Why now? It had been nearly a decade since 9/11. Almost until the moment the historic news of Osama bin Laden’s death was announced by President Obama on Sunday night, U.S. and Pakistani intelligence officials had been saying publicly that the trail of the al-Qaida leader was cold and had been so for years. Some experts suggested that it was possible that he would never be found, that bin Laden could end up like Mirza Ali Khan, the notorious “Fakir of Ipi” who was relentlessly hunted by the British in the 1930s and '40s but simply disappeared into the folds of what are now the Pakistani tribal regions.
Moreover, U.S.-Pakistani relations had been even rockier than usual lately. Pakistani authorities complained bitterly about the extent of U.S. operations inside their country after a CIA contractor, Raymond Davis, killed two Pakistanis who had allegedly attempted to rob him in Lahore in late January.
But the president, in his statement to the nation, said that as far back as August 2010, he had been briefed on “a possible lead” about bin Laden’s whereabouts. It wasn’t until last week, Obama said, that “we had enough intelligence to take action.” On Sunday he authorized a covert U.S. operation at a compound where bin Laden was holed up in the northwest town of Abbottabad, less than 50 miles north of the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. Obama credited the “counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan [that] helped lead us to bin Laden.”
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As welcome as the news was, it raised more questions than it answered. The location of bin Laden’s last hideaway, for one thing, is significant. It turned out he had long ago left the “caves” he was putatively hiding in; instead, he was living in a relatively affluent city that is close not only to Pakistan's political power center but to the living quarters of its top military officer corps. The news was a significant embarrassment to Pakistani authorities, who had maintained for years that they had no idea where bin Laden was.
So one question is, does this mark a new level of cooperation with Pakistan that will help solve one of the most difficult challenges in completing the task of eradicating al-Qaida and its affiliates? U.S. military experts feared that the safe haven enjoyed by Islamist radicals affiliated with al-Qaida in Pakistan, next door to the nearly 100,000 troops fighting in Afghanistan, was a nearly insuperable problem. One of them, retired Marine Col. T.X. Hammes, a counterinsurgency expert, told National Journal recently that the Pakistan problem was far worse than the challenge U.S. forces had faced in dealing with the insurgency in Iraq, which had benefited from open borders with Syria and Saudi Arabia.
A U.S. official with knowledge of the operation told National Journal on Monday that Pakistani help was very limited, that "this was a CIA operation" from the start. The official also said that the operation was years in the making, beginning with information gleaned from detainees who "flagged to us people who had been helping bin Laden. One was a courier whose name kept coming up. But he had a nom de guerre. Then, four years ago, we uncovered his name. Two years ago we finally identified the areas where he and his brother were operating. Then, in August 2010, we found this residence. But it was eight times larger than others in the area, and this courier and his brother had no identifiable means of income." Most of the details were kept secret from the Pakistanis. "No one had advance knowledge of the operation," said the official, who would give details of the case only on condition of anonymity. "It was a huge intelligence puzzle, with pieces put together along the way. There were just bits and pieces of information, that’s how I would view Pakistani help."