Over the past decade, the U.S. has spent a large sum of money on research on technological advances to improve counter-terrorism efforts across the globe. While hunting down Osama bin Laden was an important goal, new technology was also developed to aid in other national security – related efforts. Improved surveillance techniques, increased unmanned drone capabilities, as well as network analysis programs to link terrorist groups have all been important developments in providing for a more effective strategy to combat extremists worldwide. However, one could argue that bin Laden would not have been found without relying upon human intelligence agents and “old-fashioned” intelligence analysis and gathering. This essay provides an overview of how bin Laden was actually located using a combination of technology and “on the ground” intelligence gathering in order to illustrate the continuing importance of solid, “old-fashioned” intelligence analysis and gathering.
Tracking down Bin Laden
On a late Sunday night, individuals across the globe learned through network news, twitter feeds, Facebook posts, phone calls from family members, or any other number of means that Osama bin Laden has been located and killed in a delicate counter-terrorism effort by Navy SEAL Team 6. President Obama eventually officially announced the results of this operation and provided a few details. The morning after this announcement, a plethora of news sources began reporting on the details of the operation and how exactly bin Laden – the most hunted terrorist in the world – had been found, along with questioning why it had taken so long for U.S. intelligence, armed with billions of dollars of technology, to finally locate him.
According to a May 2nd, New York Times article, U.S. intelligence agents were tipped off by a few Guantanamo Bay detainees as to the identity of a trusted courier of bin Laden, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, four years ago. While they uncovered the identity of this individual, it took an additional two years of patient, detailed intelligence gathering and surveillance, relying on both HUMINT and technological surveillance, for intelligence officials to determine where Kuwaiti was operating. In August of 2010, intelligence agents finally linked him to a large compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan – which stood out against other homes in the area due to its large, imposing size, along with its surprising lack of phone/internet connectivity. Through surveillance and additional intelligence analysis on the comings and goings of individuals within the compound, intelligence analysts determined they were about 60-80% sure bin Laden was inside – a far cry from the desolate caves of Tora Bora.
Combined importance of HUMINT and technological developments
What is interesting about this counter-terrorism operation is that one cannot point to a specific source/tactic that became the lynchpin to finding bin Laden. According to White House Spokesman, Jay Carney, “There is no single piece of information, beyond the location of the compound where Osama bin Laden was hiding out, that was incontrovertibly critical to the success of this operation.” Furthermore, bin Laden was not located simply because of one new grandiose technological development. According to John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security, “counterterrorism work…is exceptionally tedious and painstaking as far as taking a little bit of data and piecing it together and trying to correlate it with something else.”
Without utilizing detailed “detective – style” work, intelligence analysts and intelligence agents on the ground would not have cobbled together the intelligence which eventually solved the puzzle. The combination of technology and sharp, intelligence agents “on the ground,” enabled the U.S. intelligence community to finally end this international manhunt. This blend of technology with HUMINT is vital for continued counter-terrorism success.