Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Osama bin Laden: High Priest of Terror

The Long Hunt for bin Laden

Though it had been rumored for years that bin Laden—if he was even still alive (people speculated that he had long since died but was being used as a spectre by the government)—he was supposedly somewhere in the mountainous and difficult terrain along the Pakistan and Afghanistan border. It was common convention that bin Laden had taken up residence in a cave in the borderlands.

The truth, it would turn out, seemed both far more mundane and more outrageous. The terrorist mastermind was living in plain sight, less than an hour's drive from Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, in a middle-class suburb called Abbottabad. And, more incredibly, he lived within spitting distance—about a third of a mile away from a Pakistani military training academy.

Footage of raid inside bin Laden compound
Footage of raid inside bin Laden compound

A report by The New York Times recounted that Osama bin Laden's whereabouts became more clear last summer when it was concluded that a "high-value" target was being kept in an unusual house in the city. The home—first incorrectly estimated to be worth $1 million (it was later reported by The Guardian to be valued at $250,000)—was a banal three-story house. The number of walls surrounding the property and enshrouding each story of the property, however, made it stand out.

A high-wall, ranging from 12 to 18 feet high, surrounded the entire property and was topped with a barbed wire fence. Bin Laden is very tall—six feet, six inches—but the wall would have made it difficult for neighbors to see him from any vantage point.

Other walls—up to seven feet in height around the second and third story levels—gave the otherwise unremarkable white house the appearance of being a fortress.

Other unusual details, like the fact that trash was being burned rather than taken out and the fact that the large home didn't have any phone or Internet, also served as a red flag.

"We were shocked by what we saw: an extraordinarily unique compound," said a White House official during a press conference. "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."

The administration officials believed that the compound had only been built five years previously and that it had been built with the sole purpose of harboring the terrorist. Later, details emerged that indicate bin Laden and his wife had never left the property during those five years.

At the press briefing announcing the killing of bin Laden at midnight on May 2, 2011, another senior administration official explained how the events unfolded: "In the beginning of September of last year, the CIA began to work with the President on a set of assessments that led it to believe that in fact it was possible that Osama bin Laden may be located at a compound in Pakistan. By mid-February, through a series of intensive meetings at the White House and with the President, we had determined there was a sound intelligence basis for pursuing this in an aggressive way and developing courses of action to pursue Osama bin Laden at this location."

With the help of surveillance equipment, including likely use of Predator drones, detailed plans of the property were able to be drawn up for the U.S. Military to plan out their attacks.

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