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Killing bin Laden: the bigger prize



Much commentary in the media has centered around what effect killing Osama Bin Laden will have on al Qaeda. Was he still necessary to its functioning? How much effect will his death have on al Qaeda operations? While these are reasonable issues to discuss, there is a much bigger issue that deserves attention.

During the operation, the US captured a large number of computers, memory drives, and documents. Considering how secure Bin Laden seems to have felt in that residence (he had close family member staying with him), he may have felt just as comfortable keeping sensitive information there. The captured devices and documents may well contain huge amounts of useful and actionable intelligence.

The captured information is going to be exploited rapidly and vigorously. Raids and captures will be the most visible result. Those raids and captures are going to generate more intelligence which will lead to more raids and captures.... This is going to take some time to play out, on the order of months or even years. Right now it is unclear how far it will go. On the one hand, it could ultimately lead to catastrophic damage to al Qaeda's organization. On the other, it is possible that al Qaeda will adapt to this assault and regenerate itself, resulting in little long-term effect.

Another result of the raid and captured information will be its effect on Pakistan. The raid is embarrassing to the Pakistani military, given how bin Laden was hiding in plain sight. But beyond this, the captured information could prove even more embarrassing. For example, it may contain the smoking gun, identifying who within the Pakistani establishment is supporting and protecting al Qaeda and how they are doing it.

The effect of this is much more speculative. The information could be used by the US to gain leverage in dealing with Pakistan, if only for a while, leading to increased Pakistani cooperation, or at least acquiescence, with regard to US actions against al Qaeda. This could give the US a little more freedom of action within Pakistan and perhaps slightly more cooperation from the Pakistani military and intelligence services. It could even lead to some organizational reshuffling within the Pakistani establishment. While Pakistan's leadership may publicly disavow involvement with al Qaeda and complain about violation of sovereignty, privately, it may be a different story.

This story is not just about one raid and one kill. In fact, the story is just the beginning. While killing bin Laden is clearly a major moral victory, from an operational point of view the information captured may ultimately prove to be a much bigger prize. The months ahead should be very interesting. Stay tuned....



READER COMMENTS: "Killing bin Laden: the bigger prize"

Posted by Russell at May 4, 2011 12:40 PM ET:

If the intelligence does identify elements in PAK ISI or military the more lasting impact could be to the benefit of both the US and Pakistan. If the rotted apples are removed from the cart, that could choke of funds and supplies that were routed to enemy elements.

Posted by Murf at May 4, 2011 1:36 PM ET:

The bigger prize may e communications records linked to the large and smaller satellite antennas onthe adjacent roofs of the compound. Clearly this is how he used a "secure" communications method. Also, losing a trusted courier, who served as the main intermediary in the network will leave a large void that will be hard to replace.

Posted by jt at May 4, 2011 1:44 PM ET:

It is interesting that the treasure trove of info was reported right away. Normally, this type of info find would be kept secret for a while to analyze and use it without the enemy knowing we have it.

Maybe there is no such trove, and an announcement is to stir up communications within al Qaeda for using instead . . . .

Posted by M. Muthuswamy at May 4, 2011 2:28 PM ET:

Indeed, there will likely be some data linking the govt. of Pakistan to Bin Laden. It's unlikely that the U.S. will release such information, as it will lead to a rupture in the Pak-U.S. relations.

Other data of interest should be Saudi complicity in all of this. Until the 9/11 attacks, the Saudi embassy in New Delhi was funding Bin Laden (according to the Indian intelligence intercepts given to the U.S.). Saudi Arabia also has until recently funded the parent organization of the Lashkar-e-Taiba.

No one should forget that Pakistan is a vassal state of Saudi Arabia, including that of being a Sunni nuke factory.

Posted by Mr T at May 4, 2011 2:29 PM ET:

I am also surprised he left this very confidential info on a place where it was easily found. If he had a list of names and contact info for his ISI enablers, I would think he would keep that list well hidden so that an invading commando force on the ground for only 30 minutes would not find it. Put the really good stuff in a hidden spot. You have access to it but not just anyone can find it easily.

Everything on computers and laying around on the table is curious to me for someone with such a security issue as the most wanted man in the world.

I would also have a place to burn that stuff if a raid happened. You may get me but you can't get my network.

If he left stuff laying around and had no plan of escape etc, he is either foolish or felt very secure where he was.

I am hoping we are already acting on this stuff. It is foolish of us to say we got OBL and all his data so others can flee. We should have waited until we round up a few more. Specifically Omar and Zawahiri. Of course, they are proteted by ISI in a mansion in Karachi nowadays. I hope we saw them packing and and leaving and followed them to their new spot.

All this movement they will have to do will leave them exposed for a short time. Do we have the resources in place to take full advantage?

Posted by DrMack at May 4, 2011 2:37 PM ET:

Some of the reports are undoubtedly just "tickling the wire". By forcing HVTs to confine their mode of communication to runners, we have an easier time of locating them because the more people involved in the process, the more likely it becomes that someone along the chain will screw up and leave a critical bread crumb in the clear for the Company's DO to find and analyze.

Posted by Stefan at May 4, 2011 3:57 PM ET:

A large function of terrorism and counter-terrorism is spreading fear, propaganda, distortion, and flat-out lies.

Posted by Cordell at May 4, 2011 4:28 PM ET:

JT and Mr T:

I too am amazed that word of bin Laden's death and the associated intel capture was announced so quickly. Typically, a month or more goes by before the CIA or DOD announce a major kill or capture. Otherwise, as you said, major actionable intelligence captured in a raid can be greatly devalued.

Politics appears to be only logical explanation for this deviation from the norm. Surely, the CIA and Pakistani officials could have provided the local media with a good cover story to explain the helicopter crash and subsequent explosions until the truth was finally revealed: "U.S. helicopter crashes during joint training exercise." It likely would not have made the papers in the U.S.

I am curious to know what CIA, NSA and Pentagon analysts think about the immediate press announcement of bin Laden's death and the associated intel capture. Given that he was using couriers to contact others in the organization, al Qaeda's top leadership would not have suspected anything seriously wrong until weeks or months from now. Instead, they all know top level security has been breached and they are undoubtedly running for cover.

Posted by JimBo at May 4, 2011 4:29 PM ET:

There are many uncertainties and those uncertainties apply to all parties connected to OBL with disproportionate effect.

Only the team on the ground and their higher ups know what really happened and what the full extent of what US really has. We have access only to the "facts" that have been released to us. The only other sources of information that I know of are the Pakistani's on the ground (whomever has secured the compound, the compound's occupants and the local neighbors).

Since prior posters opened up the thread to speculation on what was / was not found in the compound, I'll add a few of my own. :-)

1) It is widely reported the duration of the operation was 40 min. However it is unclear how long it took to secure the compound before the search for assets could begin. Some reports (probably incorrect) suggest it took 40 min to reach OBL; if so then the most critical intel may be destroyed. If the entry happened from ground level and not the roof (as reported because one of the helos crashed) and OBL was on top level, figure he had several to tens of minutes and may have used the time to destroy the most critical documents; maybe we have a treasure trove of intel; maybe not. Nonetheless, no matter the quality or quantity of intel, life is about to get very interesting "down stream".

2) it has been widely and confidently reported that the only body or person that left the compound with the Americans was the corpse of OBL. Perhaps. Only the persons who were present know. The couriers themselves would be great intel prizes. Other persons could have been at the compound. I have not seen any reports in the Pakistani news sources reporting the identify and burial of the brothers. I'm keeping an eye on the news and the door open to the possibility that US has another guest(s).

3) Whatever contact or support OBL may or may not have had w/ISI, he was probably "too hot" for any direct connections. The intel mother lode may have links to middle men and cut outs and oblique references to obscure "understandings" - but probably no smoking guns. "Plausible deniability" + sub-continent murkiness = good luck w/that.

4) Actionable intel or not, the ISI doesn't know what US does or does not have. You may not need a smoking gun, just some smart inferences and willingness to bluff. I suspect that there aref ISI and Pakistani persons of influence sitting on needles wondering if a "counselor" from the US embassy will pay them a call to discuss his or her future. The US probably will never have enough assets to exploit this opportunity to its full extent.

Posted by Bungo at May 4, 2011 5:45 PM ET:

A couple of points and conclusions of mine:

1.) This was a "kill" mission only. If the Seals wanted him alive they could have easily taken him alive. Live capture of UBL was deemed too much of a headache to deal with in the long term. The collected intel from the site and the political windfall of killing UBL were the big prizes. The killing of UBL is also a huge blow to the jihadis and a huge morale booster for the good guys.

2.) There was no way this could be kept secret for any appreciable length of time. US senators, including Diane Feinstein, had already shot there mouth off so the lid was already well off the pot by the time Obama made his speech.

3.) The death of UBL and the short and long term affects of the collected intel will be the death blow to Al Queda. They will never recover. Al Queda as the organization we all knew and hated is a dead man walkin'.

4.) If, indeed, the intel does implicate Paks it will be used behind the scenes to effectively black-mail or shame them into pretty much doing what we want them to do. However, do not discount the very real possibility that UBL accomplished his little hiding trick without the help or knowledge of Pak officials. As wierd as that sounds it is still a possibility.

Posted by AAndrew at May 4, 2011 6:46 PM ET:

Great work as always Bill! And also terrific comments from posters much more knowledgeable than I.

A few points I'd like to make:

JimBo said:

"... if so then the most critical intel may be destroyed." "...and may have used the time to destroy the most critical documents; maybe we have a treasure trove of intel; maybe not."

Great point about length of time to clean up data. If he tried to wipe discs and hard drives, I think we'd still (hopefully) be able to recover the contents. Given that we recovered computers, hard drives, etc, they thankfully weren't burned / flushed.

"Nonetheless, no matter the quality or quantity of intel, life is about to get very interesting "down stream""

Lots of cockroaches scattering I'm sure.

"I'm keeping an eye on the news and the door open to the possibility that US has another guest(s)."

This would be great indeed. I had hoped that we would have captured Geronimo for "Enhanced Interrogation", but a dead OBL is better than a living one.

"...Actionable intel or not, the ISI doesn't know what US does or does not have. You may not need a smoking gun, just some smart inferences and willingness to bluff."

Exactly. And the actions of some of those parties after little hints about intel finds (whether true or not) could be telling.

"I suspect that there aref ISI and Pakistani persons of influence sitting on needles wondering if a "counselor" from the US embassy will pay them a call to discuss his or her future."

A rendition with "Enhanced Interrogation" would also be OK in my book. Just don't tell Eric Holder ;-)

Bungo said:

"This was a "kill" mission only. If the Seals wanted him alive they could have easily taken him alive."

Exactly the conclusion I've drawn as well. Disappointing in some ways, but then again, understandable given that it may have motivated some to try to create threats for his release.

I don't want to come off as a conspiracy theorist but an option I would have considered is capturing him (for intel) and making it look like he was killed. Best of both worlds.

My thoughts on this: If we got good intel, and that intel leads to the capture of other HVTs, you could start a domino reaction that could cripple this org for good. Also, if the intel does implicate some Paks/ISI, could be good leverage for further covert actions with boots on the ground while they look the other way.

We'll see in the coming weeks / months what may have come out of the intel. A few Hellfires finding their way to HVTs in the coming weeks would be most welcome.

Posted by crusader at May 4, 2011 7:21 PM ET:

bungo:

read what i wrote about OBL at the first article about him being killed...

what do you have to say about it?

Posted by Marlin at May 4, 2011 8:26 PM ET:

It was reported today that an al-Qaeda leader in Iraq was captured.

Also in the province, a joint U.S. and Iraqi force dropped by helicopters in the early hours of the day on houses at the al- Tahwilah area, some 10 km north of Baquba, and captured Mahmoud al- Obiedi, an al-Qaida leader and two of his lieutenants, the source said without giving further details.

Peoples Daily: Two killed, 3 al-Qaida members captured in Iraq

StrategyPage speculates this might be related to the information captured in bin Laden's residence. It would be interesting to know if that is true or not.

U.S. and Iraqi forces captured al Qaeda leader Mahmoud al Obiedi, and two of his key aides. This is believed one of the aftereffects of the raid on Osama bin Laden's Pakistani compound on the 1st.

StrategyPage: The Age Of The Assassin

Posted by ThePacifist at May 4, 2011 8:43 PM ET:

I'm wondering at what point, if at all, did OBL know they were American troops after him? Could he tell by the sound of the helis? It makes no sense for him to be unarmed.

Also, why did he not have an escape route? I would think that you would include several in a house built to hide a high value target, especially on the third floor.

If they wanted him alive, they could have used a flashbang or two. It's better that he's dead, in my opinion, to prevent others from acquiring hostages, etc. to pressure for his release.

ThePacifist.

Posted by Bungo at May 4, 2011 8:45 PM ET:

Crusader : If you're referring to the possibilty that the Paks sold Bin Laden out, I'm not buying it. If that had happened you would not hear the anti-Pak rumblings that are growing louder by the day from our government officials. If the Paks had helped us out on this one our leaders would know and not make such noises about holding Pakistan to account for UBL being there.

Listening to operational details, listening to what all of the international players are saying (or not saying) and years of geopolitical / terror analysis and research and "war-gaming" scenarios bring me to my conclusions. I war-gamed the "follow the courier" tactic a couple of years ago and determined that it would be so difficult (because of cut-outs, alias' and visual continuity difficulties that this scenario would be next to impossible. With the help of some good intel derived from our Gitmo guests and YEARS of follow-up work and stick-to-itiveness the CIA proved me wrong. Go figure. USA USA USA !

Posted by sinanju at May 4, 2011 8:47 PM ET:

Let's hope for the best and assume the SEAL team did get hold of a treasure trove of info. If the hard drives and thumb drives list OBL's Paki protectors this might be the perfect stick for the Zardari government to use to finally gain control of the ISI beast ("country within a country, army within an army").

I would be looking to see a quiet purge of the ISI and Pak army hierarchy in the coming months. Expect a wave of retirements.

As for Al Queda's big money donors. I understand it was never the Saudi government, it was individual sheiks and princes who wrote the big checks.

Posted by Dan A at May 4, 2011 9:10 PM ET:

A more intriguing possibility:

Does anyone consider the possibility that the reason they claimed OBL was quickly buried at sea and won't release any photos is that he was caught alive? Perhaps in a CIA black site and getting the sh*t interrogated out of him.

One can dream anyway......

Posted by JN at May 4, 2011 9:30 PM ET:

I doubt he wiped the hard drives. Even if he did, the data could be recovered. There are only two ways to completely wipe a hard-drive clean. One would be to magnetize it or physically destroy it. The other would be to use some sophisticated software to write and re-write over the data until it's "hidden".

Somehow I doubt OBL was this knowledgeable about Information Technology.

Posted by Johno at May 4, 2011 10:32 PM ET:

The large military facilities nearby would mean the coming and going of helicopters was a regular event. The Chief of the General Staff uses two helicopters and may have flown low over OBL's house a week or so ago.
With so many children about 'Hot Lips' would have had to secure his Kalakov out of sight to avoid an accident & possible kids boasting "My Dad's got an AKSU-74 so there!" and also to avoid shooting 'loud-mouthed Americans.' Lol.

Posted by JT at May 4, 2011 10:33 PM ET:

Reports late in the day are that, in addition to OBL's body, a person was taken alive in the choppers. No mention or speculation on who it is.

Maybe the older son that was initially reported as the son who was killed?

Posted by steve at May 4, 2011 10:45 PM ET:

Let's be real here...we are all amateurs when it comes to the speculation and theories. But the facts are the US Gov. has one shot and one shot only to spin the post OBL narrative to maximize getting the next round of HVTs. And they better have got it right! Only time will tell whether they played their cards right or not. And we'll never really know if they blew it or not as there is no way to look at alternative outcomes.

Posted by B at May 4, 2011 10:46 PM ET:

Great article and insight. Hope this intelligence brings all the fruits we hope it bears. Keep up the good work!

Posted by Mr. Nobody at May 4, 2011 10:53 PM ET:

Bungo: I think that the ISI did sell out UBL. Look for a decrease in drone attacks in the FATA. Any drone attacks lately?

The anti Pakistan rumblings may be an acceptable residual effect and a great cover for any Pakistani involvement. Let's not forget that this is arguably the most radical of Muslim nations. Any hint of Pakistani cooperation would light it on fire like a tinder box. Of course this is all speculation and gut feeling.

There is one fact that anybody who ever operated in that part of the world cannot deny and that is you cannot go unnoticed in a village. Everybody knows everybody. I don't care how you slice it, the Paks knew UBL was in that compound.

AQ will not be dealt a death blow by his demise. The war will continue only now we don't know who is in charge or if it even matters.

I remember having a discussion a few years ago where most people agreed that UBL was being held in a mansion in a Pakistani army town. I think that we might have had a really good idea of his general whereabouts for some time but were unwilling to risk a DA team getting smoked going in covertly or a propaganda debacle with photos of burning children from a missile strike deep inside our "ally" Pakistans territory and igniting a Muslim uprising at home.

The timing, method and ease of the operation just doesn't make sense but then again, stranger things have happened.

It's hard to believe we didn't suppress any Pak air defense's coming in or that nobody fired a shot at our helo's after 40 minutes of gunfire and explosive breach charges, in a military garrisoned town.

I am really having trouble with the timing of the so called "intel treasure trove" release. It doesn't make sense at all. Why tell them what we have? Or as previously remarked, maybe we don't have anything and we are stirring the pot. Maybe the ISI made a fatal miscalculation and didn't expect so much intel to be in the compound? Maybe it's politics screwing up a good thing as usual. Highly unusual to disclose such information without exploiting it first.

Great comment about possible 'guests' coming off the OBJ. That would be a big score but I doubt it since nobody has leaked that information yet. Fingers crossed.

One thing is for sure, the nation needed a rallying cry and morale boost. We got it.

Posted by Charu at May 5, 2011 2:24 AM ET:

"I am really having trouble with the timing of the so called "intel treasure trove" release. It doesn't make sense at all. Why tell them what we have? Or as previously remarked, maybe we don't have anything and we are stirring the pot. Maybe the ISI made a fatal miscalculation and didn't expect so much intel to be in the compound? Maybe it's politics screwing up a good thing as usual. Highly unusual to disclose such information without exploiting it first."

@Nobody, my thoughts exactly. Since we are speculating; maybe the ISI had bin Laden delete all intel (they would certainly know how to properly do this) under some pretext prior to selling him out, and therefore we don't have anything and are indeed stirring the pot.

Posted by My2Cents at May 5, 2011 3:12 AM ET:

A few opinions:

1) The combat portion of this operation would have been very brief, no more than 2 minutes from boots on the ground. The attack took place at night, so probably many of the defenders never got their hands on their weapons.

2) There are no quick ways to destroy the information on computer drives except with specially designed hardware that is far too bulky (and dangerous) to integrate into a laptop. Even then it will take time to activate, the trick with such systems has always been to keep them from being activated when you do not want them to, so this will be a multistep process. There would also have been backups that have to be destroyed.

Posted by Sumit at May 5, 2011 3:30 AM ET:

@Nobody

IMO you are wrong saying ISI sold him out. Pakistanis are very careful about their image and Osama being killed right in the heart of their town puts a huge dent to their image.

IMO if he was to be sold out , he could have found wandering in the tribal region but not in a army city.

Also remember this was dead of night and helicopters should be very common in this area. There was complete darkness and 40 minutes is not a long time to respond. This is a peaceful location not a eastern border town. Also even if a jeep or car mounted quick reaction team came to site and they might have been taken out but Pakis will not disclose as this causes lot of discomfort to them.

Osama was not sold out and I believe was taken alive.

Posted by Neonmeat at May 5, 2011 7:31 AM ET:

IMO regardless of what intel we actually have retrieved from the compound a bigger issue could be what intel can we convince the ISI we have retrieved? Can we bluff them into showing us their hand? Can we panic agents into coming out into the open for fear that their safehouses/locations are compromised? the options are endless.

Posted by villiger at May 5, 2011 10:40 AM ET:

Someone from the "good" ISI got $50 million for the tip off and upset the "bad" ISI/Pak Army (all bad, worse as you reach the top) plans.

I always looked at Kayani as Osama's landlord. The megalomaniac General's ego must really be bruised, he hasn't said a word!

If i figure it correctly, Gen K was ISI chief when bin Laden's compound was built.

Posted by indus at May 5, 2011 12:07 PM ET:

If the picked up data/documents shows a linkage between ISI and AQ, Pakistan establishment would likely clam up. Watch for senior ISI/Army personnel visiting China to determine the extent to which they can count on Chinese support. Depending on Chinese reaction, they will then either resist our requests or quiet down and let us do what we want without much support from them. Don't expect Pakistan to out any of its ISI/Army leadership. AQ Khan incident is the most recent example which they will likely emulate.

Posted by Mr T at May 5, 2011 4:43 PM ET:

Sounds like we planned the mission to be no more than 35 minutes on the ground. We calculated the Army would take at least 35 minutes to mobilize to the scene. Any unsuspecting forces that just happened to be in the area and might arrive before that would be taken out by perimeter security.

We killed the power to the town as we got close to further confuse and delay. We swooped in and landed before anyone really thought much about it. One chopper lost wind while landing and landed hard disabling itself. The attackers on that helo were not hurt and exited to continue the mission.

We breached the inside in about 2-3 minutes where we were met by a sleepy eyed totally unprepared courier who we blasted dead on the first floor. His brother and brothers wife also came down as we were going up and we dispatched them equally as quickly. Then Bin Ladens son came down from the 3rd floor blasting away at us and we quickly ended his complaints whereupon we moved to the 3rd floor and busted down the door to Bin Ladens room. He was there hiding behind women and children. His wife rushed the attackers and was only shot in the leg, which is curious, and he made a sudden move which caused us to eliminate him with a shot to the head and chest.

All of this could have taken place within less than 5 minutes depending on our worries about booby traps and suicide vests. We probably blew a hole through a wall for entry to avoid boobys at the entrance. After 5-10 minutes of clearance and security setup, the intel team spent 30 minutes going through the house looking for the similar materials prior AQ operatives kept sensitive data on.

Meanwhile, we took all the other occupants to a safe place while the helo team set det charges on the disabled helo. A secondary Chinook helo that was posted for secuirty and reinforcement then landed and loaded all team members and Bin Ladens body. We took off and detonated the helo and made our way out on a predesignated escape route. There were probably other helos in the air around the compound tasked with security. Somewhere I read there were 4 total and we left one behind.

We indirectly flew low using stealth technology on a route around mountains and valleys. The P-stans scrambled their fighters but could not find us as we had no radar signature and it was dark. Troops arrived at the compound about 45 minutes after the first alarm went out. They were probably slow reacting because of the surprise of the raid. No one was expecting it. So while we thought they may arrive within 35 minutes and planned to be gone by then, it took them 45 minutes which was more than enough time in our plan.

On the other side of the coin. OBL was obviously not prepared for this. They were lightly armed, had no real defenses including suicide vests, and actually looked like they had no plan. They were all sleeping when they were awoken by the sound of helos landing. By the time they realized it was going to be Americans coming for them and they grabbed their guns to go downstairs, we had breached the interior. Osama was sleeping and woke up with just enough time to gather his wife and kids around him. He was not prepared, had no plan, and in the 5 minutes it took to reach him, could not come up with any idea of what to do including destruction of critical data. He made a false move and was killed.

The Seal team was prepared for much larger opposition and when it did not materialize they were able to finish very quickly.

It boggles the mind why Bin Laden did not have a tunnel to go through and come up n some ditch a half a mile away where he could radio for pickup and make his escape. They certainly had time to build one in 5 years. They have done this in the past so they know the benefit of it. I really think Bin Laden felt completely safe and that the P-stans would warn him of any impending commando raid or drone strike and take him away before we got there. The fact we didn't tell them allowed us to get the drop on him and his enablers. He had no idea and was caught with his shorts down.

His enablers also had no idea we could do what we did. They never thought we could fly that far into a military town undetected and were so confused and disoriented they couldn't even mount an effective counter attack to get our helos before we made it back to Afghanistan.

If Bin Laden was so comfortable his only defenses were a false front door, some high walls with barbed wire, and a half dozen guns, he may also have been careless with his data.

Theres my version of the events all of which are speculative but someone has to do it. Please excuse the length. Now on to how this house was built and who knew what about it as well as the hunt for Zawahiri.

Posted by Mr. Nobody at May 5, 2011 6:56 PM ET:

I still think he was handed over to us. I guess the thing that strikes me most odd is that UBL would have absolutely NO security measures or protection detail. Why would he surround himself with hard drives, thumb drives and computer discs? He was not an amateur nor stupid. He was the worlds premier terrorist for 10+ years with a lot of security. I still don't buy it. The operation was too sweet. A helicopter crashed and was destroyed and still no "sleepy eyed" Pakistani soldiers picked up their gun to see what was happening? I don't buy it. Like I said, watch for our hastened draw down from Afghanistan and a sharp reduction in Predator attacks along the FATA.

Posted by cjr at May 5, 2011 7:07 PM ET:

It was a big haul:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/05/world/middleeast/05seals.html?ref=osamabinladen

The cache the Seal team recovered from the Bin Laden compound included more than 100 storage devices DVDs, thumb drives and computer discs as well as 5 computers and 10 computer hard drives.

Posted by Danram at May 5, 2011 8:15 PM ET:

JT wrote "It is interesting that the treasure trove of info was reported right away. Normally, this type of info find would be kept secret for a while to analyze and use it without the enemy knowing we have it."

Actually, JT, I think reporting we got it was exactly the right move. There are probably a lot of Al-Qaeda operatives out there right now who are VERY nervous, and when people get nervous they tend to a) talk a lot and b) move around a lot. Both of these things can cause them to be more easily identified by western intelligence services.

Posted by JN at May 5, 2011 11:12 PM ET:

I agree, Danram. Al-Qaeda would likely have assumed as much, even without the announcement. When the head honcho goes down, everyone in the organization is going to worry. By stating that we have this trove of data, we are taking away any uncertainty that was remaining. Now operatives will be full of paranoia and anxiety, even moreso than from hearing that their Boss was assasinated. As was stated, anxious people are more prone to make mistakes.

I also think that this could be a good way of bluffing to Pakistan. We don't know what their involvement was, if any, so this should keep them on their toes until we can figure out if there was collusion.

Some people may say that Al-Qaeda operatives would be paranoid regardless of what was found in the compound - and this is true - but I think this announcement adds quite a bit more weight onto their shoulders.

Posted by kp at May 6, 2011 3:50 PM ET:

I still think he was handed over to us. I guess the thing that strikes me most odd is that UBL would have absolutely NO security measures or protection detail. Why would he surround himself with hard drives, thumb drives and computer discs? He was not an amateur nor stupid. He was the worlds premier terrorist for 10+ years with a lot of security. I still don't buy it. The operation was too sweet.
Why no big security detail? Because UBL depended on remaining hidden for his security. A large security detail requires housing, feeding, amusing, etc, etc. It would attract attention. They'ed get bored. You'd have to let some go (they have lives) and if they were ever captured ...

Plus it wouldn't do any good when the Americans finally arrive. The Americans will do pre-strike reconnaissance and will overmatch any opposition in a raid. Or failing that use misslies or bombs to kill folks at the cpompund then raid it. UBL was well aware that the US wanted him dead and would do what was needed to get him. There was nothing UBL could do (aside from get the heads up and escape before the US arrived). So staying small and hidden was the best he could achieve. It worked for 5 years.

Why keep the computers and documents? What else would he do? Run everything from his memory? Or just opt out of the AQ business and wander around the two rooms he was confined to (see the reports from the Pakistanis from debriefing the wives and kids) making the odd rah-rah audio message every couple of months. What would you do?

It wasn't a surprise to me. I've commented previously that he would have a very small entourage (though the 3 wives and 9 kids surprised me). How much he would move was another interesting question. Moving in and out of places attracts attention and questions. Staying put was one option but of course a risky one if the opposition ever find out where you are. We watched the location for 6 months but we never saw him for sure. They did see "a pacer" on the terrace but no ID. Until he was sighted during the raid we didn't know for sure that he was there.

UBLs mistake was reusing a trusted courier who was known to a range of people (even if just by nom de guerre) to keep him hidden and to run his house. He needed a more loosely coupled support group. That was the weakness the US exploited but I suspect he had a very small number of people he could trust and we might have figured out all of them. He also doubted the US could figure out the connections to his courier (to a Pakistani not a Saudi or Egyptian) especially if they stayed in Pakistan. He dropped electronic comms (our technical means worked on him in the past) but this time HUMINT with some SIGINT (phone calls and email intercepts to the couriers family) gave the leads they needed.

AQ like Abbotobad: al Liby was there in the past. The recently captured Indonesia leader was picked up in Abbotobad earlier in the year (that must have spooked the CIA). Now UBL. So I wouldn't rule out an ISI or Army connection for his support but I doubt if it was direct. Just too many risks for UBL that way. It could just be AQ feeling that the US wouldn't think (or raid) in an Army town.

AZ will be more difficult to catch. His wife and kids were killed a while back. He will have a smaller and more mobile entourage. He could be in FATA or KP or even in a big city in Pakistan. But to be effective he still has to communicate and probably move and meet people face to face. That's always a risk.

Saddam did the same thing when he was on the lam in Iraq: a handful of trusted folks knew (the fewer the better and the less corruptible the better) but he didn't move very much after the US had fully occupied Iraq.

Posted by Mr. Nobody at May 6, 2011 10:25 PM ET:

kp I never said "big security detail" but he had nothing at all. Not even a two or three man detail that could easily have been hidden. Who ever said he was "confined" to two rooms? How do you know he wasn't free to come and go under certain conditions? You bring up a good point that "we never saw him" even under surveillance. Launching a DA assault team deep inside an ally's territory without confirmation is extremely rare and risky. All your counter points have a lot of holes in them, as do my assumptions. I see ZERO security measures, not overt but covert measures. If the DA team comes up empty then what? Or what if they do engage some PakMil along the way and kill them and Pakistan kicks us out of country? You are going to risk that if MAYBE he is there? Smart bombs would be useless because the body would never be recovered and Pakistan would post pictures of blown up women and children. I'm not buying it. Pakistan gave us UBL. That's my take on it but I could be wrong just like you.

Posted by Johno at May 7, 2011 3:30 AM ET:

With a dozen kids cooped up in such a small house (the plot of land is 8x bigger than normal; the actual house is standard size with an extra storey.) most of the digital data will be pirated Disney movies & computer games. Think how many kids you have and count the drives,discs you have lying around and stuffed in boxs/drawers.

OBL kept the women & children around, along with the Pathan couriers, as a deliberate security measure. Every Pakistani understands if you enter a compound belonging to a Pathan where wives and children are present you can be legitimately shot dead. Even the police cannot enter the home - the compound if it is a serious matter - but never the house. To do so would instigate a blood-feud.

This would have kept away corrupt officialdom and thieves.