May 6, 2011

In Focus: CIA spied on bin Laden from a safe house

By GREG MILLER The Washington Post

(Continued from page 1)

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Pakistanis walk past shops in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the city where Osama bin Laden was found and killed earlier this week. The CIA had a safe house in the city and had been spying on the al-Qaida leader.

The Associated Press

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Osama bin Laden

ASSOCIATED PRESS

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U.S. officials said they are convinced that bin Laden, who had long immersed himself among the Pashtun tribes along the border with Afghanistan, was driven from that part of the country by the escalating drone campaign.

"Even five years ago things were dropping from the sky" in Pakistan's tribal region, a U.S. official said. "He probably felt that if he could conceal his presence (in Abbottabad) it would be an unlikely area for the United States to pursue him."

Strikes by conventional U.S. aircraft would have carried enormous risks, both because Pakistan has invested heavily in air detection and defense systems and because of the perils of an errant strike.

"All it has to be is about 1,000 yards off and it hits the Pakistan Military Academy," said a CIA veteran of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

U.S. officials said there were also disadvantages for bin Laden in residing in Abbottabad, including the fact that the area is relatively welcoming to outsiders, including Pakistanis on vacation, military families and even U.S. soldiers who have at times been sent to Abbottabad to train Pakistani troops.

"Abbottabad is not a place where Islamic extremists went because it wasn't a stronghold," said the former U.S. intelligence official involved in the bin Laden pursuit. "They preferred places like Peshawar, Quetta or Karachi."

The CIA took advantage of that atmosphere to send case officers and recruited informants into Abbottabad undetected and set up a safe house that functioned as its base.

"That is an Achilles heel for bin Laden because anybody can go" to Abbottabad, the former CIA official said. "It makes it easier for the CIA to operate."

U.S. officials declined to say how many case officers or informants used the facility, but they stressed that the effort required extraordinary caution because of the fear that bin Laden might vanish again if spooked.

The CIA began to focus on the compound last summer after years of painstaking effort to penetrate a small network of couriers with ties to the al-Qaida leader. Once the most important of those couriers led them to the Abbottabad compound, the conspicuous nature of the complex sent up alarms that it might have been built for bin Laden himself.

"The place was three stories high and you could watch it from a variety of angles," the former official said. Moving into the custom compound, the former official said, "was his biggest mistake."

When a team of two dozen commandos arrived at the site Monday, one of bin Laden's couriers was the only enemy to open fire, officials said. The SEALs encountered no other armed opposition as they ascended to the top floor, where bin Laden was found. "He was in the doorway and then retreated, and that's where the operators moved in," the senior U.S. official said.

 

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