Tuesday, May 10, 2011

More on the bin Laden Operation

A lot of questions have been raised in connection with the operation carried out by the US to neutralise bin Laden. The Indian weekly Outlook (issue dated May 16, 2011) in its cover story on the killing of Osama bin Laden has raised questions on the raid titled “Eight Question Marks in Abbottabad.” The author has made an attempt to answer the questions raised both in Pakistan and outside in this post as well as in the earlier post. The questions and the author's answers are as follows:

1. The Choppers: Were there two or four? How many SEALS were involved, 20 or 79? If one chopper collapsed, could the lone returning one carry them all, plus Osama?

Answer: There were four, two of which were believed to be Chinooks. In all, 79 SEALS were part of the team that went to Abbottabad. However, two dozens SEALS actually took part in the raid on Waziristan Haveli. The rest probably formed the reserve or back-up team. The Chinooks have capacity to ferry about 50 to 55 troops.

2. The Take – Off: Where did the choppers take off from, Jalalabad in Afghanistan or Tarbela in Pakistan? Could they have hovered on without the Pak army or its radars noticing?

Answer: The choppers took off most probably from Tarbela Ghazi Airbase in north-west Pakistan. Two of the choppers used were probably modified MH-60s. It is believed that the MH-60S has no offensive sensors but can carry the ALQ-144 Infrared Jammer.

3. The Town: Local residents, including coffee-shop owner Shoaib Athar who live-tweeted the incident, say power had been cut off in Abbottabad 40 mins earlier. Was this a routine outage?

Answer: The town was known to have power cuts. Hence this seemed to be a routine affair.

4. The Police: At whose orders was the Pashto-speaking local police shooing away residents of Abbottabad who wondered about the choppers and the “big blast” creating a blaze in the sky?

Answer: According to BBC Urdu, when the helicopters landed outside (it appears that two of the choppers carrying the back-up team landed outside Waziristan Haveli), men emerged from the aircraft and spoke to locals in Pashto. The members of the CIA’s Special Activities Division possess the ability to converse in local language.

5. The Gunfight: Why has the narrative ranged from a “firefight throughout the operation” to “the only shots fired by those in the compound came at the beginning of the operation”?

Answer: The US Administration made several changes to the narratives in the days following the operation, some of which were contradictory. One can only guess that different versions were given by different officials leading to some sort of confusion.

6. The Capture: If he had an AK-47 and a Makarov pistol at arm’s reach, why didn’t Osama use them? If he was unarmed, as it is now being said, why was he shot so brutally for his photo not to be shown?

Answer: The raids such as the present one are not an orderly affair; there is very little intelligence on the exact number of residents, whether they are armed or otherwise and very little time for decision-making. The raiding team certainly was not expected to give the quarry time to surrender. Also, this was an operation primarily meant to neutralize the Al Qaeda chief – it was an ‘operation designed to kill’. A woman resident was also killed in the cross-fire.

7. The Families: Apart from Osama’s, there were two other families in Waziristan Haveli. Five of the 23 residents were killed, the rest were tied up and left behind. Have they spoken to the officials yet?

Answer: The US has sought access to the widow or widows of bin Laden. News reports indicate that Pakistan has agreed to permit US officials to interrogate the youngest wife of bin Laden.

8. The Burial: US says Osama’s body was ferried to USS Carl Vinsen and buried in the North Arabian Sea, with due Islamic rites. Was an Imam readily available on board the ship, or was US prepared for only one eventuality: Osama dead.

Answer: As stated in answer to Question No. 6, it appears that taking Laden alive was a remote possibility considering the nature of the operations. However, it is now emerging that two specialist teams were on standby, probably on the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson in the Arabian Sea: one to bury Bin Laden if he was killed, and a second team of lawyers, interrogators and translators if he was taken alive.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Operation Geronimo renamed Operation Neptune Spear

(Note: The information contained in this post is drawn from various sources)

(Originally reported as Operation Geronimo it was subsequently reported as Operation Neptune Spear, with Jackpot as the code name for bin Laden as an individual and Geronimo as the code word for bin Laden's capture or death)

May 2, 2011 will go down in history as a red-letter day in the War on Terror. The world’s most wanted terrorist Osama bin Laden was killed in a pre-dawn operation in a highly fortified compound housing a mansion in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad, located about 30-40 miles north of the capital Islamabad. (Abbottabad is an important military cantonment and sanatorium, being the headquarters of a brigade in the Second Division of the Northern Army Corps).

The Operation

With heavy cloud rolling in over the town of Abbottabad, conditions were perfect for the raid to take out Osama Bin Laden after ten years on the run. The operation which was scheduled to take place the previous night was cancelled because the weather was clear and the U.S. aircraft would have been spotted from a distance. From Tarbela Ghazi Air Base in Pakistan, the modified MH-60 helicopters made their way to the garrison suburb of Abbottabad. Aboard were Navy SEALs, flown across the border from Afghanistan, along with tactical signals, intelligence collectors, and navigators using highly classified hyperspectral imagers. The entire operation which lasted less than 45 minutes was carried out by members of the elite and highly secretive Naval Special Warfare Development Group commonly known as DEVGRU and informally by its former name SEAL Team Six and backed by members of the CIA’s Special Activities Division (SAD). It appears that about 20 to 25 Special Forces operatives in four helicopters carried out the raid. Some reports indicate that nearly 79 members of the US Special Forces/SAD were involved in the raid. (Apparently 79 personnel traveled in four helicopters. However, the actual raid was conducted by about two dozen operatives).

The target of the operation was the compound, which had at its centre a three-storey building known as Waziristani Haveli or Waziristan Mansion. This house was in a residential district of Abbottabad's suburbs called Bilal Town and it was known to be home to a number of retired military officers from the area.

When the helicopters landed outside, men emerged from the aircraft and spoke to locals in Pashto, witnesses told BBC Urdu. People living in the area, known as Thanda Choha, were told to switch off their lights and not to leave their homes. According to residents of the area, there was no electricity in the area at the time of the operation.

Two dozen U.S. Navy Seals wearing night-vision goggles dropped into the high-walled compound. They stormed inside to secure the terror chief’s hideaway room by room, with head cameras relaying the action to the President and the director of the CIA, Leon Panetta, who was overseeing the operation at the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Bin Laden and the DEVGRU team encountered each other on the second floor or third floor of the residence; bin Laden was "wearing the local loose-fitting tunic and pants known as a shalwar kameez". He was later found to have €500 and two phone numbers stitched into his clothes. Although there were weapons in the room, including an AK-47 and Makarov pistol, bin Laden was unarmed at the time he was shot. "The encounter with bin Laden lasted only seconds," according to Politico, and took place during "the last five or 10 minutes" of the raid. Bin Laden was killed by at least one and possibly two American bullets, one of which struck the left side of his head, another shot was widely reported to be a bullet to the chest.

Following the shootout with bin Laden, his body was carried out and taken away in one of the helicopters. Three men, including one of his sons, and a woman, who tried to act as a human shield to save him, were also killed. The raiding team did not suffer any casualty.

The raid was intended to take 30 minutes. All told, the time between the team's entry in and exit from the compound was 38 minutes. Time in the compound was spent neutralizing defenders; "moving carefully through the compound, room to room, floor to floor" securing the women and children; clearing "weapons stashes and barricades" and searching the compound for information. U.S. personnel removed computer hard drives, documents, DVDs, thumb drives and "electronic equipment" from the compound for later analysis.

At some point in the operation one of the helicopters crashed, either from technical failure or having been hit by gunfire from the ground.

The compound was about 3,000 sq yards in size but people from the area told the BBC that it was surrounded by 14ft-high walls, so not much could be seen of what was happening inside.

The walls were topped by barbed wire and contained cameras.

There were two security gates at the house and no phone or internet lines running into the compound, according to the Associated Press (AP).

Intelligence and Planning

For nearly a decade, American military and intelligence forces have chased the ghost of Bin Laden throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan, once coming agonizingly close to capturing him in a battle at Tora Bora, in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. As Obama administration officials describe it, the real breakthrough came when they finally figured out the name and location of Bin Laden’s most trusted courier, whom the Qaeda chief appeared to rely on to maintain contacts with the outside world.

A trusted courier of Osama bin Laden’s whom American intelligence had been hunting for years was finally located in a sprawling mansion 35 miles north of the Pakistani capital, close to one of the hubs of American counterterrorism operations. The compound was so secure, so large, that American officials guessed it was built to hide someone far more important than a mere courier.

What followed was eight months of painstaking intelligence work, culminating in a helicopter assault by American military and intelligence operatives that ended in the death of Bin Laden, and concluded one of history’s most extensive and frustrating manhunts.

Detainees at the Guantánamo Bay prison had given the courier’s pseudonym to American interrogators, and said the man was a protégé of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the confessed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. However, it was not until August of 2010 when they tracked him to the compound in Abbottabad, a medium sized city about an hour’s drive north of Islamabad, the capital.

C.I.A. analysts spent the next several weeks examining satellite photos and intelligence reports to determine who might be living at the mansion, and a senior administration official said that by September the C.I.A. had determined there was a “strong possibility” that Bin Laden himself was hiding there.

It was hardly the spartan cave in the mountains where many had envisioned Bin Laden hiding. Rather, it was a large mansion on the outskirts of the town center, set on an imposing hilltop and ringed by 12-foot-high concrete walls topped with barbed wire.

The property was valued at $1 million, but it had neither a telephone nor an Internet connection. Residents of the compound were so concerned about security that they burned their trash, rather putting it on the street for collection like their neighbors.

American officials believe that the mansion, built in 2005, was designed for the specific purpose of hiding bin Laden.

Months more of intelligence work would follow before American spies felt highly confident that it was indeed bin Laden and his family who were hiding in the compound — and before President Obama believed the intelligence was solid enough to begin planning a mission to go after the Qaeda leader.

On March 14, President Obama held the first of what would be five national security meetings in the course of the next six weeks to go over plans for the operation.

Four more similar meetings to discuss the plan would follow, until President Obama gathered his aides one final time last Friday.

Even after the president signed the formal orders authorizing the raid, Mr. Obama chose to keep Pakistan’s government in the dark about the operation.

“We shared our intelligence on this compound with no other country, including Pakistan,” a senior administration official said.

It is no surprise that the administration chose not to tell Pakistani officials. Even though the Pakistanis insisted that Bin Laden was not in their country, the United States never really believed it. American diplomatic cables in recent years show constant American pressure on Pakistan to help find and kill Bin Laden.

US officials, who did not want to be named, said the discovery that Osama bin Laden was holed up in an army town in Pakistan raised pointed questions about how he managed to evade capture and whether Pakistan's military intelligence knew about his whereabouts and sheltered him. Most intelligence estimates figured that bin Laden was holed up in Pakistan's tribal areas, close to the Afghan border, possibly in a cave sheltered by loyal tribesmen.

The house were bin Laden was holed is just 100 yards from the gate of the Kakul Military Academy, an army run institution where top officers train. Giving a graphic account of the operation, ABC quoting officials said some 10 years after the abortive US bid to nab him in the caves of Tora Bora, a small group of American forces in helicopters took just 40 minutes to land in a well-guarded mansion in a secure neighbourhood.

Questions – Answered and Unanswered

Firstly, a question that arises is why did the elusive AQ chief chose Abbottabad to hide? And whether the Pakistani establishment was aware of his presence in Pakistan? It is indeed strange that the world’s most wanted man chose a garrison town in which a brigade headquarters and a premier military training institution is located to hide. The Waziristan Haveli (in Bilal Town) itself was four kilometers north-east of the center of Abbottabad, 650 meters southeast of the PMA-Kakul Road, and 1.3 kilometers southwest of the PMA at 34°10′09″N 73°14′33″E34.16917°N 73.2425°E. There had been connections between Abbottabad and elements of the Al Qaeda in the past. On September 28, 2001, Indian intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing, provided the United States with a list of 71 al-Qaeda training camps spread across Pakistan proper, at locations as diverse as Abbottabad, Peshawar, Quetta and Warsak In July 2002, The Christian Science Monitor published the results of a week-long investigation, which provided evidence that "Al Qaeda and an array of militant affiliate groups" had staff offices near the Karakoram Highway - from Abbottabad along the western perimeter of Kashmir - with the tacit approval of Pakistani intelligence. In June 2004, Pakistani intelligence agents killed one al-Qaida suspect as three other fled from a car in Abbottabad as part of a major Pakistani operation to "flush out al-Qaida suspects and their local supporters from hide-outs in a remote region near Afghanistan" that left 72 people dead, including 55 terrorists. On January 25, 2011, Pakistan authorities arrested one of the most wanted al-Qaeda-linked Indonesian terror suspects, Umar Patek, in Abbottabad while Patek carried one million US dollars head money, but waited until March 30, 2011 to make Patek's arrest public. Hence, it should come as no surprise that the emir of Al Qaeda was hunted down at this place. To answer the question, Abbottabad was probably not chosen by bin Laden, but rather by the Pakistani ISI. Abbottabad, it was felt, was the most unlikely place where the world’s most wanted man would choose to hide. Moreover, Abbottabad had well equipped medical facilities (belonging to the Pakistan Army) which could provide treatment for bin Laden’s renal ailment and other medical problems. It is thus incomprehensible that the Pak military establishment was unaware of the fact that bin Laden was staying in this place.

The second question is whether, Pakistan was aware of the operation to apprehend bin Laden? Whether the Pakistanis played any role in Operation Geronimo? Experts are divided as to whether Pakistanis were aware of the operation against Laden. Prima facie, it appears that the US chose to deliberately keep the Pakistanis in the dark about the raid. The US intelligence community has had reasons to believe that the fugitive was sheltered and protected by Pakistan and secondly in the past, when the CIA was close to apprehending him, Laden had been tipped off and thereby enabling him to escape capture. There was an apprehension in the US security establishment that Pakistan could not be trusted and made privy to such a sensitive operation as sharing intelligence relating to Laden would have jeopardized the operation. Others believe, that Osama bin Laden was a bargaining chip and he was bartered away pursuant to a deal which would enable Pakistan to have a significant role in the future political dispensation in Afghanistan.

The US, it is alleged is attempting to cover up certain aspects of this operation. Some questions remain unanswered or at any rate, not satisfactorily answered.

 Why did it take the US nearly ten months to execute this operation after it had some intelligence about Osama hiding in Abbottabad. The US received information about the possibility of Laden hiding in his Bilal town residence sometime in August 2010. Since Laden had evaded capture on previous occasions, one would have expected the US Administration to move quickly on the kill, rather than carry out surveillance for this long a period.

 Why were no photographs of Laden’s body made public, especially when there is a lot of disbelief about the entire operation in Pakistan and elsewhere?

 Why have the DNA test results not been made public?

 While acknowledging that Pakistan had no role to play in the operation why have top officials including the US President been thanking the Pakistanis for co-operation?


The operation from a purely military standpoint was a success with few parallels. The operation was backed by accurate and timely intelligence and the raiding team came out unscathed after fulfilling its mission successfully. In other words, it was a classical Special Forces operation executed with near perfection. The only hiccup was the loss of a helicopter. (It is now speculated whether the chopper that went down was a stealth helicopter).

The use of sophisticated technology enabled the US Navy SEALs to achieve their objective.

The operation also was the culmination of a joint effort by different organizations within the US intelligence community, the roles of some of which may never be made public for obvious reasons.

Osama’s death will most certainly result in a violent backlash either within Pakistan or in the form a terrorist attack targeting US interests in any part of the globe. At the time of this writing, India has issued a high security alert for its missions in Afghanistan.