Bin Laden's death: Eight unanswered mysteries.

Science, technology, and life.
May 2 2011 10:49 AM

What Really Happened in Abbottabad?

Eight mysteries about the killing of Osama Bin Laden.

Also in Slate, Daniel Byman analyzes the future of al-Qaida, Anne Applebaum applauds America's use of human intelligence over expensive technologies, and John Dickerson notes the silence from those who criticized Obama's military tactics. And don't miss Christopher Hitchens' article on Bin Laden's legacy, or David Weigel's coverage on the scene outside the White House. For the most up-to-date-coverage, visit The Slatest. Slate's complete coverage on the Osama Bin Laden assassination is rounded up here.

The hideout of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is pictured after his death by US Special Forces in a ground operation in Abbottabad on May 2, 2011. Click image to expand.
Bin Laden's hideout in Pakistan

What happened at Osama Bin Laden's compound on Sunday night? What led to the assault, and what will follow it? President Obama and senior U.S. officials have given partial accounts, but these only raise further questions. Here are a few of them.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

1. Aerial surveillance? Despite the compound's high walls, the U.S. knew a lot about the folks inside it. According to U.S. officials at last night's White House briefing, "A third family lived there—one whose size and whose makeup matched the Bin Laden family members that we believed most likely to be with Osama Bin Laden." How did we know so many things about these people—things that could be seen only from above? The New York Times says the CIA used "satellite photos" to ascertain the inhabitants. But given the family's careful security and the inconvenient timing of uncontrolled satellite passes, I wonder whether, in order to get information at this level of precision, we also used unarmed drones.

The chief loophole in the compound's security was probably its third-floor terrace, which, according to the U.S., had a seven-foot privacy wall. The terrace and wall would have been constructed so that the inhabitants could go outside without being seen from the street. But this would make them visible from above.

2. Air cover? Obama authorized the raid early Friday morning, but it didn't take place till nearly 48 hours later. Why? One possible reason is the weather. Look at the past week's weather report for Islamabad, the nearest major city. It was cloudy until Sunday, and the first clear break in nighttime cloud cover was Monday morning. Danger Room points out, "It's unlikely the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command would risk sending in a lightly-protected team to face terrorists capable of shooting down helicopters. That means air cover—most likely armed drones or Air Force gunships." We know from on-the-ground tweets, as well as from the U.S., that the raid took place around 1 a.m. But drone strikes frequently take place at that hour.

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3. Capture or kill? The U.S. says it killed Bin Laden because he "resisted" the commandos. But did they try hard to capture him alive? I doubt it. A U.S. official says the government dumped his body at sea quickly because "we don't want a bunch of people going to [a] shrine" for him. The same logic argued against putting him on trial, which would have made him even more of a martyr.

4. Intel bonus? The U.S. says its team "was on the compound for under 40 minutes." That includes the entry, the firefight, blowing up its crippled helicopter, and extracting Bin Laden's corpse. Was that enough time to find and grab anything useful that might further unravel Bin Laden's network? Probably not, but we won't know till later.

5. Gitmo vindicated? The U.S. says "detainees" provided the initial information about Bin Laden's courier, which eventually led to the raid. In its briefing, the Obama White House didn't specify where those detainees were located. But the Times says more: "Detainees at the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, had given the courier's pseudonym to American interrogators." Without Gitmo, would we have found him?

6. Sloppy defense? Eighteen-foot walls, barbed wire, an oversized plot of land, and a lack of phone wires made the compound highly conspicuous. U.S. officials say that once they began to look at it, they were "shocked by what we saw" and knew it was a good target. Yet despite all the fortifications, apparently only three men were with Bin Laden to defend him. Despite how long it took us to get him, it seems he was neither well-hidden nor well-protected.

7. Who knew? The U.S. says the area around the compound has "lots of retired military." The Washington Post reports that it's "the headquarters of a brigade of the Pakistan army's 2nd Division." Despite this, the U.S. adds that "the compound was built in 2005," apparently "for the purpose of harboring" Bin Laden. How could he have arranged the construction of such a facility, and then moved into it with his family, without anyone in the local Pakistani military network knowing about it?

8. Did Pakistan help? Since elements of the Pakistani security apparatus may have been complicit in keeping Bin Laden hidden, it was logical for the U.S. not to tell Pakistan anything about the raid beforehand. Apparently, that's what happened. "We shared our intelligence on this Bin Laden compound with no other country, including Pakistan," U.S. officials said last night. Yet Obama, in his address, stressed that "our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to Bin Laden." Why give Pakistan credit publicly, while privately shutting it out? Because we need all the friends we can get—Pakistanis, Afghans, Egyptians, Libyans, and their leaders—in the struggle against terrorism. We need to make it look as though this or that government helped us, even when it didn't. Did Pakistan really help us find Bin Laden? Don't take Obama's word for it. But if his post-raid spin increases the odds that Pakistan will help us the next time we need it, good for him.

(Updates 1:15 p.m.: 1) Politico's Mike Allen reports that U.S. officials "knew there were 22 people living" in the compound. This confirms the precision of U.S. visual intelligence. 2.) Allen says the raid was pushed back from Saturday to Sunday because of bad weather. This is consistent with air support or surveillance. 3) Allen reports that the commandos "scavenged every shred and pixel of possible intelligence material from the house." That would be one of the raid's most impressive achievements, given the tight schedule, firefight, and copter trouble. 4) Reuters (via The Slatest) says the commandos were given orders for a "kill operation" in which Bin Laden would have been taken alive only if he clearly surrendered.  5) BBC News says the compound "lies well within Abbottabad's military cantonment, and it is likely the area would have had a constant and significant military presence and checkpoints," which further suggests Pakistani complicity.)

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