The Bin Laden Raid, One Year Later

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The Bin Laden Raid, One Year Later

This week marks the one-year anniversary of the raid on the Abbottabad compound where Osama bin Laden spent his final days. The raid remains one of the Obama administration’s most significant national security accomplishments and was the result of years of difficult and dedicated work by America’s intelligence and military professionals.

Leadership and decision making at multiple levels were also key. NSN senior advisor Major General (ret) Paul Eaton explains:  “The Osama bin Laden raid demonstrated a fundamental presidential competence, strategically, operationally and tactically. On arrival in office, President Obama made the strategic decision to task his intelligence community to find bin Laden. When presented with a menu of attack options, the president made the operational decision to execute a precision, manned assault, limiting potential collateral damage and optimizing intelligence collection. Tactically, the president, apparently schooled in previous helicopter dramas in military operations like Desert One, directed an increase in helicopter assets to assure redundancy and a reserve to compensate for the high risk potential of a helicopter loss.”

Beyond the death of one man, the raid figures in a broader strategy that has decimated al Qaeda’s leadership and refocused American attention and resources back to the core of America’s strength: the economy.

Bin Laden raid was an important victory, reflects difficult choices that a president must face. Former CIA officer and Brookings Senior Fellow Bruce Riedel explains what Peter Bergen’s book  Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad reveals about President Obama’s decision making: President Obama “had campaigned on the promise that if elected, he would not hesitate to take unilateral action inside Pakistan to kill bin Laden if he could find him. President Obama is a thoughtful and deliberative decision maker who values debate and data. I learned that in chairing for him the strategic review of American policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan at the start of his administration, which set as its goal defeating al Qaeda. Obama is also a risk taker and gambler. The odds that bin Laden was in the hideout were only 50-50, and the risk of encountering a Pakistani Army patrol in Abbottabad was considerable… The result was a devastating blow to al Qaeda that it is still struggling to recover from.” [Bruce Riedel, 4/29/12]

Success grew from a 2009 shakeup in intelligence policy, priorities: “more Hercule Poirot than Bond.”  Last year, Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation and expert on al Qaeda and bin Laden, outlined the structural changes in U.S. intelligence that led to the discovery of the hide out: “After President Obama took office, he and the new Central Intelligence Agency director, Leon Panetta, reorganized the team of analysts devoted to finding Osama bin Laden. The team worked out of ground-floor offices at the Langley headquarters… analytical units, at Central Command, in Tampa, and at the International Security Assistance Force, in Kabul, sorted battlefield and all-source intelligence, designated subjects for additional collection, and conducted pattern analysis of relationships among terrorists, couriers, and raw data collected in the field… Overseas, C.I.A. officers in the Directorate of Operations and the Special Activities Division-intelligence officers who ran sources and collected information, as well as armed paramilitaries-carried out the search for informants from bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Units from the military’s Joint Special Operations Command, which includes the Navy Seals, Delta, and other specialized groups, joined in. Often, Special Operations and the C.I.A. worked in blended task-force teams deployed around Afghanistan, and, more problematically, as the Raymond Davis case indicated, around Pakistan.”

Riedel adds:  “the key to the outcome was not some swashbuckling James Bond spy, but rather the meticulous hard work of professional intelligence analysts. Catching HVT1 was more the work of Hercule Poirot than Bond. And many of the best analysts were women who used their ‘little gray cells’ brilliantly to put together a plan to find bin Laden by studying his work habits, family, and those he trusted most.” Responding to claims that torture lead America directly to bin Laden, Mark Fallon, a former interrogator and special agent in charge of the criminal investigation task force at Guantanamo Bay stated: “It’s a shame to diminish the incredible work that went on through the intelligence community with analysts and case officers that led to bin Laden’s capture…  To try to cheapen it by saying that some event in water boarding years ago led to this is a disservice to our service members.” [Steve Coll,5/2/11. Bruce Riedel, 4/29/12. Mark Fallon via MSNBC, 5/3/11]

Comprehensive, whole-of-government, approach to combating terrorism has yielded success well beyond death of one man. Peter Bergen writes of bin Laden’s final days: “While he urged his organization on to attack America, bin Laden was also keenly aware that al Qaeda was in deep trouble because of the campaign of CIA drone strikes in Pakistan and also because the brutal tactics of his followers had alienated many Muslims… the leaders of al Qaeda understood that the group they led was ‘beleaguered.’” Bergen’s colleagues at the New America Foundation Phillip Mudd, a former FBI and CIA terrorism analyst, and Brian Fishman, who served as director of research at West Point’s Combatting Terrorism Center, explains that, “Two legs of al Qaeda’s three-legged stool, the core group in Pakistan-Afghanistan and the affiliates, are weak. The third leg, so-called homegrown jihadists, has not shown the capability to pose more than a modest threat. Al Qaeda’s allies are lethal and broadly dispersed, but they show little sign of producing the global revolution they espouse.”

And as the president’s top advisor on counterterrorism, John Brennan, outlines, success has come on multiple fronts: “We have affected al-Qa’ida’s ability to attract new recruits. We’ve made it harder for them to hide and transfer money, and pushed al-Qa’ida’s finances to its weakest point in years… we’ve shown al-Qa’ida that it will enjoy no safe haven, and we have made it harder than ever for them to move, to communicate, to train, and to plot. Al-Qa’ida’s leadership ranks have been decimated, with more key leaders eliminated in rapid succession than at any time since 9/11.” [Peter Bergen, 3/16/12. Phillip Mudd and Brian Fishman, 2/24/12. John Brennan, 6/29/11]

What We’re Reading

As Israeli military and intelligence officials attack their government’s rhetoric, American officials and outside analysts maintain that the likelihood of engaging in war with Iran in the near future has diminished markedly.

Dozens of additional UN monitors are due to arrive in Syria.

Egyptian state television reported that the country’s military leaders will reform the Cabinet under Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri over the next 48 hours.

A blind Chinese dissident who escaped from house arrest is under U.S. protection, his supporters said.

The Malaysian police vowed to look into incidents of violence at a rally held to support free elections.

Sudan declared a state of emergency along its border with South Sudan as the two nations move towards war over contested areas and oil.

A government report reveals that Spain has plunged into its second recession since 2009 as its economy shrank for the second consecutive quarter.

Germany continues to recruit thousands of educated Southern Europeans to fill the ranks of its work force.

One hundred of America’s elite Special Operations troops are helping African forces hunt fugitive rebel commander Joseph Kony.

Commentary of the Day

Senator Dianne Feinstein writes that a diplomatic solution offers the best outcome for Iran, Israel and the international community.

Lt. Gen. Dirk Jameson (ret) declares that our present nuclear-war-fighting strategy is outdated and geared against an enemy that hasn’t existed for more than 20 years.

Isobel Coleman argues that it remains uncertain how big a role Islam will play in Egypt’s political system.

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