from the caves of southern Afghanistan to the lawless provinces of eastern Pakistan, U.S. officials decided the risk was worth taking. An examination of the American decision shows the extent to which it was built upon on months of tenacious planning—but that ultimately, it came down to gut instinct.

"What swayed people was there was no other plausible explanation" for who else might be hiding in the home, one U.S. official said. The other possibility, some suspected, was al Qaeda's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
In December, the Central Intelligence Agency called a secret meeting to line up tens of millions of dollars in funding, kicking off a five-month scramble that climaxed in Sunday's dramatic events. This account is based on interviews and briefings with nearly a dozen officials from the White House, intelligence agencies, Pentagon and Congress.
Clearly, the focus of the U.S. spy community's interest—a walled compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan—was built to shelter someone who didn't want to be seen. By last fall, the U.S. had figured out that most of its 22 residents were relatives of one of bin Laden's most trusted "couriers," a close confidant responsible for shuttling messages among al Qaeda leaders and friends world-wide.
But there was also another family in the sprawling, three-story building, and it remained a deep mystery. Intelligence officials knew there was an adult male in there, but they couldn't catch a glimpse. He never stepped in to view.
For more than a decade, the U.S. had sought bin Laden, and missed half a dozen times. Amid these frustrations, the seeds of last weekend's mission were sown.
In 2002, just a year after bin Laden had escaped in the cave-riddled mountains of Tora Bora in Afghanistan, interrogations of CIA detainees revealed the nom de guerre of one of his couriers. The man, who hasn't been named by U.S. officials, was a protégé of the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and a trusted assistant to Abu Faraj al-Libbi, a former al Qaeda No. 3 previously captured.
It took several more years simply to learn that courier's real name. In 2007, CIA analysts finally obtained it, and set out to find him. Still, the trail remained cold. Mr. Panetta's first briefing on bin Laden as CIA chief, in February 2009, was discouraging. Spies around that time had "caught a glimpse" of the courier, who was working with his brother. But the two men had been extremely careful about covering their tracks.
The big break took more than a year. In late August 2010, the CIA was able to follow the courier directly to the place where he lived: the Abbottabad compound.
The property came in for intense scrutiny. Teams from the CIA, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and National Security Agency studied it with satellite and other surveillance equipment. Mr. Panetta got weekly updates.
Built in 2005, the compound was on the outskirts of the town center, at the end of a narrow dirt road. The main structure: a three-story building with few windows facing outward. There was a terrace on the third floor with a seven-foot wall, preventing people from seeing inside.
"Once they saw it, they knew they were on to something," a U.S. official said.
Spies couldn't even rustle through the trash for clues. Unlike almost all the neighbors, the residents of the compound burned their garbage.
In September, Mr. Obama was told about the compound and informed that it might be housing valuable targets in the war on terror—the courier and his family, as well as the family of the courier's brother.
In addition, "There was a mysterious third family living there," a U.S. official said. "There was an adult male they couldn't visualize but knew he was there. There was also a female, potentially a wife and children, whose family matched Osama bin Laden's potential family." Members of the third family never left the residence.
In November, Mr. Panetta directed the Counterterrorism Center to provide 10 proposals to gain better intelligence on who was at the compound. They delivered 38, but only a few were viable. "That was the balance, the more you creep in, the more you risk tipping him off," a U.S. official said.
Looming over the operation was an equally pressing worry: The U.S. might tip off the Pakistanis, who weren't deemed trustworthy enough to keep the secret. The Pakistanis had provided the U.S. some information on the courier, but may not have realized his significance, a U.S. official said. Some U.S. officials had long suspected elements of the Pakistani government or military were aiding bin Laden.
The evidence remained circumstantial. Nevertheless, in December, CIA chief Leon Panetta decided the intelligence in hand was compelling enough to act. He called a secret meeting with lawmakers to seek tens of millions of dollars to fund an intensive program aimed intensive collection of intel about the property.
After Mr. Panetta secured the money from Congress in December, CIA analysts remained split on the likelihood bin Laden was even there. Some put the chances at 60%; others said 80%. Mr. Panetta struggled with the uncertainty, one official said, but concluded the American public would back an operation even if the odds were only 50-50.
In February, Mr. Panetta believed it was time to begin planning an operation. He met with Vice Adm. William McRaven, who heads the military's special operations command, and asked for a small team to game out the options.
An early favorite: a bombing raid. That approach would minimize risk to American troops and maximize the likelihood of killing the residents of the compound. But it might also have destroyed any proof bin Laden was there.
A helicopter raid would be more complex, but more likely to deliver confirmation. Some officials were wary of repeating a fiasco like Black Hawk Down in Somalia, when American forces were killed after a botched raid on a Somali warlord.
John Brennan, the White House chief counterterrorism adviser, said Obama advisers were divided given the risks, the circumstantial evidence, and the uncertainty about the true identities of all the residents. Top national-security advisers briefed the president in the Situation Room on March 14. They told him there was a high-value target at the compound, and most likely it was bin Laden.
"This is a go," Mr. Obama told the principles.
Two weeks later, Mr. Obama told his national-security team he wanted them to start rehearsing a raid on the compound. The team built a mock-up of the compound in Afghanistan to test out dry runs of possible attacks.
In April, Mr. Panetta was holding daily meetings. "This it the best lead we have," he told his team at one meeting. "We've got to find out what the hell is in that compound."
On April 19, Mr. Panetta told the president the CIA believed bin Laden was there. Other advisers briefed Mr. Obama on preparations for an assault, including the outcomes of the dress rehearsals. Mr. Obama told them to "assume it's a go for planning purposes and that we had to be ready," an administration official said.
That same day, Mr. Obama gave provisional approval for the commando-style helicopter assault despite the added risk. Senior U.S. officials said the need to get a positive identification on bin Laden became the deciding factor.
At 8 a.m. Friday, April 29, in White House Diplomatic Room, Mr. Obama summoned National Security Adviser Tom Donilan, Chief of Staff William Daley and Mr. Brennan, and authorized the operation.
Mr. Panetta called Adm. McRaven. "It's in your hands, friend," he told Adm. McRaven. "I wish you the best. All I can do is pray a hell of a lot."
On Sunday morning, Mr. Obama gave the mission a final go, after a 24-hour delay due to bad weather. Mr. Panetta went to church. Mr. Obama played nine holes of golf.
The sprawling compound, spread over an acre of lush farmland covered with eucalyptus trees, was occupied by bin Laden at least since August of last year, according to intelligence reviewed by Pakistani officials. Residents said it had been occupied since 2005.
A three-story building sits in the middle of the compound surrounded by concrete walls some 14 feet high that are topped by barbed wire and contained security cameras. Some residents also claimed it had an underground area.
After nightfall Sunday, U.S. helicopters brought the team of Special Operations Forces from an air base in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. One helicopter was badly damaged after hitting the ground hard because of a "vortex" created by the high walls of the compound, a heart-stopping moment that encapsulated the U.S.'s biggest fears about the mission.
Mr. Panetta monitored the operation from his seventh-floor conference-room-turned-war-room. At the White House, Mr. Obama and his top aides monitored the unfolding action in real time from the Situation Room. "The minutes passed like days," Mr. Brennan said.
Knowing they would have to abandon one chopper, the team spent 40 minutes, with guns blazing, charging through each of the structures on the compound. Bin Laden and his family were found on the second and third floors of the large main structure, the final building to be searched. U.S. officials said bin Laden tried to defend himself with a gun before being shot.
Bin Laden's body was initially identified by members of the military strike force, and by a woman at the compound identified as one of his wives.
The assault team also had orders to remove items of intelligence value. "They picked up anything they could get their hands on," including computer hard drives, said a U.S. intelligence official. "They're being exploited to find anything we can on them."
Video footage obtained by local TV channels following the attack showed a bloodstained bed in a room where bin Laden was reportedly killed.
A senior defense official said bin Laden was killed by "U.S. bullets," ruling out that he was killed by his own guards to prevent his capture. At least one bullet fired by the U.S. strike team struck bin Laden in the left eye.
Three other adult men were killed, including the two couriers and one of bin Laden's adult sons. One woman was killed when she was used as a "shield" by one of the men. Two other women were injured. The disabled helicopter was destroyed by the U.S. crew before the strike team left.
At 3:50 p.m. Sunday, the president first learned that bin Laden's body was tentatively identified. At 7:01 p.m., Mr. Obama was told there was a "high probability" the body was bin Laden's.
Bin Laden was identified not only by the strike team, but also by one of his wives, according to a senior intelligence official. CIA specialists compared photos of the body to known photos of bin Laden and were able to determine with 95% certainty it was him. Monday morning, an initial DNA analysis showed a "virtually 100%" match of the body against DNA of several bin Laden family members.
Bin Laden was buried at sea Monday, in accordance with Islamic tradition that burial take place within 24 hours of death. A senior U.S. defense official said religious rites were read on the deck of the USS Carl Vinson. The body was placed in a weighted bag. A military officer read the prepared religious remarks.
"After the words were complete," a senior defense official said, "the body was placed on a prepared flat board, tipped up, whereupon the deceased's body eased into the sea."


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