May 19, 2011 -- No one will receive the $25 million reward for the capture of Osama bin Laden, say U.S. officials, because the raid that killed the al Qaeda leader in Pakistan on May 2 was the result of electronic intelligence, not human informants.
"We do not expect a reward to be paid," said a senior U.S. official familiar with the bin Laden hunt, meaning that the $25 million bounty offered by the U.S. under the Rewards for Justice program after the 9/11 terror attacks will probably remain uncollected.
The reason is simple, say officials involved in or knowledgeable about the hunt for the world's most wanted man: the CIA and the military never had an al Qaeda operative as an informer willing to give him up. Instead, what killed bin Laden was electronic surveillance, and an operational mistake by one of his closest associates. After a slow drip of intelligence year after year, and then a final flurry of data collection and analysis brought a team of SEALs to bin Laden's Abbottabad compound on a moonless night.
In previous manhunts, such as the capture of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein or the killing of his two sons, U.S. intelligence and military commandos had the help of insiders and human sources. In each case, someone received millions of dollars in reward money for their efforts.
The long and sometimes circular path that led to bin Laden was paved by satellites, drones, phone surveillance and luck. The CIA declined to comment on specific intelligence methods, but U.S. officials have said the intelligence was a "mosaic" and "multi-streamed," meaning from every avenue in the government's arsenal, the strongest of which is still the technological wizardry of the CIA, the National Security Agency, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the Department of Defense.
Bin Laden's survival for nearly ten years was the result of the limits of American power and intelligence--the ability to recruit sources inside al Qaeda or support networks in Pakistan, and his death was the result in the overwhelming superiority of American electronic, signals, and technological capabilities.
By the summer of 2009, the trail for bin Laden had gone cold. The CIA simply had no tangible evidence of any place he'd been since he'd slipped away from U.S. air attacks in his redoubt in Afghanistan's Tora Bora mountains. Marty Martin, a former top CIA official who led the hunt for bin Laden from 2002 to 2004, said that for years his colleagues were baffled as to where the fugitive had hidden.
"We could see from his videos what his circumstances were," Martin said of bin Laden's video messages that were released in the years after his Tora Bora escape. "In the immediate years afterward he looked battle fatigued and on the run. He didn't look healthy. We knew he was moving. But where? We simply didn't know. Then, he gained weight and looked healthy. I told my analysts, 'He's gone urban, moved somewhere stable and safe.' "
During all the years the trail went cold, the CIA had been unable to develop a human source inside al Qaeda or inside their support network. Several former intelligence officials involved in the hunt for bin Laden said developing a spy inside bin Laden's inner circle was never very likely because of the level of commitment his followers possessed. The man who turned in Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was an Afghan informer who provided low-level support to the al Qaeda chief of operations, not a fellow operative. Beyond that, the CIA tried to monitor those who facilitated communications and operations for al Qaeda, while learning as much as they could from detainees.
But in 2009, the CIA caught a break. The Pakistani intelligence service, known as the ISI, delivered a gift: a cellphone number they gathered when they recorded a call made from Pakistan to the Middle East. The number belonged to an al Qaeda courier that the CIA had long been searching for, Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti.
Osama Bin Laden's Courier Makes A Mistake
After the 2009 phone call that the Pakistanis tapped, however, al Kuwaiti's number went dark. But the courier had exposed himself, and the CIA suspected that if they could find where al Kuwaiti lived, they might be about to find bin Laden.
The call had located al Kuwaiti in northwest Pakistan and gave the CIA a starting point for a renewed hunt. A year later, in the summer of 2010, despite fastidious operational security by al Kuwaiti -- he normally drove 90 minutes from the compound before inserting the battery in his cellphone, preventing signals intelligence pinpointing his starting point – he made a twofold mistake. For the first time in almost a year, he used the cellphone simcard that U.S. intelligence had linked to him, and he made a call with that simcard close to bin Laden's compound.
The National Security Agency, the world's most powerful signals intelligence organization, had been waiting to pounce on any calls made from that simcard since 2009. The NSA picked up the call and located al Kuwaiti in Abbottabad, Pakistan. They were even able to pinpoint the neighborhood the call had probably come from. From there, the CIA and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) began searching aerial satellite photographs to deduce which house would likely be bin Laden's.
When they discovered a newer building with high perimeter walls, custom construction and a third floor terrace wall of seven feet--the CIA knew they had their target. The search was almost over.
By August of 2010, CIA director Leon Panetta briefed President Obama and had a new stealth drone begin flights over the compound, undetected by Pakistani air defenses. The CIA was sure a high-value target lived in the compound, and given al Kuwaiti's relationship to bin Laden--learned in bits and pieces from interrogations of captured detainees since 2002 -- was "60 to 80 percent" sure bin Laden was hiding in the compound, according to Panetta.
The CIA, the NGA and the Pentagon studied reams of signals intelligence, electronic emissions, infrared technology, almost all from drones and satellites, in order to learn the compound's construction and the number of people living inside. Intelligence analysts even studied the water tables underneath the Abbottabad valley to determine whether it was likely bin Laden had built an escape tunnel underneath the house.
"We were pretty sure it was too wet to build a tunnel," one US official familiar with the CIA's intelligence said.
Martin, the retired CIA official, said bin Laden also undoubtedly learned from his al Qaeda operatives' mistakes.
"He was not stupid. If you see your men killed by drones or captured, you learn from experience what kind of entourage to have and how to change your profile."
Bin Laden had taken away all signs of his importance that for years the CIA had searched for from the sky: armed guards, rings of protection, transportation convoys -- he left it all behind and hid behind an 18-foot wall for five years. When the Navy SEALs eventually stormed the compound, only a few rifles and handguns were seized. He had dropped virtually all his protection so that spy satellites, and drone surveillance would be unable to differentiate his compound from any other in the area. The SEALs also found, and killed, the courier whose single errant phone call, snapped up in a web of electronic surveillance, had led them to Abbottabad.