Killing Bin Laden

May 2, 2011

Diagram of the compound housing Osama bin Laden in Pakistan that was raided by U.S. Navy SEALs (source: Department of Defense)
 

Osama bin Laden is dead. In the early hours of May 1 in Pakistan, a team of helicopter-borne U.S. Special Operations Forces assaulted a compound in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad and killed America’s public enemy number one, bringing to an end an almost ten-year manhunt following the September 11 attacks on the U.S. homeland. The late-night address by President Obama announcing news of bin Laden’s death may have heralded the most significant development in the war on terror to-date. As breathtaking as the details of the raid are, however, they may be equally sensitive in their implications for the future of the war on terror, the war in Afghanistan, and America’s relationship with Pakistan.

Finding Osama bin Laden

The raid on bin Laden’s hideout, according to senior U.S. administration officials, was the culmination of years of careful intelligence work and the relentless pursuit to discover the identity of one of bin Laden’s trusted couriers.[1] It was the discovery of the courier’s identity that led the assault team to their final location.[2] In August 2010, U.S. intelligence services determined that bin Laden may be hiding in a compound located in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, a military garrison town with a population of over 100,000.[3] The U.S. took months to develop the lead and to determine with enough veracity the accuracy of the information it had. Eventually, enough hard evidence had been gathered for President Barack Obama to order a raid on the compound by U.S. forces in the wee hours of May 1, 2011.[4] The compound in question was no soft target: intelligence officials said they were “shocked” by what they discovered during their investigations of the site. It was a massive three-story structure, at least eight times as large as any other residential buildings in the town, with few windows, and 12- to 18 foot-high walls lined with barbed wire. The compound, valued at over $1 million, suspiciously had no internet or phone connections and its residents appeared to have no form of income to support their largesse.[5] According to U.S. intelligence officials, the compound was “custom built to hide someone of significance.” This helped strengthen the U.S. case for launching what would be an unprecedented assault by U.S. ground troops into Pakistan proper.[6]

The Takedown

At 0130 Pakistan time, locals reported multiple helicopters flying at very low altitude over the town of Abbottabad. The helicopters were reportedly flying in from the direction of Tarbela, according to one eyewitness account, a town in Pakistan 36 miles distance from Abbottabad well-known for a large dam bearing its name, but that also has a base which has reportedly been home to a small group of U.S. military personnel inside Pakistan.[7]

Four helicopters ferried a small team of U.S. Special Operations Forces operators, reportedly including CIA paramilitaries and the U.S. Navy’s elite SEAL Team Six, to the massive fortified compound in the “Bilal area” of Abbottabad.[8] Locals reported hearing three loud explosions and then gunfire as the team breached and assaulted the compound.[9] A firefight ensued inside the facility during which between four and five people were killed, including bin Laden’s courier and his brother, bin Laden’s son, a woman who was being used as a human shield, and bin Laden.[10] Bin Laden was reportedly killed while resisting the raid. U.S. forces suffered no casualties, according to administration officials. Other women and children were reportedly apprehended during the raid. The entire operation lasted less than forty minutes.[11]

The assault team secured bin Laden’s body before extracting.[12] According to eyewitness and media reports, and a statement from senior administration officials, one of the U.S. helicopters crashed due to a “mechanical failure” during the operation, although one eyewitness speaking to the media claimed the helicopters were taking large amounts of ground fire and one may have been shot down; a Pakistani official claims fighters on the roof of the compound shot at the helicopters with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades.[13] The helicopter went down on the “PMA Kakul road,” the main road on which the Pakistan Military Academy in Abbottabad is located.[14] The helicopter was destroyed by U.S. personnel before they embarked on one of the remaining aircraft for extraction and the journey to Bagram air base in Afghanistan, their final destination.[15] The Pakistani military, which arrived only after the raid was conducted, cordoned off the entire area, began searching the compound and securing the wreckage of the U.S. helicopter.[16] Video from local news channels showed the compound in flames.[17]

Implications Regarding Pakistan

Bin Laden is dead, but his death raises as many issues as it resolves. In particular it begins to ask some very awkward questions of Pakistan. There are differing claims from the U.S. and the Pakistanis regarding the level of cooperation in the strike. In his late-night address, President Obama stated that Pakistani cooperation helped in the development of the lead on bin Laden.[18] After the raid, a senior ISI official, while confirming reports of bin Laden’s death, also claimed that the operation was a joint one between the U.S. and Pakistan.[19] Senior U.S. officials say, however, that no other country had been informed of the raid beforehand for reasons of maintaining operational security.[20] Media reports claim no Pakistani forces showed up to the site until after the raid was complete.[21]

Even more awkward is the size and location of bin Laden’s compound. The facility was “purpose built,” according to U.S. administration officials, around 2005 in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad.[22] The city is very close to the Pakistani capital of Islamabad—30 miles north as the crow flies and 100 miles or under two hours away by car. The city is a garrison town, home to many serving and retired Pakistani military officers, and a brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division of the Pakistan Army.[23] Abbottabad is also the location of the Pakistan Military Academy, Kakul (PMA Kakul), the Pakistani equivalent of the America’s West Point military academy.[24] The raided compound is reportedly 100 yards from the entrance to PMA Kakul.[25]

As a result, it becomes extremely difficult to fathom how a facility so large and unusual in its construction that had been around since as far back as 2005, and that was so close as it was to a major Pakistan Army facility, escaped the scrutiny of the ever-watchful Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI), Pakistan’s main spy agency. Commentators are surely going to be asking whether this is evidence of Pakistani complicity in sheltering bin Laden or whether it was an example of exercising willful ignorance.

Details are currently raw, but as more information becomes available, the U.S. could be faced with some stark choices regarding its relationship with Pakistan if it becomes apparent that there was some level of collusion between the ISI  and bin Laden. Given the current nadir in U.S.-Pakistan relations, this most recent incident has the potential to take that relationship to new lows. The Pakistani cabinet is currently holding its own emergency meeting to craft a response to the death of bin Laden.[26] It is still too soon, and details still too unsettled, to draw definite inferences one way or the other, but the next forty-eight hours are likely to be of critical importance as more information becomes available.

The Effect on AQAM

Also of importance will be the effect bin Laden’s death will have on the wider war against al Qaeda and its Associated Movements (AQAM). Clearly the death of bin Laden is a massive symbolic victory for the U.S.; it also provides a degree of closure to the families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks and other attacks propagated by al Qaeda across the world. The man responsible for so much death, destruction, and radicalization has finally been brought to justice.

On the other hand, the death of bin Laden is unlikely to be decisive by itself in the war against AQAM. The organization has long since worked to immunize itself to the effects of the death of one of its top leaders and bin Laden was no longer directly involved in the day-to-day running of the al Qaeda Central or the execution of plots. There is a ready replacement for bin Laden within al Qaeda Central in the form of his top lieutenant, Ayman al Zawahiri—although Zawahiri is not as accepted in the wider organization as bin Laden was, and his accession may exacerbate tensions within the group.[27]

That said, al Qaeda has shown itself to be extremely adept at filling senior leadership positions. The head of al Qaeda’s operational wing, essentially the number three man in the group, has been successfully targeted and assassinated on at least ten separate occasions.[28] Each time, someone new has been successfully plugged in to fill the gap. While it is true that bin Laden’s position within al Qaeda Central is far more unique, the broader network does have a precedent for filling even the top position in a theater, and doing so with effectiveness. In 2006, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the head of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), was killed in a targeted U.S. airstrike. At the time, many viewed his assassination to be a death knell for AQI, but Zarqawi was replaced by Abu Ayyub al Masri, and the terror campaign was intensified, further inflaming sectarian tensions its campaign of violence. Whoever does end up replacing bin Laden should be considered to be as effective and dangerous as his predecessor; not doing so would be criminally negligent. 

While the death of bin Laden is a significant accomplishment and a definite blow to the morale of AQAM, especially given bin Laden’s symbolism and central position, not only in the leadership but also in the legend of the organization, his death does not absolve policymakers of the responsibility to pursue and aggressively take on AQAM. In the short term, any number of violent Islamist groups may attempt to carry out terrorist attacks to avenge the death of their spiritual leader. In the long term, al Qaeda Central in Pakistan, and its allies across the world, for example Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, remain powerful, will continue to plot against the U.S. and its allies, and need to be ruthlessly dismantled.

The death of bin Laden should also not be taken as an excuse or an opportunity to wind down American counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan. Doing so would display dangerous ignorance of al Qaeda’s staying power. Leaving Afghanistan to the Taliban on the pretext that Osama bin Laden, the “primary target,” of U.S. efforts in the region, has been eliminated, would provide al Qaeda the second wind and breathing space it would need to truly reconstitute itself and regain, or exceed, the ability to threaten the world it possessed on 9/11.

 Conclusion

The death of Osama bin Laden is a significant victory for the U.S. in the war against terror, perhaps the most significant victory to-date. The leader and public face of one of the most dangerous terrorist organizations in the world has been taken off the org chart and the whole world will sleep safer as a result. While bin Laden’s death is significant, it is not, unfortunately, a decisive blow against the organization he had managed to foster into a global ideology. Al Qaeda’s threat in real terms is undiminished. Its capabilities for attacking the west through its own operatives (as demonstrated by the recent arrests of al Qaeda operatives planning devastating attacks in Germany) and through those of its affiliates such as AQAP, AQIM, and others, also remain undiminished. The death of bin Laden should be used as an opportunity to ratchet up the pressure on al Qaeda even further rather than as an excuse to wind-down U.S. efforts against AQAM in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The euphoria of the victorious moment will pass, but the threats from al Qaeda will remain and require constant, vigilant action. The U.S. will also need to scrutinize its relationship with Pakistan depending on the information that becomes available over the next few days. As was mentioned above, it is still too soon to draw inferences based on the information currently available, but given what details are currently available on the nature and location of the strike, Pakistan has some serious answering to do.



[1] Phillip Rucker, Scott Wilson, and Anne E. Kornblut, “Osama bin Laden buried at sea after being killed by U.S. forces in Pakistan,” Washington Post, May 2, 2011. Available at
[2] White House Office of the Press Secretary, “Press Briefing by Senior Administration Officials on the Killing of Osama bin Laden,” WhiteHouse.gov, May 2, 2011. Available at
[3] Phillip Rucker, Scott Wilson, and Anne E. Kornblut, “Osama bin Laden buried at sea after being killed by U.S. forces in Pakistan,” Washington Post, May 2, 2011. Available at
[4] Phillip Rucker, Scott Wilson, and Anne E. Kornblut, “Osama bin Laden buried at sea after being killed by U.S. forces in Pakistan,” Washington Post, May 2, 2011. Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/osama-bin-laden-is-killed-by-us-forces-in-pakistan/2011/05/01/AFXMZyVF_print.html
[5] Ewen MacAskill, “Osama bin Laden: it took years to find him but just minutes to kill him,” The Guardian, May 2, 2011. Available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/may/02/how-osama-bin-laden-found
[6] White House Office of the Press Secretary, “Press Briefing by Senior Administration Officials on the Killing of Osama bin Laden,” The White House, May 2, 2011. Available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/05/02/press-briefing-senior-administration-officials-kiling-osama-bin-laden
[7] Statements of eyewitness in Abbottabad reported to author, May 2, 2011
“US forces kill Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan,” BBC, May 2, 2011. Available at
[8] Nahal Toosi, “Bin Laden killed in fiery raid in Pakistan,” Associated Press, May 2, 2011. Available at http://hosted2.ap.org/APDEFAULT/3d281c11a96b4ad082fe88aa0db04305/Article_2011-05-02-AS-Pakistan-Bin-Laden/id-405617936f2a4660a0352c38cf71716f
CNN Wire Staff, “How U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden,” CNN, May 2, 2011. Available at
http://www.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/asiapcf/05/02/bin.laden.raid/index.html?iref=NS1
R. Stickney, “Bin Laden's Death "Very Satisfying": Bill Gore,” Associated Press, May 2, 2011. Available at
[9] “US forces kill Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan,” BBC, May 2, 2011. Available at
[10] Statements of eyewitness in Abbottabad reported to author, May 2, 2011
“US forces kill Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan,” BBC, May 2, 2011. Available at
[11] White House Office of the Press Secretary, “Press Briefing by Senior Administration Officials on the Killing of Osama bin Laden,” The White House, May 2, 2011. Available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/05/02/press-briefing-senior-administration-officials-kiling-osama-bin-laden
“US forces kill Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan,” BBC, May 2, 2011. Available at
 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12307698
Ewen MacAskill, “Osama bin Laden: it took years to find him but just minutes to kill him,” The Guardian, May 2, 2011. Available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/may/02/how-osama-bin-laden-found
[12] White House Office of the Press Secretary, “Press Briefing by Senior Administration Officials on the Killing of Osama bin Laden,” The White House, May 2, 2011. Available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/05/02/press-briefing-senior-administration-officials-kiling-osama-bin-laden
[13] White House Office of the Press Secretary, “Press Briefing by Senior Administration Officials on the Killing of Osama bin Laden,” The White House, May 2, 2011. Available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/05/02/press-briefing-senior-administration-officials-kiling-osama-bin-laden
Nahal Toosi, “Bin Laden killed in fiery raid in Pakistan,” Associated Press, May 2, 2011. Available at http://hosted2.ap.org/APDEFAULT/3d281c11a96b4ad082fe88aa0db04305/Article_2011-05-02-AS-Pakistan-Bin-Laden/id-405617936f2a4660a0352c38cf71716f
[14] “Helicopter crashes on PMA Kakul road: sources,” Geo News, May 2, 2011. Available at http://geo.tv/5-2-2011/80971.htm
[15] “Press Briefing by Senior Administration Officials on the Killing of Osama bin Laden,” WhiteHouse.gov, May 2, 2011. Available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/05/02/press-briefing-senior-administration-officials-kiling-osama-bin-laden
“Osama Bin Laden is Dead,” Herald Sun, May 2, 2011. Available at http://www.cairns.com.au/article/2011/05/02/161735_local-news.html
[16] “US forces kill Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan,” BBC, May 2, 2011. Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12307698
[17] Imagery from Geo TV News broadcast, May 2, 2011
[18] “Osama Bin Laden Dead: Obama Speech Video and Transcript (VIDEO),” Huffington Post, May 2, 2011. Available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/02/osama-bin-laden-dead-obama-speech-transcript_n_856122.html
[19] “How U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden,” CNN, May 2, 2011. Available at http://www.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/asiapcf/05/02/bin.laden.raid/index.html?iref=NS1
Alex Rodriguez, “Suspicions grow over whether Pakistan aided Osama bin Laden,” LA Times, May 2, 2011. Available at http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-bin-laden-pakistan-20110502,0,6166140.story
[20] “Press Briefing by Senior Administration Officials on the Killing of Osama bin Laden,” WhiteHouse.gov, May 2, 2011. Available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/05/02/press-briefing-senior-administration-officials-kiling-osama-bin-laden
[21] “US forces kill Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan,” BBC, May 2, 2011. Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12307698
[22] “Press Briefing by Senior Administration Officials on the Killing of Osama bin Laden,” WhiteHouse.gov, May 2, 2011. Available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/05/02/press-briefing-senior-administration-officials-kiling-osama-bin-laden
[23] “Osama bin Laden buried at sea after being killed by U.S. forces in Pakistan,” Washington Post, May 2, 2011. Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/osama-bin-laden-is-killed-by-us-forces-in-pakistan/2011/05/01/AFXMZyVF_print.html
[24] “US forces kill Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan,” BBC, May 2, 2011. Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12307698
[26] “US forces kill Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan,” BBC, May 2, 2011. Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12307698
[27] “Press Briefing by Senior Administration Officials on the Killing of Osama bin Laden,” WhiteHouse.gov, May 2, 2011. Available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/05/02/press-briefing-senior-administration-officials-kiling-osama-bin-laden
[28] Craig Whitlock and Greg Miller, “Al-Qaeda is likely to replace No. 3 leader with ease,” Washington Post, June 2, 2010. Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/01/AR2010060103497.html