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Bin Laden’s killing: intriguing questions, few answers

May 3, 2011

Homeland Security Newswire, 2 May 2011: The brilliant operation conducted by the U.S. Navy SEALs to kill Osama bin Laden should be celebrated, but the information provided so far by the administration leaves many questions unanswered. Here are a few of them:

1. Pakistan

A. Advise and consent

In his speech last night, the president thanked Pakistan for its help in the operation, and gave the impression that the Pakistanis gave permission for the operation. Other administration officials, in background conversations, said no other country was involved, or informed about, the operation.

The truth is probably something like this:

There is little doubt that there was no consultation or sharing of information at the professional level. It is highly unlikely that the CIA and the U.S. military advised their Pakistani counterparts of the information that reached the United States last August about bin Laden’s location, and about the plans being drawn up to kill him. The Pakistani military and intelligence service (ISI) are so penetrated by Islamists sympathetic to the Taliban and al Qaeda, that sharing information with these organizations means that the information will find its way to the terrorists sooner rather than later.

Some parts of ISI support the Taliban and several Pakistani Islamist organizations with weapons, training, and intelligence, and use them as foot soldiers in Pakistan’s campaign to gain control of the disputed territory of Kashmir and, more generally, as a weapon against India and pro-Indian actors in the region.

Not sharing information at the professional level before or during the operation does not mean that President Obama did not call President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan while the helicopters were on their way to bin Laden’s compound – or, more likely, after the operation was concluded but before the Navy Seal team left Pakistani soil – to advise the Pakistani president of the operation.

This way, the United States could “share” information with the Pakistani leadership, in the process giving the impression of consultation and information sharing – that the United States was seeking Pakistan’s advice and consent — but without jeopardizing the operation. Obama could thus thank Zardari for Pakistani cooperation – an assertion which can be seen as technically and linguistically correct – and thus maintain the appearance that the United States did not violate Pakistani sovereignty and that the Pakistani leadership was on board.

B. Pakistan’s ambivalence

There is no hiding the fact that bin Laden’s presence, in his ostentatious compound in the middle of a Pakistani town and

right next to a Pakistani military academy – Pakistan’s West point – means only one thing: Bin Laden was protected by elements within the Pakistani government. It is inconceivable – inconceivable – that bin Laden and his entourage could have lived in that place for the last five years without the knowledge of at least some elements – perhaps rogue elements – of the ISI.

Pakistan is not exactly a country where the security services and law enforcement units are hampered by notions of civil rights or the right to privacy. The reach of the government is more limited in the semi-autonomous Northwestern tribal regions, but that reach is unlimited in Pakistan proper.

The fact that bin Laden could have received the protection of important elements in a government that receives billions of dollars in aid from the United States is troubling. It is troubling enough that the ISI trains and supports local or regional Islamist groups that do Pakistan’s bidding against India, but it is another thing to hide the leader of a movement that declared war on – and has pursued active acts of war against — the United States.

We should also be disappointed in the Pakistani lack of sophistication here: they should have understood that they would have been better off sacrificing bin Laden and giving him to us. Just think of the good will they would have generated in U.S. – and Western – public opinion. Moreover, they should have realized that, for their own strategic goals, they should strive more energetically to prove to the United States that they make a distinction between groups fighting for what they – the Pakistanis – regard as their rights in Kashmir, and groups that fight the United States.

The fact that important elements in the Pakistani ruling circles did not make this distinction may raise questions about whether or not the adjective “ambivalent,” so often used to describe Pakistan’s attitude toward Islamic terrorism and those who carry terrorist acts in the name of Islam, should be replaced. We may conclude that the protection bin Laden has received may justify the realization that perhaps the Pakistani true attitude is not so ambivalent after all.

2. Operational aspects

There three things that are unclear about the operational aspects of what happened yesterday.

A. The number of dead

Too few people were killed – and thankfully, no Americans were killed — for there to have been a real “firefight.”

In a firefight in which the two sides are seriously engaged, more people die and get injured on both sides. In this instance only three combatants other than bin Laden were killed – two of his couriers and possibly one of his sons. Where were bin Laden’s many body guards? We were told that he was surrounded by a phalanx of guards who were willing to die protecting their leader. Where were they? How many of them were there? Why did they not spring into action to protect their leader?

B. Compound layout

This was a large compound – large enough and ostentatious enough for Donald Trump to be its proud owner. How did the Navy SEALs know in which of the many rooms in the compound bin Laden was staying? How did they manage to get to that room without being noticed? If they had been noticed, they would have had to overpower those sentries and guards who noticed them. This would have created a lot of noise – not just any noise, but fire arms noise – alerting bin Laden and the guards who were physically close to him at the time, thus allowing them to put up more of a fight when the American showed up at the door. It may well be the case that the Navy Seals used guns with silencers, but even then, complete silence is difficult to maintain.

C. Escape route

How come bin Laden did not have an escape route – a tunnel leading outside the compound? The compound was built in 2005 and whoever designed it, knew it was designed for a wanted man. It may well be the case that there was an escape tunnel, but that bin Laden and his people were taken by surprise and thus were unable to reach it.

There are other questions to which we may receive answers in days to come. For now, it appears that the United States may have had someone on the inside providing information. The ability to arrive stealthily, enter the highly secure compound, find the room where bin Laden was staying, kill only four people, and do it all in less than forty minutes means that the Navy Seals team had either unusually precise and current information, or an unusually high degree – extremely high degree — of sheer luck.

I vote for precise and current actionable information.

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