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Off the grid: a high-tech military deployed the ancient art of stealth to capture their man

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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They could have used grappling hooks and longbows.

The hunting down of global enemy number one came about through the type of detective work and on-the-ground stealth military activity that might have been considered ingenious, oh, among 15th-century ninja warriors or the ancient Sumerians. Ian Fleming would not have had a lot of raw material to work with here.

The real story on all of this will likely emerge in the next few hours or days, so everything written here may be moot from the time of posting. But it seems like what happened was that a bunch of intelligence types sat around a table and pieced out where exactly Osama bin Laden could be.

They decided that he couldn’t be in a cave or in the Pakistani frontier territories because that’s exactly where everybody thought he would be. So there were probably only two other places in the world he could be holed up: somewhere else in Pakistan or in Somalia. Afghanistan probably would have been okay, too, except there were just too many cops.

So, if, in the most likely case, he was still in Pakistan, he would probably be hiding ostentatiously in plain sight. And that’s when old-fashioned shoe leather and detective work came into play. Why was an obviously non-affluent Pakistani man going to and from that complex with the insanely high walls just a few miles from the capital city of Islamabad?

The whole affair turned into a game of low-tech one-ups-manship. The compound itself reportedly had no phone or Internet service. The place was off-the-grid, even if it was only a few miles from military facilities.

It’s true: At the point that intelligence agents began to trail Bin Laden’s courier, drones and satellites probably were probably trained on the Abbottabad complex. But these were really just high-tech security cameras, and could have, if necessary, been replaced with Galileo-era-vintage spyglasses. The whole operation, from beginning to end, was a masterpiece of Humint, the type of human intelligence that the U.S. was criticized for lacking immediately after 9/11. (Let’s not go overboard: The killing of two Pakistanis by a CIA contractor in January shows how things can still go terribly awry.)

Still, the U.S. capability has matured in the intervening years. Human smarts were even brought to bear in the decision to dispose of the body at sea in a traditional Muslim ritual. You can see the same intelligence types sitting around the table. Should we keep the body? If we don’t, will anyone believe that it’s him? And then, the immediate response: Screw the "birther" types; if we leave the impression that we’re prying and poking at the body as it were an alien’s, the "street" will explode. The past 10 years has been an intensive instruction course in cultures most Americans hardly knew existed, an immersion that is just now beginning to pay off.

 Image: Flickr/marsmet51

 





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  1. 1. carlofab 4:20 pm 05/2/2011

    Personally I put my money on data mining -

    * *
    LA Times:

    U.S. intelligence officials concluded Bin Laden and his family members were living at the high-walled compound after they identified its owners as a courier and his brother they knew were Bin Laden confidantes, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity. They found the property in August, and the CIA soon realized a high-value terrorist was being hidden there. Over months, analysts came to conclude that it might be Bin Laden.

    The brothers had "no explainable source of wealth," yet the property was valued at $1 million with extraordinary security features, a senior intelligence official said. Its 12- and 18-foot walls were topped with barbed wire. Internal walls provided extra security. It had no Internet or telephone connection. And its resident burned trash rather than dumping it.

    **

    MIND READING THAT WORKS
    James F. Dunnigan – April 13, 2011:

    Some of the most effective intelligence tools used in combat today (data mining and predictive analysis) were invented …as part of the development of junk mail. Who knew? For decades, the statistical tools were used to determine who to send junk mail to (so the sender would make a profit).

    Data mining is basically simple in concept. In any large body of data, you will find patterns. Even if the bad guys are trying to avoid establishing patterns, they will anyway. It’s human nature, and only the most attentive pros can avoid this trap. The predictive analysis carried out with data mining and other analytic tools has saved the lives of thousands of U.S. troops, by giving them warning of where roadside bombs and ambushes are likely to be, or where the bad guys are hiding out.

    When data is taken off a captured terrorist’s computer, it often consists only of names, addresses and other tidbits. But with the vast databases of names, addresses and such already available, typing in each item can generate additional information within minutes. That’s why, within hours, the trove of data can generate dozens of raids, and even more leads.

    Speed has always been an advantage in combat, but until recently, rarely something intelligence analysis was noted for. No longer. Predictive analysis is something the troops depend on, not only to tips on what to avoid, but for names and places to go after.

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  2. 2. EEarth 4:55 pm 05/2/2011

    "The purpose of taking out Osama bin Laden is, ironically, as symbolic as the destruction caused by his organization on 9/11. We don’t take out an individual for the sake of removing that individual. Like Al Qaeda, we did it to send a clear and internationally visible message to our enemies- you are not invincible." – Ben Lovatt

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  3. 3. Steve D 11:31 am 05/3/2011

    The burial at sea part, especially with Muslim ceremonies, was very, very, smart. Any land burial would create a point of pilgrimage, and cremation is offensive to Muslims. Care to bet there’s a sonar beacon on the body and one-meter coordinates of the burial site in case there is a need to find the body in the future?

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  4. 4. dubina 2:57 am 05/4/2011

    It was said that bin Laden didn’t venture from the compound in the past five or six years, if ever. Many women and children in the compound, possibly 20 or more. Two cars, including an SUV. Did everybody hole up, or were some kids enrolled in schools? Compound built or at least started in 2004. Aerial photos of empty field before construction. Did we have photos that showed its internal structure? Somebody constructed a full-scale compound in the US for assault training. Was the compound watched from ground level after August? People coming and going? Was bin Laden visited by a physician? Was a physician in residence? Were listening devices planted or directed from a distance? I am skeptical that the Seals were ordered to attack the compound without certain knowledge that bin Laden was in it. It would not be good to make such intrusive surveillance measures public, of course, but I wonder, all the same.

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