Killing bin Laden: How the U.S. Finally Got Its Man

After more than a decade of hunting, the U.S. eliminates its most hated enemy

  • Brooks Kraft for TIME

    A jubilant crowd of mostly college students celebrated in front of the White House the night bin Laden's death was announced by the President

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    For President Asif Ali Zardari, the charge that Pakistan shielded bin Laden is a personal affront. He blames the al-Qaeda leader for the murder of his wife, former President Benazir Bhutto, who was, as Zardari wrote in the Washington Post, "bin Laden's worst nightmare — a democratically elected, progressive, moderate, pluralistic female leader." Zardari moved quickly after the raid to tamp down possible protests, noting that the Taliban was blaming him for the al-Qaeda leader's death. "We will not be intimidated," Zardari declared. "Pakistan has never been and never will be the hotbed of fanaticism that is often described by the media."

    Yet another of the lessons we have learned as a consequence of bin Laden's jihad is that the politics of Pakistan are Byzantine and double-dealing in ways no spy novelist could conjure. Only a week before the raid, news reports revealed that Pakistan — a supposed U.S. ally in the war on terrorism — has been urging Afghan President Hamid Karzai to break with the Americans and team up with China. This is a government, after all, that manages to fight the Taliban with one arm even as elements of its internal spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, support the Taliban with the other.

    As Daniel Markey, a former State Department specialist on South Asia, explains, Pakistan is full of suspicious characters and fortified homesteads. Government officials often decide that it's better not to know too much. So as we ask in coming weeks whether forces inside Pakistan protected bin Laden, pursued him or ignored him, the answer is likely yes to all three. And that should warn us that bin Laden's death resolves only a part of the twisted, complex drama that is the war on terrorism. Indeed, it may be the easy part.

    From Intel to Capture
    The path to bin Laden began in the dark prisons of the CIA's post-9/11 terrorist crackdown. Under questioning, captured al-Qaeda operatives described bin Laden's preferred mode of communication. He knew that he couldn't trust electronics, so he passed his orders through letters hand-carried by fanatically devoted couriers. One in particular caught the CIA's attention, though he was known only by a nickname.

    Interrogators grilled 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed for details about the courier. When he pleaded ignorance, they knew they were onto something promising. Al-Libbi, the senior al-Qaeda figure captured in 2005, also played dumb. Both men were subjected to so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, including, in Mohammed's case, the waterboard. The U.S. previously prosecuted as torturers those who used waterboarding, and critics say it violates international treaties. They also argue that extreme techniques are counterproductive. The report that Mohammed and al-Libbi were more forthcoming after the harsh treatment guarantees that the argument will go on.

    Gradually, the courier's identity was pieced together. The next job was to find him. The CIA tracked down his family and associates, then turned to the National Security Agency to put them under electronic surveillance. For a long time, nothing happened. Finally, last summer, agents intercepted the call they'd been waiting for.

    The CIA picked up the courier's trail in Peshawar and then followed him until he led them to the compound in Abbottabad. Now the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency trained a spy satellite on the triangular fortress. Over time, despite the residents' extreme secrecy, analysts grew more confident that they had hit the jackpot.

    "There wasn't perfect visibility on everything inside the compound, but we did have a very good understanding of the residents who were there, in terms of the number there and in terms of who the males were and the women and children," a senior U.S. intelligence official told reporters. "We were able to identify a family at the compound that, in terms of numbers, squared with the number of bin Laden family members we thought were probably living with him in Pakistan."

    Obama was first informed of the breakthrough in August. By February the clues were solid enough for Panetta to begin planning a raid. Panetta called the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), Vice Admiral William McRaven, to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. JSOC is the potent weapon created from the humiliation of the failed 1980 hostage-rescue mission. That effort was doomed by inadequate preparation, poor communication and cascading equipment failures. JSOC put an end to those obstacles among the elite U.S. strike forces and has become one of the most effective tools in the American military for dealing with unconventional enemies in the shape-shifting war on terror.

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