Nearly two weeks after the daring U.S. raid that caught Osama bin Laden by lethal surprise at his compound in Pakistan, it remains unclear how much direct control he had over al-Qaida’s operations, according to U.S. officials and terror experts.
That, in turn, has raised questions about the accuracy of the intelligence community’s previous assessments of bin Laden as well as uncertainties over how the terror group he founded will evolve now that he is gone.
Based on a vast trove of information removed from the walled-off compound in Abbottabad, including a personal journal, U.S. intelligence officials say that, contrary to previous indications, bin Laden was not merely a figurehead removed from terror planning or someone who had largely lost his grip on al-Qaida. Instead, there were clear signs that he maintained strategic, operational, and tactical control of al-Qaida.
“There were communications from other senior leaders going back to him, asking him for advice and ideas on who to use” for operations, said a U.S. official who is part of a national-security team reviewing the recovered material. Without being specific, the official added: “He needed to approve certain operatives for certain things. Senior leaders needed to come to him for permission to do certain things.”
Even so, U.S. officials could not immediately point to evidence that any of the plots bin Laden mulled over in his compound actually became operational. And that raised questions about whether he was planning and directing specific acts of terror that his subordinates were carrying out -- which was loosely the process that led to the 9/11 attacks -- or whether he had become a kind of chairman of the board, several steps removed.
“We don’t know yet the degree to which he was operational in the sense of day-to-day control versus operational in the sense of broad strategic oversight of operation,” said a former senior intelligence official. “If I were still working there, I would probably say to them, ‘Show me the details. What do you mean?’ ”
Current government officials dispute that earlier intelligence assessments on bin Laden were off the mark.
“CIA analysts have assessed for years that bin Laden was involved in operational planning, timing, and target selection for al-Qaida plots,” the U.S. official said. “The CIA also assessed that bin Laden has, throughout the years, focused on different aspects of the group’s operations at different times. Although he was physically isolated from the group’s foot soldiers, he was able to guide their plotting.”
The official said that plots sometimes take years to filter through the planning stage and get carried out, pointing to some of the ideas found in the bin Laden compound for attacking the United States, including targeting trains in cities such as New York, Washington and Chicago. “Just because we haven’t seen them attack trains doesn’t mean that they didn’t intend to do so. We do know that al-Qaida has been focused on attacking the U.S. homeland,” and that’s what bin Laden wanted.
For years, government officials have mostly hedged in discussing bin Laden and his relationship to the core of al-Qaida. Before he was caught in Abbottabad, his trail had gone largely cold. One the one hand, they said the group remained dangerous and aspired to carry out spectacular attacks. Officials also said splinter groups such as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula posed the biggest threat to U.S. interests.
But the larger narrative painted for the public in recent years was that the group bin Laden led was under enormous pressure and its powers were diminished. Many intelligence officials also pushed the idea that al-Qaida had become much more decentralized, relying on freelance radicals who communicated via the Internet, among them Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical cleric believed to be in Yemen. U.S. intelligence officials had also suggested previously that bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, was mostly in control of operations.
All of which raises a number of important questions: Is the intelligence community still trying to promote different narratives? Were U.S. intelligence assessments about the terrorist leader off target? What kind of control did bin Laden actually have?
Speaking at the Atlantic Council in November 2008, former CIA Director Michael Hayden said bin Laden was believed to be isolated. “He is putting a lot of energy into his own survival, a lot of energy into his own security. In fact, he appears to be largely isolated from the day-to-day operations of the organization he nominally heads,” according to a transcript of the speech on the Atlantic Council’s website.
Hayden told National Journal he stands by his comments. He said intelligence officials at the time questioned whether bin Laden could really have operational and tactical control over al-Qaida.
“We were very confident, turns out to have been very true, he didn’t have electronic communications. And the courier network was … not so robust that it would seem to truly offer him tight tactical control,” Hayden said. “This raises some interesting questions. What do they mean by 'more robust operational control,' particularly since he was doing this through periodic couriers?”
Several officials interviewed for this story said that they were not surprised to learn that bin Laden had maintained control over al-Qaida. But they said they have questions about how it worked and how much control he had, given his reliance on a courier network.
“It’s not surprising to me,” said Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. “Now, how he did it with no Internet connection and all of that, by courier, would necessarily mean a slow down.”
She added: “There’s no Internet, there’s no telephone, there’s no communication mechanism. So how he did it is what is interesting to find out, and that was likely through the two couriers in the house.”
“I think we need to know more about how operational he was,” said former Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., who previously served as the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “I don’t know specifically what that means.”
“I’m not arguing that he” didn't have a measure of control, added Harman, who now serves as head of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “I’m just saying the extent of that command and control isn’t clear to me, and I think that given the changed structure in al-Qaida … command and control has been dispersed. I’m not saying he didn’t have any. But I’m saying others also have it.”
Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said the biggest surprise to him was that bin Laden was not living in a tribal area. “Once you recover from that surprise, it’s not a surprise to me that he would be in greater operational control than I would have expected” because he was better able to communicate using couriers, Levin said.
Indeed, it appears that uncertainty over bin Laden’s whereabouts in the intelligence community helped to sow confusion over his position in the organization. CIA Director Leon Panetta told ABC News' This Week last June that “we know” bin Laden was in the tribal areas of Pakistan, noting that there was not precise information on his location since the early 2000s.
Current government officials said the fact that bin Laden was not living in a tribal area should not be seen as an intelligence lapse.
“In the nine years the U.S. government was looking for bin Laden, CIA analysts worked on the strong and compelling assumption that he may be in the tribal areas of Pakistan. That was, of course, only one possible theory about his location,” the U.S. official said.
“But when it came to the world’s most dangerous terrorist, CIA collectors and analysts did not dismiss any theory about where he might be hiding. Finding him and bringing him to justice was, quite frankly, too important to assume anything about his location,” the official added.
But, if it’s true that bin Laden maintained tight tactical control over al-Qaida, then his death could open up a new chapter for the group in which splinter organizations act more freely.
“If bin Laden had far more direct control at the tactical level, what we might see in the future is a threat from al-Qaida that is more varied, since it’s not under his personal domain, and perhaps even more agile, since it’s less reliant on an individual who was difficult to contact,” a former senior official said.
That’s a narrative the intelligence community probably doesn’t want to promote.
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Michael Hirsh contributed