May 6, 2011

Hunt for bin Laden: Lessons learned from the enemy

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

(Continued from page 5)

The troubled war in Iraq, mounting concern about Iran's nuclear program, and the increasingly unstable situation in North Korea stole attention from the bin Laden hunt, White House and CIA officials said. The search for bin Laden, once the clarion cry of a nation bent on striking back, morphed into a topic Bush and his top staffers sought to avoid.

Through the next few years, leaders of the hunt hoped that the drones surveying the tribal areas would generate new leads, "but it was just a hope," said Juan Zarate, Bush's deputy national security adviser for counterterrorism in the middle years of the search. "It was a very dark period."

"We can say to those families who have lost loved ones to al-Qaida's terror: Justice has been done."

President Obama,

May 1, 2011

In the Bush White House, the lack of credible leads led to public statements designed to play down the individual and focus attention on the broader threat. The idea was "not to overly aggrandize the man even as we tried to find him," Zarate said. Outside the HV Unit, the landscape looked grim. "I can't remember any single piece of intelligence that got us especially excited," Zarate said.

But even as the hunt became a political liability, the road to bin Laden's house in Abbottabad was being built, not "brick by brick," said former CIA director Michael Hayden, but "pebble by pebble."

Turning vague references to a courier into a verified name took upwards of four years, but that opened the way to discovering how he operated, and that led to the surveillance of the strangely overbuilt house that curiously had no phone or Internet service.

The couple of dozen U.S. commandos who dropped onto bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad this week had to complete their mission in minutes, but it had taken years to get them there. The analysts who built that road believe that in addition to getting their man, they learned an essential lesson in how to think like their adversaries.

In 2006, bin Laden swore "not to die but a free man." But Osama bin Laden died a prisoner in a jail of his own making, a man without a nation, living apart even from those who shared his belief that mass murder was the path to power.

In his final months, bin Laden could only watch as a wholly opposite force channeled the frustrations and aspirations of the Muslims for whom he claimed to act - a peaceful exercise of people power on the streets of cities across Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and throughout the Middle East and North Africa, a stirring and decisive uprising by those who yearned for change yet turned their backs on the ways and means of Osama bin Laden.

Staff writers Karen DeYoung, Anne E. Kornblut, Ellen Nakashima and Joby Warrick; special correspondent Shaiq Hussain in Pakistan; and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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