You are here

The Killing of Osama: Easy Operation as a result of Hard Intelligence

Commentary, 6 May 2011
Americas, Intelligence, Terrorism, Central and South Asia
The audacious operation that killed Osama Bin Laden was completed relatively shortly. It reaped the benefits of a careful intelligence operation that lasted months, if not years.

The audacious operation that killed Osama Bin Laden was completed relatively shortly. It reaped the benefits of a careful intelligence operation that lasted months, if not years.

By Professor Michael Clarke, Director General, RUSI

Obama et al witness Operation Gerenimo against Bin Laden
President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the 1 May White House 2011. (c) US DoD

The world is still agog at the exploits of the twenty-five men of the US Navy Seals Team Six that killed Osama Bin Laden on 1 May.  In truth, the operation was, in the words of one prominent US General, 'a cakewalk; a simpler operation for the Special Forces than takes place week in, week out, in Afghanistan.'  That is not to say that the operation was not daring, very dangerous, and expertly executed.  But it came to fruition after nine months of intelligence gathering. The Seals had a specially built replica to train on, and they had every support they needed, with top politicians in Washington watching it unfold live on screen while they all held their breath.  This was remarkable in its execution and success. 

More remarkable, however, is the intelligence operation that its success represented.  It began in August 2010 from a tenuous lead that a suspected Al-Qa'ida courier had been coming and going regularly to the closed compound at Abbottabad. The arrest of Abu Faraj al-Libbi in 2005 convinced US intelligence officials that the 'courier-networks' were the most likely route to finding Bin Laden after the trail had gone cold with his escape from the Tora Bora cave complex in 2001. Al-Libbi was one of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's key colleagues and a trusted intermediary for senior Al-Qa'ida leaders, and he was arrested while  waiting to meet another courier - Maulawi Abd al-Khaliq Jan.

In July 2010, after years of fruitless network tracking, a white Suzuki vehicle was spotted near Peshawar and positively linked to a suspected courier who was then tracked coming and going to the Abbottabad complex. The man has since been named by CNN (but not confirmed officially) as a Kuwaiti - as was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed - known as Abu Ahmad. Whether or not this was his true identity the man was evidently serving someone very important.

Operation known to a select few

The lead was then followed up for the next nine months by the full spectrum of US intelligence assets. The evidence that they could be looking at Osama Bin Laden's hideaway, in an urban area a mere 62 miles from Pakistan's capital, strengthened as the months went on, but it was never a confirmed fact.  There was satellite imagery of a figure that might, or might not, have been Osama Bin Laden moving about the enclosed courtyard, but nothing specific.  In the event, the operation was authorised by the President on the basis of a high probability, but nothing like certainty.

As the conviction grew that this target might be 'Geronimo' - the big one, it is not surprising that the whole thing was kept a strictly national secret, and certainly not shared with the Pakistani government who are widely believed in Washington to be extremely leaky with sensitive information.  Rather more remarkable is the fact that none of this leaked out within Washington itself.  According to official briefings, all the US intelligence agencies were involved for a prolonged period; special training facilities were built, squads were briefed for a high-value target, the Presidential top team - at least fourteen of them by April - were briefed with increasingly specific information.  And no fewer than sixteen Congressional leaders were brought into the circle to maintain bi-partisan support - especially if the operation went wrong or turned out to be mis-identified.  The growing conviction, as the months and weeks tipped towards a decision point that this could be the operation of the decade, had the effect of instilling a deepening shadow of secrecy on a widening circle of politicians and officials in a way that has genuinely surprised many Washington observers.

Lengthy surveillance

The lengthy period of surveillance has almost certainly created other important intelligence leads in the campaign against the Al-Qa'ida core organisation.  Now that Bin Laden's presence is a confirmed fact, nine months of comings and goings, deliveries and passers-by, all become gold dust intelligence.  All the more so as the Abbottabad villa deliberately had no mobile phones, landlines or internet connections.  The Al-Qa'ida core network has long since fallen back on the safety of face-to-face communications and hand-delivered messages and equipment.  But the corresponding weakness is that US national intelligence agencies should now know a great deal about who was providing the face-to-face contact with Bin Laden's staff over a long period. Not least, the violent part of the raid lasted less than 3 minutes from the landing of helicopters (even including the accident and destruction of one of the machines) to the killing of Osama Bin Laden himself. Two of the three other Al-Qa'ida members reported killed in the operation were also named as identified couriers, and they died within seconds of the helicopter landings.  The next forty or so minutes were spent ransacking the key rooms for books, discs, hard drives, papers and records of any type. The US now has the best haul of all-source intelligence on the Al-Qa'ida core organisation that it has ever possessed, or ever will.  It will be surprising if there are not follow-up operations of various types, from drone strikes in Pakistan to counter-terrorism arrests in western countries, over the coming months while this treasure-trove of intelligence remains hot. 


Challenges to future intelligence operations

The Pakistani authorities, too, facing the biggest crisis in their relations with the US for over a decade, will want to be seen to act on their own counter-terrorism intelligence, such as it is.  The political mood in Washington is coldly and explicitly angry with the government in Islamabad, to whom it has given around $18 billion in assistance since 2002.  As the intelligence on Abbottabad built up over the months, the top of the Obama Administration had lots of time to confirm in its own collective mind that the government of Pakistan either had little effective control over its own intelligence operations and competence, or that it was passively complicit in a cover-up of intelligence that should have been pursued. 

Either way, the Pakistan authorities have either to face down US anger from an intrinsically weak position, or engage in some damage limitation that will almost certainly take the form of a new spike in terror-related arrests and more pressure on Pakistan Taleban groups.  There will likely be some rough justice - and injustice - in the process that will not do the prospects for domestic stability across Pakistan any lasting good.

US intelligence will enjoy a bounce in credibility and prestige as a result of this operation at a time when it could do with one, but there is a longer-term downside as well.  As the 'Arab spring' sweeps across the Middle East region, US officials acknowledge that relations with some previously nasty governments - with whom they had quietly-productive intelligence relations - are changing rapidly.  If the pattern of US relations with governments in the region is ultimately evolving for the better, one of the short-term costs may be in regional intelligence co-operation and a degree of blindness that US agencies will suffer as a result, particularly in the all-important area of human intelligence. 

An 'intelligence crisis' with Pakistan will only add to this blindness if it is not handled very carefully and the suspicions among regional intelligence agencies that the US is prepared to act high-handedly and unilaterally will exacerbate the trend.  Political reactions throughout the Middle East to the US operation have been muted, or judiciously supportive.  Reactions from intelligence agencies are always difficult to judge from the outside, but the intelligence ripples of reaction are likely to be as significant as the political ones.



Professor Michael Clarke
Distinguished Fellow

Professor Michael Clarke was Director-General of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) from 2007 to 2015 when he retired from... read more

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Support Rusi Research