Osama bin Laden is hiding in a cave in Pakistan’s lawless tribal regions, far from any major cities. He is guarded by specially chosen bodyguards instructed to shoot the militant leader to ensure he isn’t captured or killed by U.S. forces. After nearly a decade of successfully evading the CIA operatives and military commandos charged with finding him, he is unlikely to ever be found by American counterterror forces.
Bin Laden’s killing Sunday at the hands of elite Navy Seal commandos brought a dramatic end to the decade-long search for the al- Qaida leader. But it also destroyed many of the myths that had grown up around the fugitive terror mastermind in the nine-plus years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Below, the four most important things U.S. officials thought that they knew – wrongly, as it turns out -- about bin Laden.
1) Bin Laden is hiding in a remote part of Pakistan. For years, the conventional wisdom in official Washington was that bin Laden was being sheltered somewhere in Pakistan’s mountainous tribal areas, which are under effective insurgent control and possess some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet. In January 2009, President Obama said he thought the militant was “in a cave somewhere.” More recently, CIA Director Leon Panetta told ABC that the militant was “in very deep hiding, in an area of the tribal areas of Pakistan” with terrain that “is probably the most difficult in the world.” Instead, bin Laden turns out to have been living in a comfortable house in a relatively affluent suburb of Abbottabad. Television images of the town show leafy streets lined with telephone poles and street lights. Photos from the scene suggest the terrorist leader slept on a comfortable mattress in a spacious bedroom, not on a dirt floor.
2) Bin Laden’s bodyguards will kill him to prevent Americans from doing so. In 2006, Abu Jandal, a former personal bodyguard of bin Laden told CBS that he always carried two guns, one designated for use if American forces were closing in on bin Laden. “There was also a special gun to be used if Sheikh Osama bin Laden was attacked and we were unable to save him, in which case I would have to kill him," Abu Jandal said at the time. In the years since, multiple American officials said they believed bin Laden was surrounded at all times by bodyguards prepared to kill him if American operatives ever found the militant. But when Navy Seals blasted their way into the house where bin Laden had taken shelter, there were no specially-trained bodyguards, and the militant’s men didn’t kill him to prevent the Americans from doing so. Instead, the fugitive was shot dead by a Navy Seal, who fired two rounds into his head at close range.
3) Bin Laden’s use of human couriers make him impossible to track. U.S. counter terror officials often spoke, with frustration, about how bin Laden evaded the sophisticated electronic eavesdropping systems by communicating solely through trusted couriers who hand-carried messages to and from the militant leader. The compound in Abbottabad had no phone lines or Internet access, a sign of the al Qaida leader’s desperation to evade electronic surveillance. In the end, though, it was bin Laden’s reliance on a courier which led to his death. U.S. officials say that in 2004 several Guantanamo Bay detainees told their interrogators that bin Laden had one trusted courier and provided his nom de guerre. By 2007, the U.S. knew his real name, and by 2010, they knew his whereabouts and were able to track his movements. The courier is the one who ultimately led the Seal teams to the fortified compound where they killed bin Laden.
4) Pakistani officials don’t know bin Laden’s whereabouts and would provide it if they did. This may be the most disheartening truth to emerge from bin Laden’s capture. The fugitive was living in a compound located just a short distance away from a Pakistani police station, its famed Kakul Military Academy, and a large military hospital. In Washington, furious U.S. officials are openly wondering how Pakistan’s powerful military and intelligence services could have somehow missed that bin Laden was living in their midst. “He was more or less hiding in plain sight,” a U.S. counterterror official told reporters Monday morning. With the war on terror still raging on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border, that may be the most alarming fact of all.