Senior Official on Bin Laden Compound: ‘We Were Shocked By What We Saw’

May 2, 2011 - 3:37 PM

Osama bin Laden compound

The compound where Osama bin Laden lived in Abbottabad, Pakistan. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)

(CNSNews.com) - A senior administration official providing the “details on the intelligence background” of the raid that killed al Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden said that when U.S. intelligence officials first discovered the compound in Pakistan where they believed bin Laden was living they “were shocked” by what they saw.

U.S. intelligence agencies found the compound after years of following a trail that began with information they gleaned from “post-9/11 period” al Qaeda detainees, the official said in a conference call briefing held by the White House shortly after midnight. The transcript of the briefing was posted on the White House website.

The first step on the trail was information about a courier, who had been a protégé of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11 attacks.

“Detainees also identified this man as one of the few al Qaeda couriers trusted by bin Laden,” the senior administration official said. “They indicated he might be living with and protecting bin Laden.”

After first positively identifying this courier and then ultimately discovering the unusual compound where he and his brother lived in Abbottabad, Pakistan, U.S. intelligence officials believed they may well have discovered the hiding place of Osama bin Laden.

“When we saw the compound where the brothers lived, we were shocked by what we saw--an extraordinarily unique compound,” said the senior administration official. 

Here is the part of the White House transcript in which a senior administration official explains how the discovery was made:

Senior Administration Official:  Thank you.

The bottom line of our collection and our analysis was that we had high confidence that the compound harbored a high-value terrorist target. The experts who worked this issue for years assessed that there was a strong probability that the terrorist that was hiding there was Osama bin Laden.

What I’d like to do is walk you through the key points in that intelligence trail that led us to that conclusion.

From the time that we first recognized bin Laden as a threat, the CIA gathered leads on individuals in bin Laden’s inner circle, including his personal couriers.  Detainees in the post-9/11 period flagged for us individuals who may have been providing direct support to bin Laden and his deputy, Zawahiri, after their escape from Afghanistan.

One courier in particular had our constant attention.  Detainees gave us his nom de guerre or his nickname and identified him as both a protégé of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of September 11th, and a trusted assistant of Abu Faraj al-Libbi, the former number three of al Qaeda who was captured in 2005.

Detainees also identified this man as one of the few al Qaeda couriers trusted by bin Laden.  They indicated he might be living with and protecting bin Laden.  But for years, we were unable to identify his true name or his location.

Four years ago, we uncovered his identity, and for operational reasons, I can’t go into details about his name or how we identified him, but about two years ago, after months of persistent effort, we identified areas in Pakistan where the courier and his brother operated.  Still we were unable to pinpoint exactly where they lived, due to extensive operational security on their part.  The fact that they were being so careful reinforced our belief that we were on the right track.

Then in August 2010, we found their residence, a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, a town about 35 miles north of Islamabad.  The area is relatively affluent, with lots of retired military.  It’s also insolated from the natural disasters and terrorist attacks that have afflicted other parts of Pakistan.  When we saw the compound where the brothers lived, we were shocked by what we saw -- an extraordinarily unique compound.  The compound sits on a large plot of land in an area that was relatively secluded when it was built.  It is roughly eight times larger than the other homes in the area.

When the compound was built in 2005, it was on the outskirts of the town center, at the end of a narrow dirt road.  In the last six years, some residential homes have been built nearby.  The physical security measures of the compound are extraordinary.  It has 12- to 18-foot walls topped with barbed wire.  Internal wall sections -- internal walls sectioned off different portions of the compound to provide extra privacy.  Access to the compound is restricted by two security gates, and the residents of the compound burn their trash, unlike their neighbors, who put the trash out for collection.

The main structure, a three-story building, has few windows facing the outside of the compound.  A terrace on the third floor has a seven-foot wall privacy--has a seven-foot privacy wall.

It’s also noteworthy that the property is valued at approximately $1 million but has no telephone or Internet service connected to it.  The brothers had no explainable source of wealth.

Intelligence analysts concluded that this compound was custom built to hide someone of significance.  We soon learned that more people were living at the compound than the two brothers and their families.  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.  Our best assessment, based on a large body of reporting from multiple sources, was that bin Laden was living there with several family members, including his youngest wife.

Everything we saw--the extremely elaborate operational security, the brothers’ background and their behavior, and the location and the design of the compound itself was perfectly consistent with what our experts expected bin Laden’s hideout to look like.  Keep in mind that two of bin Laden’s gatekeepers, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Faraj al-Libbi, were arrested in the settled areas of Pakistan. 

Our analysts looked at this from every angle, considering carefully who other than bin Laden could be at the compound.  We conducted red team exercises and other forms of alternative analysis to check our work.  No other candidate fit the bill as well as bin Laden did.

So the final conclusion, from an intelligence standpoint, was twofold.  We had high confidence that a high-value target was being harbored by the brothers on the compound, and we assessed that there was a strong probability that that person was Osama bin Laden.