May 6, 2011

Hunt for bin Laden: Lessons learned from the enemy

Ian Shapira, Marc Fisher and Peter Finn, The Washington Post

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Back home, frustration over the long search led to a debate between critics of the Bush administration's global war on terrorism, who argued that the cause of security would be better served by focusing on targeted strikes against bin Laden and al-Qaida, and defenders of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, who said the best way to contain terrorism was to take the fight to where the enemy lived.

As that debate raged, the analysts in the CIA's HV Unit - dedicated to hunting for high-value targets (bin Laden was known in the agency as "HVT-1") - began to envision the search in a new way.

"The story of hunting bin Laden is a story of increased sophistication in thinking," said an intelligence official. Maybe bin Laden was in the mountains; maybe not. But that was the wrong question.

Even al-Qaida's top guns didn't know where bin Laden was, yet they still managed to get instructions from him. So the most important question was not "Where is bin Laden?" but rather "How does he communicate?"

Interrogations determined that bin Laden got his orders out only once a month, by courier, and that led analysts to decide that, as the intelligence official said, "you have to know the network, the couriers and how that leads to the location."

At the White House, under pressure from mounting public skepticism about the hunt, Bush moved on a different track. He ordered up "Operation Cannonball," directing the CIA to "flood the zone," beefing up the number of officers on the hunt in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But there were no breakthroughs.

That did not discourage the analysts at the HV Unit. They were learning more about how al-Qaida worked, and that led them to think about networks in which information doesn't get passed up through a hierarchy but rather is shared across all ranks.

The network idea was catching on in the military as well. In 2006, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal launched raids against al-Qaida leaders in Iraq as well as in Yemen and Afghanistan, said a former White House official. To make those raids happen, McChrystal needed information to move in new ways, and he adopted a networked structure modeled on what he called al-Qaida's "alarming" ability to grow quickly and shore up weak spots.

"To defeat a networked enemy," McChrystal wrote in Foreign Policy, "we had to become a network ourselves."

That meant instantly sharing intelligence with people throughout the battlefield rather than sending it up the chain of command. Video from drones was now delivered not just to analysts who controlled the unmanned flying cameras but also to combat teams on the ground. The result was a dramatic increase in the number of raids and their success rate.

At the CIA, analysts searched for clues not in caves but in books and interrogation transcripts. Even popular books such as "Growing Up Bin Laden," by the terrorist's wife Najwa and son Omar, were mined for insights. In the book, Omar says his father kept safe houses in Kabul because he believed the Americans would never bomb a big city, for fear of killing innocent civilians. That got analysts thinking about urban hideouts.

"Finding bin Laden was not a problem susceptible to human-wave tactics," said an intelligence official who helped supervise the early years of the search. "Lots of people who knew little was almost certain to be less efficacious than a small, dedicated cadre of people with experience working the problem."

The slow, painstaking work of analyzing data met with impatience at the White House, where "a little fatigue had set in," said a former Bush White House official. "We weren't about to find him anytime soon. Publicly, we maintained a sense of urgency: 'We're looking as hard as we can.' But the energy had gone out of the hunt. It had settled to no more than a second-tier issue. After all, those were the worst days of Iraq."

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