Killing bin Laden
There is something eminently satisfying about the death of Osama bin Laden. Almost a decade after the terrorist attacks of 9-11, and more than 10 years after the bombing of the USS Cole and our embassies in Africa, the Al Qaida mastermind finally met his fate on Sunday, with a bullet fired from a Navy SEAL. One shot, one very important kill.
And, we should take great pleasure that the world's most wanted fugitive is on the lam no more. Instead, he's now shark food in the Indian Ocean, after a hastily-arranged burial at sea. With the blood of thousands of innocents on his hand, the Al Qaida leader got better than he deserved. We'd have preferred his head on a pike outside his compound, but the dumping at sea will suffice.
Without the body, there can be no burial shrine, no geographic rallying point for the jihadists. Instead, let them live with the sobering knowledge that the long arm of our intelligence services and special forces can eventually track them down as well, even behind the walls of a fortified compound in Pakistan. U.S. counter-terrorism efforts aren't always perfect, but our people are relentless and they have unlimited resources. Sooner or later, the clock was bound to run out on bin Laden and it did just that early Sunday, inside his hideout north of Islamabad.
Which brings us to some rather interesting facts regarding the killing of Osama bin Laden. To be sure, we may never know the full details of the operation, and that suits us just fine. During the victory lap that follows this type of event, officials and politicians often become a bit too chatty, disclosing details that will only complicate the planning and execution of similar operations in the future. For example, we don't need to know the name of the SEAL who put a bullet in bin Laden's brain; just give him the Navy Cross (along with other members of the team) and give him some of the reward money for the kill/capture of bin Laden.
-- In terms of surprises, perhaps the biggest one was bin Laden's actual hiding place. Conventional wisdom held that the Al Qaida leader was holed up in a cave complex somewhere in Pakistan's western tribal lands. But Osama bin Laden was finally located in a rather comfortable compound in Abbottabad, only 35 miles north of Islamabad, Pakistan's capital city. The city is home to Pakistan's military academy, and locals report that a number of Pakistani military officers and government officials live in the area. That raises obvious questions about who was harboring bin Laden.
-- Media accounts indicate that bin Laden's compound was built five years ago, suggesting that he had been living in Abbottabad for an extended period of time. Again, that flies in the face of long-held intelligence analysis, which suggested the Al Qaida leader was constantly on the move, to complicate tracking by our military and intelligence assets.
The sojourn in Abbottabad suggests that bin Laden felt very secure in his surroundings, or suffered from medical issues that limited his mobility. There have been persistent reports that bin Laden was hobbled by kidney disease and other problems. Staying in one place would facilitate medical treatment, but increase the probability of detection. Still, the Most Wanted Man in the World apparently managed to live in one place--for years--without being detected. This again highlights the failure of U.S. human intelligence in critical regions of the world. True, we ultimately got our man, but the intel post-mortem will likely reveal missed details that might have led us to OBL sooner.
-- Did bin Laden get a little too comfortable in his Pakistani hideout? That appears to be the case. For years, we assumed that UBL was surrounded by dozens of bodyguards, even at remote hideouts. But when the 'kill" operation went down, the SEALs (reportedly) had at least a 4-1 advantage over bin Laden and his entourage, which included one wife and his adult son. Call it an unfair fight--exactly what the SEALs wanted. What happened to Al Qaida's version of the Praetorian Guard? Did OBL give them the night off, or did he deliberately detach much of his security detail, trying to maintain a low profile--and believing that his Pakistani friends would tip him about any planned U.S. military action?
-- The killing of bin Laden should settle the debate about closing Guantanamo Bay, once and for all. Catherine Herridge of Fox News was among the first to report that the interrogation of detainees at that facility yielded details that opened the trail to Abbottabad. Could the intel have been developed through other means? Perhaps. But the ability to interrogate (and re-interrogate) detainees, then fuse that information with other sources, is invaluable. It was a detainee at Gitmo who provided the first clues about trusted Al Qaida courier. Interrogations at CIA "black site" prisons in Poland and Romania generated more information, providing critical details that ultimately led to bin Laden.
And how did we get these nuggets from captured terrorists? Did someone say "enhanced interrogations?" Thank you, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, John Yoo and other former officials who pushed for those interrogation techniques, and fought the legal battles necessary to implement them. Without their efforts, OBL might still be living in his Pakistani compound.
-- The SOF team that took out bin Laden was surprisingly small. During a CBS Special Report last night, correspondent Lara Logan speculated about a much larger force that included a Ranger security element, additional air assets and a larger assault force. Ms. Logan clearly needs a refresher course in SOF tactics. From what we've been told (so far), the raid was carried out by two dozen SEALs, ferried to the compound by two Blackhawk helicopters. One of the choppers malfunctioned over the target and made a hard landing, before the SEALs began their attack. A back-up helicopter was called in for the extraction, and the inoperable Blackhawk was destroyed by the departing SOF team.
By design, this raiding force was made to be mean, lean and lethal, packing enough operators to take care of OBL and his group, but without creating a large signature that might be detected by the terrorists--or their friends in the Pakistani military and/or intelligence services. As it turned out, bin Laden was caught completely off-guard, and so were the Paks. Some of their agents reportedly showed up as the SEALs were departing, probably wondering how much we had discovered about their relationship with the Al Qaida leader.
Bin Laden's death marks a great victory in the War on Terror, and President Obama deserves some of the credit. For a Commander-in-Chief who has been sometimes reluctant to use military force, Mr. Obama decided to take a roll of the dice and it paid off handsomely. He rejected proposals to simply bomb the compound, electing the more risky strategy of sending in the SEALs to eliminate OBL and remove any doubt about his fate. It was a daring call, one that proved correct in the end. Perhaps this success will make him less hesitant to utilize the military option in the future.
But the lion's share of of our gratitude should go to those who conducted the operation and facilitated its planning. Members of SEAL Team 6 conducted a textbook operation, but their raid depended on precision intelligence and the spooks delivered. It's worth noting that some of the information that led to Osama bin Laden was developed in the first year after 9-11. There were numerous false starts, miscues and lost opportunities over the decade that followed, but ultimately, the intel community developed the data that brought the SEALs to Abbottabad. In the intelligence business (and what we once called The War on Terror), persistence is indeed, a virtue.
ADDENDUM: U.S. officials have disclosed that bin Laden's corpse did not show obvious signs of disease, malnutrition or other medical issues. The terrorist leader appeared to be in good health at the time he was killed, so health wasn't an over-arching factor in his decision to remain at the compound.