“I am with the same one as before,” Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed said in a phone conversation in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in June 2010 that was tapped by the CIA. Ahmed was the al-Qaeda operative who served as Osama bin Laden’s courier. And as detailed in the recently published, “The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden” by Mark Bowden, that information allowed the CIA to locate the walled compound in that community in which bin Laden was living with three of his wives.
Abbottabad is an affluent suburb of the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. “He can run, but he can’t hide,” President George W. Bush had said about Osama bin Laden after the al-Qaeda leader had taken credit for the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001 in a video that was distributed to his followers. But as Bowden details, bin Laden managed to escape from his base in Tora Bora in Afghanistan after the U.S. invaded that country, and he had successfully avoided capture since that time despite the fact that the U.S. State Department had promised a $25 million reward for anyone who could locate him.
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd had written toward the end of the Bush presidency that bin Laden was the man who apparently could “both run and hide,” and Bowden theorizes that the Bush Administration’s focus on the war in Iraq did not leave much energy for the hunt for bin Laden.
But the pursuit of the al-Qaeda leader became a goal of the Obama Administration, and the author documents how the CIA pursued the clues that eventually led them to the compound in Abbottabad. The initial surveillance of that site revealed that it was home to Ahmed and his brother and their families as well as another family whose members included a tall man who occasionally was seen pacing in a partially covered garden adjacent to the structure in which he lived. While the two brothers occasionally left the compound the tall man never did.
But confirmation that the individual was in fact the al-Qaeda leader would not take place until after the Navy Seals who raided the compound obtained a DNA sample from his bloody corpse. Efforts made to obtain more information regarding that family were not successful. Surveillance revealed that no trash was taken from the compound and that its refuse was burned on the grounds. The CIA contracted with a Pakistani physician to conduct free inoculations for childhood diseases for children in Abbottabad in an effort to obtain a DNA sample from the children in the compound. The author details how the doctor’s efforts were enthusiastically received by most parents in that community, and many children received inoculations as a result, but when he knocked on the gate of the site in question no one responded.
Bowden credits President Obama for his decision to authorize the raid on the compound despite the fact that several of his advisers were against it. The site was located a mile from a Pakistani military academy, and Vice President Biden worried that a raid could result in the Navy Seals having to fight members of the Pakistani military. Other high-ranking administration officials were hesitant because there was no proof that bin Laden was in the compound.
The author details that after the Navy Seals returned to the U.S. that President Obama addressed them and said that “Early on in the process I came to terms with the fact that there was always going to be a fifty-fifty case on the intelligence side. I made the decision I did because I had one hundred percent confidence in your ability. You are the finest small fighting force in the history of the world.”
WILLIAM F. O’BRIEN is an Oklahoma City attorney.