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Technology Helps Track A Terrorist In 'The Finish'

Oct 16, 2012
Originally published on October 16, 2012 10:45 am

In late summer 2010, at the end of a morning briefing, one of President Obama's security advisers said, "Mr. President, Leon and the guys at Langley think they may have come up with something." The adviser was referring to then-CIA Director Leon Panetta, and to a possible lead on the country's most wanted terrorist: Osama bin Laden.

It was hardly the first time there had been an enticing lead. But this small scrap of intelligence turned out to be a breakthrough. Mark Bowden describes the scene in his new book, The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden — and he details everything that it took to get to that moment, from presidential briefings to the history of drones.

Bowden, whose previous books include Black Hawk Down, tells NPR's Renee Montagne that the nature of warfare has changed dramatically since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "The United States military and intelligence apparatus was, certainly in 2001, still a product of the Cold War," he says.

"The enemy that we faced during the Cold War was the U.S.S.R. and countries that could potentially pose a threat to the United States; and their missile silos, their bases and whatnot were very easy to find, but were pretty much hard targets," he says.

By contrast, Bowden says, the men behind Sept. 11 were relatively unguarded — but fantastically difficult to track down.

Computers played an enormous role in "connecting the dots" in the hunt for terrorists, Bowden says, partly because they're great at picking patterns out of chaos.

"So, literally, the United States began, very soon after 9/11, essentially throwing every scrap of data into an enormous database, and then went about developing software that can sort through this enormous database, and also make sense out of lots of different kinds of data," he says.

Computers made it easy, for example, to monitor the movements of a terrorist organization by tracking the trips made by its vehicles.

"I think speed is also crucial here," Bowden says. "A team of special operators in Iraq suddenly could conduct a raid, and within minutes of that raid have secondary targets given to them from information they gathered on site, which enabled them to get inside what they call the 'information cycle' of the enemy. So this is just extremely helpful and really started taking apart al-Qaida."

It was that technology, that speed, that helped U.S. forces catch up to bin Laden, when the CIA managed to track a man who appeared to be serving as a courier for bin laden.

"He ... and his brother, who both lived on that compound, took extraordinary precautions, you know. They would burn their garbage on site, they would drive for an hour or more away from the compound before they would make a phone call. When they got on the phone to even their closest family members, they lied about what country they were in or where they were," Bowden says. "And so those were all suspicious things. And then when they looked at the size of the compound in Abbotabad, they realized that there was possibly someone other than the brothers themselves hiding there."

In that compound, bin Laden was living a simple, cramped and lonely life. "Other than going outside and pacing in the garden, he never really left," Bowden says. "There were people living in that compound who had never seen him before. So he was about as deep into hiding as you can be without actually being in a hole somewhere."

Bowden describes bin Laden's death in detail in The Finish, though his account has been slightly contradicted by one of the Navy SEALs who was on the mission.

"I was actually pretty pleased that it confirmed like 98 percent of what I had learned, but there were some minor discrepancies, and of course the most significant one was the sequence of bullets that actually killed bin Laden," Bowden says. "The minor disparities will be sorted out in time, but essentially, the story hasn't changed that much."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In late summer 2010, at the end of a morning briefing, one of President Obama's security advisers said, Mr. President, Leon and the guys at Langley think they may have come up with something.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

He was referring to CIA Director Leon Panetta, and possible information about the location of Osama bin Laden. It was hardly the first time there had been an enticing lead.

MONTAGNE: But this small scrap of intelligence turned out to be a breakthrough. Mark Bowden, author of "Black Hawk Down," has a new book called, "The Finish" about the discovery and death of Bin Laden. From presidential briefings to the creation of software, to the history of drones, Bowden offers a granular narrative of how he U.S. closed in on the al-Qaida leader. He joined us to talk about it. Good morning.

MARK BOWDEN: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: You write about a sea change, and this s how you put it. Battles used to be about how to attack an enemy who's in plain sight. After 9/11, you write, it was the opposite, that the enemy was easy to kill - the problem was fining them.

BOWDEN: Well, I think, you know, Bowden, the United States military and intelligence apparatus was, certainly in 2001, still a product of the Cold War. The enemy that we faced during the Cold War was, you know, the U.S.S.R. and countries that could potentially pose a threat to the United States; and their missile silos, their bases and whatnot were very easy to find, but were pretty much hard targets.

When we were attacked on 9/11, I mean, this was a completely different kind of enemy. It was an international terrorist network that hid among the general population all over the world, and organized itself and communicated via the Internet and cell phones. And so the challenge became being able to map these networks and locate the key people in them.

MONTAGNE: In a phrase, connecting the dots.

BOWDEN: Yeah. And, you know, the people involved in these organizations are very savvy, so we had to get better at finding than they were at hiding. And computers played an enormous role in that, because one of the things that computers do really well, especially super computers, is figure out patterns in what appears to be chaos.

So, literally, the United States began, very soon after 9/11, essentially throwing every scrap of data into an enormous database, and then went about developing software that can sort through this enormous database, and also make sense out of lots of different kinds of data. That was the challenge.

MONTAGNE: Right. So in 2004, let's say, or 2005, a lot more could be done with this information than could have been done in 2001.

BOWDEN: That's right. And you can say, you know, draw me a map of everywhere this pickup truck has been in the last month. And you can pretty much draw a map of that local organization just by monitoring the movement of a vehicle belonging to a key member. And I think speed is also crucial here.

I mean, literally, a team of special operators in Iraq suddenly could conduct a raid, and within minutes of that raid have secondary targets given to them from information they gathered on site, which enabled them to get inside what they call the information cycle of the enemy. So this is just extremely helpful and really started taking apart al-Qaida and its related organizations.

MONTAGNE: Let's get back to where we started in this conversation, that small scrap of intelligence that appeared to suddenly put Osama bin Laden within America's grasp. Not in the mountains, but in an upscale residential area within a mile of Pakistan's West Point. A combination of this new technology had finally zeroed in on a mystery man who'd been identified as a courier to Osama bin Laden.

And it looked like they had their man.

BOWDEN: Right. The CIA was basically trying to find every single person who might conceivably be part of bin Laden's courier networks. So when they found Ahmed the Kuwaiti, they knew that he might be an important courier. A couple different things about him are what finally made them recognize that finding Ahmed was possibly leading them to bin Laden himself.

MONTAGNE: What were those couple of things.

BOWDEN: He was - and his brother, who both lived on that compound, took extraordinary precautions, you know. They would burn their garbage on site, they would drive for an hour or more away from the compound before they would make a phone call. When they got on the phone to even their closest family members, they lied about what country they were in or where they were.

And so those were all suspicious things. And then when they looked at the size of the compound in Abbotabad, they realized that there was possibly someone other than the brothers themselves hiding there. I think that, coupled with the knowledge that bin Laden would likely be living in hiding with his wives and children made them extremely suspicious of the compound.

MONTAGNE: Now one thing people might recall from when bin Laden was finally tracked down and killed, is that there was this image, widely circulated, of him hunched in front of the television set, sitting on the floor, sort of old guy with a knit cap and gray beard, watching himself on a video. And you paint a portrait of him in your book, small details of his life before he was killed.

What are a couple of details about his life there that you found especially intriguing?

BOWDEN: Well, he was always an ascetic and, you know, he enforced a very simple life on, not just himself, but his family. You know, he prayed five and six times a day. They lived cramped in these upper two stories of this house, other than going outside and pacing in the garden, he never really left. There were people living in that compound who had never seen him before. So he was about as deep into hiding as you can be without actually being in a hole somewhere.

MONTAGNE: You ultimately get to an account of how Osama bin Laden was killed, there in his compound, and as your book went to press, a Navy SEAL who was part of that team came out with his own account that slightly contradicted yours. Tell us a little bit about that.

BOWDEN: When the SEAL's version came out, it was really the first firsthand account of what had happened. And I was actually pretty pleased that it confirmed like 98 percent of what I had learned, but there were some minor discrepancies. And of course the most significant one was the sequence of bullets that actually killed bin Laden, whether he was hit in the head as he poked his head outside the door and then was finished off in the bedroom or whether he ran in the bedroom and he was confronted there and shot in the head and then shot in the chest.

So the minor disparities will be sorted out in time, but essentially, the story hasn't changed that much.

MONTAGNE: Mark Bowden is the author of "Black Hawk Down" and his new book is called "The Finish: The Killing Of Osama bin Laden." Thank you very much for joining us.

BOWDEN: Thank you, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.