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The man who hunted Osama bin Laden


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Osama bin Laden had slipped away from US forces in the Afghan mountains of Tora Bora in 2001. - AP Photo

WASHINGTON: After Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden, the White House released a photo of President Barack Obama and his Cabinet inside the Situation Room, watching the daring raid unfold.

Hidden from view, standing just outside the frame of that now-famous photograph was a career CIA analyst. In the hunt for the world’s most-wanted terrorist, there may have been no one more important. His job for nearly a decade was finding the al Qaeda leader.

The analyst was the first to put in writing last summer that the CIA might have a legitimate lead on finding bin Laden. He oversaw the collection of clues that led the agency to a fortified compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. His was among the most confident voices telling Obama that bin Laden was probably behind those walls.

The CIA will not permit him to speak with reporters. But interviews with former and current US intelligence officials reveal a story of quiet persistence and continuity that led to the greatest counterterrorism success in the history of the CIA. Nearly all the officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters or because they did not want their names linked to the bin Laden operation.

The Associated Press has agreed to the CIA’s request not to publish his full name and withhold certain biographical details so that he would not become a target for retribution. Call him John, his middle name.

John was among the hundreds of people who poured into the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center after the Sept. 11 attacks, bringing fresh eyes and energy to the fight.

He had been a standout in the agency’s Russian and Balkan departments. When Vladimir Putin was coming to power in Russia, for instance, John pulled together details overlooked by others and wrote what some colleagues considered the definitive profile of Putin. He challenged some of the agency’s conventional wisdom about Putin’s KGB background and painted a much fuller portrait of the man who would come to dominate Russian politics.

That ability to spot the importance of seemingly insignificant details, to weave disparate strands of information into a meaningful story, gave him a particular knack for hunting terrorists.

"He could always give you the broader implications of all these details we were amassing," said John McLaughlin, who as CIA deputy director was briefed regularly by John in the mornings after the 2001 attacks.

From 2003, when he joined the counterterrorism center, through 2005, John was one of the driving forces behind the most successful string of counterterrorism captures in the fight against terrorism: Abu Zubaydah, Abd al-Nashiri, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Ramzi bin Alshib, Hambali and Faraj al-Libi.

But there was no greater prize than finding bin Laden.

Bin Laden had slipped away from US forces in the Afghan mountains of Tora Bora in 2001, and the CIA believed he had taken shelter in the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan. In 2006, the agency mounted Operation Cannonball, an effort to establish bases in the tribal regions and find bin Laden. Even with all its money and resources, the CIA could not locate its prime target.

By then, the agency was on its third director since Sept. 11, 2001. John had outlasted many of his direct supervisors who retired or went on to other jobs. The CIA doesn’t like to keep its people in one spot for too long. They become jaded. They start missing things.

John didn’t want to leave. He’d always been persistent. In college, he walked on to a Division I basketball team and hustled his way into a rotation full of scholarship players.

The CIA offered to promote him and move him somewhere else. John wanted to keep the bin Laden file.

He examined and re-examined every aspect of bin Laden’s life. How did he live while hiding in Sudan? With whom did he surround himself while living in Kandahar, Afghanistan? What would a bin Laden hideout look like today?

The CIA had a list of potential leads, associates and family members who might have access to bin Laden.

"Just keep working that list bit by bit," one senior intelligence official recalls John telling his team. "He’s there somewhere. We’ll get there."

John rose through the ranks of the counterterrorism center, but because of his nearly unrivaled experience, he always had influence beyond his title. One former boss confessed that he didn’t know exactly what John’s position was.

"I knew he was the guy in the room I always listened to," the official said.

While he was shepherding the hunt for bin Laden, John also was pushing to expand the Predator program, the agency’s use of unmanned airplanes to launch missiles at terrorists. The CIA largely confined those strikes to targets along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. But in late 2007 and early 2008, John said the CIA needed to carry out those attacks deeper inside Pakistan.

It was a risky move. Pakistan was an important but shaky ally. John’s analysts saw an increase in the number of Westerners training in Pakistani terrorist camps. John worried that those men would soon start showing up on US soil.

"We’ve got to act," John said, a former senior intelligence official recalls. "There’s no explaining inaction."

John took the analysis to then CIA Director Michael Hayden, who agreed and took the recommendation to President George W. Bush. In the last months of the Bush administration, the CIA began striking deeper inside Pakistan. Obama immediately adopted the same strategy and stepped up the pace. Recent attacks have killed al-Qaida’s No. 3 official, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, and Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud.

All the while, John’s team was working the list of bin Laden leads. In 2007, a female colleague whom the AP has also agreed not to identify decided to zero in on a man known as Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, a nom de guerre. Other terrorists had identified al-Kuwaiti as an important courier for al Qaeda’s upper echelon, and she believed that finding him might help lead to bin Laden.

"They had their teeth clenched on this and they weren’t going to let go," McLaughlin said of John and his team. "This was an obsession."

It took three years, but in August 2010, al-Kuwaiti turned up on a National Security Agency wiretap. The female analyst, who had studied journalism at a Big Ten university, tapped out a memo for John, "Closing in on Bin Laden Courier," saying her team believed al-Kuwaiti was somewhere on the outskirts of Islamabad.

As the CIA homed in on al-Kuwaiti, John’s team continually updated the memo with fresh information. Everyone knew that anything with bin Laden’s name on it would shoot right to the director’s desk and invite scrutiny, so the early drafts played down hopes that the courier would lead to bin Laden. But John saw the bigger picture. The hunt for al-Kuwaiti was effectively the hunt for bin Laden, and he was not afraid to say so.

The revised memo was finished in September 2010. John, by then deputy chief of the Pakistan-Afghanistan Department, emailed it to those who needed to know. The title was "Anatomy of a Lead."

As expected, the memo immediately became a hot topic inside CIA headquarters and Director Leon Panetta wanted to know more. John never overpromised, colleagues recall, but he was unafraid to say there was a good chance this might be the break the agency was looking for.

The CIA tracked al-Kuwaiti to a walled compound in Abbottabad. If bin Laden was hiding there, in a busy suburb not far from Pakistan’s military academy, it challenged much of what the agency had assumed about his hideout.

But John said it wasn’t that far-fetched. Drawing on what he knew about bin Laden’s earlier hideouts, he said it made sense that bin Laden had surrounded himself only with his couriers and family and did not use phones or the Internet. The CIA knew that top al-Qaida operatives had lived in urban areas before.

A cautious Panetta took the information to Obama, but there was much more work to be done.

The government tried everything to figure out who was in that compound.

In a small house nearby, the CIA put people who would fit in and not draw any attention. They watched and waited but turned up nothing definitive. Satellites captured images of a tall man walking the grounds of the compound, but never got a look at his face.

Again and again, John and his team asked themselves who else might be living in that compound. They came up with five or six alternatives; bin Laden was always the best explanation.

This went on for months. By about February, John told his bosses, including Panetta, that the CIA could keep trying, but the information was unlikely to get any better. He told Panetta this might be their best chance to find bin Laden and it would not last forever. Panetta made that same point to the president

Panetta held regular meetings on the hunt, often concluding with an around-the-table poll: How sure are you that this is bin Laden?

John was always bullish, rating his confidence as high as 80 percent.

Others weren’t so sure, especially those who had been in the room for operations that went bad. Not two years earlier, the CIA thought it had an informant who could lead him to bin Laden’s deputy. That man blew himself up at a base in Khost, Afghanistan, killing seven CIA employees and injuring six others.

That didn’t come up in the meetings with Panetta, a senior intelligence official said. But everyone knew the risk the CIA was taking if it told the president that bin Laden was in Abbottabad and was wrong.

"We all knew that if he wasn’t there and this was a disaster, certainly there would be consequences," the official recalled.

John was among several CIA officials who repeatedly briefed Obama and others at the White House. Current and former officials involved in the discussions said John had a coolness and a reassuring confidence.

By April, the president had decided to send the Navy SEALs to assault the compound.

Though the plan was in motion, John went back to his team, a senior intelligence official said.

"Right up to the last hour," he told them, "if we get any piece of information that suggests it’s not him, somebody has to raise their hand before we risk American lives."

Nobody did. Inside the Situation Room, the analyst who was barely known outside the close-knit intelligence world took his place alongside the nation’s top security officials, the household names and well-known faces of Washington.

An agonizing 40 minutes after Navy SEALs stormed the compound, the report came back: Bin Laden was dead.

John and his team had guessed correctly, taking an intellectual risk based on incomplete information. It was a gamble that ended a decade of disappointment. Later, Champagne was uncorked back at the CIA, where those in the Counterterrorism Center who had targeted bin Laden for so long celebrated. John’s team reveled in the moment.

Two days after bin Laden’s death, John accompanied Panetta to Capitol Hill. The Senate Intelligence Committee wanted a full briefing on the successful mission. At one point in the private session, Panetta turned to the man whose counterterrorism resume spanned four CIA directors.

He began to speak, about the operation and about the years of intelligence it was based on. And as he spoke about the mission that had become his career, the calm, collected analyst paused, and he choked up.

Comments (23) Closed

KMR Overseas Jul 05, 2011 12:51pm
"John" wonderful man worked to save humanity. May God Bless Him.
Agha Jul 05, 2011 01:30pm
I think someone is working hard to write a movie script for the upcoming movie in hollywood -- The mother of all captures!!
Vissa Jul 05, 2011 01:45pm
I wish I were John... what an exciting life and what an exciting mission
Sana Jul 05, 2011 02:28pm
save the world from the hands of America
akram Jul 05, 2011 03:05pm
Hmmm, interesting to read the Pak opinions coming in. Unfortunately the majority would read all of this as a US bid to sensationalize - but more of a case of sour grapes - developed nations have intelligence, developing nations have some of it, conspiracy-prone nations only have Zaid Hamid stories.
Naqi Akbar Jul 05, 2011 03:32pm
looks like a narrative of a realy hard working journalist!!
Rizwan Jul 05, 2011 04:47pm
we are just glorifying this man "John" and his mission by publishing this story on our leading newspapers. Don't we know, how brazenly America violated our sovereignty by invading our country, specially when they were not 100 percent sure that OBL was living in the compound.
Saif Jul 05, 2011 05:10pm
exaggeration by Americans as ever.Any thing American do, they make it look larger than life thing.As they say "success has got many fathers and failure has none". This is all history.You can glorify the characters as per your want.Same way, you can nullify people as per your wish.The same reflects here.This is all fabricated.Just to show the world how intelligent,wise and American were.And inspite of all the technology,surveillance,expertise they just took ten years and trillion of dollars to kill a normal human being,who was not an alien from the Space.As they say evety body can be wise after the event.This piece of news is a classic example of that.
landofindus Jul 06, 2011 04:40am
We should be grateful to CIA for killing Osama bin Laden. I hope they also knock out the rest of his Al Qaeda gang soon. Those who support Al Qaeda and those Taliban should also be put to death. Enough of their nonsense.
Malay Jul 06, 2011 04:43am
It's all american propaganda.Osama is still alive.Where are the photos?
Noman Jul 06, 2011 05:16am
Looks like a well written script for an upcoming fiasco
suresh nayak Jul 06, 2011 06:00am
Saif, you nailed it mate, americans know how to glorify their acts, wish they can glorify the killings of the innocent victims too. Prize: One Osama, Victims: Hundreds of innocent victims, Cost: Trillons of dollars. Result: American in dire strait, with likely to be double dip recession. Read the recent article of Robert Kiyosaki, he is asking Americans (of course rich) to arm themselves as poor and unemployed Americans will invade the homes of the rich and famous.
hamid Jul 06, 2011 06:10am
My views would be different than other Pakistanis. I think we should learn from Americans. Secondly, this is not exaggeration, fictitious narration, rather a reality and we Pakistani should accept. What I know being educated people we should be well of aware of conspiracy theories, have almost posed a big threat to our security, sovereignty and has made a joke particularly for the Indians could be examined while reading their hostile news stories comments being posted afterwards. Besides, I believe that right now we do not have any proper strategy to fight terrorists attacking our places like mosques, public markets and other social gathering. What the American wanted they done already, but what is our strategy to fight those attacking us daily.
Nadir Aziz Jul 06, 2011 06:23am
There you go again. Living in a make beleive world as most Pakistanis do. Wake up to reality of the world. Osama did not care how many Pakistani citizens were killed nor did he care how many muslims died. John should be hailed as a hero to track down the murderer Osama Bin Laden.
jay Jul 06, 2011 06:49am
When heroes like "John" walk among men, there is still hope for humanity.
greg Jul 06, 2011 06:59am
Well done, John. You are a hero to any thinking person. Those that do not understand that killing Bin Laden was more important than any sovereignty issues are not thinking. You have done more to save lives in Pakistan than anywhere else and, by yourself, more than the entire Pakistani state. Most of the people on this board cannot bear to admit the US has given them another gift.
Sajid Jul 06, 2011 07:47am
The juvenile reaction of many Pakistanis after the elimination of Osama indicates that they are not able to digest the fact that The United States of America has achieved its goal by eliminating Osama skilfully along with his false air of invincibility.
A K Dutta Jul 06, 2011 08:10am
But your military leaders has prepared the ground for violating the sovereingity of Pakistan by the Americans
shuaib mahbub Jul 06, 2011 09:16am
Thank you John, thanks for saving my beloved adopted country, my people and my land my good ol; USA. We are a nation of sons like yourself and we will never be defeated.
james Jul 06, 2011 10:34am
pakistanis should now learn to call a spade a spade. when reality face them on their face, face it bravely and if mistakes are committed try to change. then only there would be improvement. otherwise you have to face disaster.that is lessons of history.
Kashif Khan Jul 06, 2011 11:54am
WOW! hats off to JOHN and the script writer of this movie. Apparently, the script lacked enough substance and had to be published as an article. I wish they made of a Hollywood film on this.
Maqsood Ahmad Jul 06, 2011 12:53pm
The whole story reminds me the story "The Stuffed Trout" by jerome k jerome...... read it again u will observer little difference...
sunil Jul 06, 2011 08:33pm
Wake up to reality. While thousands got killed in the name of Jihad, OBL with his 2 wives and nice place to live, was enjoying his life and produced many kids. This one thing should be enough to open your eyes that it was OBL's personal agenda which certainly was not for Islam or for that matter any human being. He cared least about other people but his own safety and life. The reason it took 10 years to find OBL because there are plenty of people like you and Musharraf in Pakistan. As long as you guys live with 'Geer Gaya Toh Bhee Tangadee Oopar' attitude, world will continue to face problems.