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Osama Bin Laden Killed While Hiding In Pakistan


This is special coverage from NPR News on MORNING EDITION. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Let's get some analysis now of the news that President Obama delivered last night.

(Soundbite of nationwide address)

President BARACK OBAMA: Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.

MONTAGNE: The operation took 40 minutes. American helicopters landed at the compound, got what they came for, and slipped away.

INSKEEP: Joining us now to talk about the news of Osama bin Laden's death is Steve Coll. He is head of the New America Foundation and also author of "Ghost Wars" and "The Bin Ladens."

Welcome to the program.

Mr. STEVE COLL (President, New America Foundation): Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So does it make sense, Steve, that Osama would turn up, after all this time, not in the mountain somewhere but in an urban area?

Mr. COLL: Yes, it does. A number of other Al-Qaida leaders have been discovered in Pakistani cities since 9/11, and particularly since it seems as if he moved to this compound after 2005 over the last few years - per much speculation that he would not have been in an area that was being routinely patrolled by aerial drones along the border, but would seek refuge in someplace that he considered less susceptible to aerial surveillance and attack.

INSKEEP: Oh, in effect, the city becomes a hiding place, and everybody in it is almost a human shield then.

Mr. COLL: Yes, but here you're talking about a city, Abbottabad, which is not so dense as some of the large, urban metropolises in Pakistan. I mean, this was, essentially, a military cantonment. It's the site of the Pakistani Military Academy. And there is, you know, maybe a million people living in the whole district. But we're coming to understand that the compound that he was in was a relatively isolated one that seems to have been purpose-built to hold him.

MONTAGNE: Now, Steve Coll, this is Renee here. The automatic question here, obviously, is did somebody in the Pakistani government or intelligence or military know that Osama bin Laden was living in this compound that seems to be - because it was large - quite visible?

Mr. COLL: Well, that's certainly the right question, and I don't want to jump to an answer on the basis of the little circumstantial evidence we have. But this is, essentially, a cantonment town. This is a very large, purpose-built house that seems to have strange security features. And judging by the firefight that ensued when the United States attacked it, there were armed men living there.

So if the Pakistani Military Intelligence Service really is going to take the position that they had no idea that he was there for the last six years, it will be interesting to hear how they make that case. We don't know about who built the house, and who these brothers - exactly - were, and what ties they might have had to the Pakistani government - or not had.

INSKEEP: I want to define a term there: cantonment town. You're saying that because there was this military academy not very far from bin Laden's compound, and it was basically Pakistan's equivalent of West Point, right?

Mr. COLL: Yeah. I went on the web last night and was just looking at maps of the town, and there's quite a lot of land, as is typical in towns where there's a strong Pakistani military presence - a lot of land that seemed to be government owned, government managed, primarily by the military. The military in Pakistan is kind of a world within the country. They own a lot of land and they maintain it very carefully. And this compound was not very far from the sections of the town that were associated with military control.

NSKEEP: You're listening to special coverage from NPR News, of the death of Osama bin Laden. We're talking with Steve Coll of the New America Foundation.

And let's bring another voice into the conversation.

Steve, stay with us.

We're going to talk here with NPR's Tom Gjelten as well.

And there's a little different question involving the Pakistani government here, Tom. Was the Pakistani government informed in advance of this American operation on their soil?

TOM GJELTEN: Well, a senior administration official, briefing reporters last night about this operation, said - flatly - that Pakistanis were not informed of this operation in advance. Now, President Obama, in describing the operation, said that intelligence cooperation with and from the Pakistanis was key to this operation. But that could take many forms. As far as the operation itself, again, they're insisting that the Pakistanis were not informed in advance.

But Steve, keep in mind that with the drone attacks, which have been very unpopular in Pakistan, there has been this sort of pattern of official denial and private complicity. And so one has to wonder if there's something similar here, that maybe the Pakistanis knew more about this than either they or the Americans want to reveal right now. For one thing, it's very hard to imagine how U.S. military helicopters could fly in a raid over such a fortified area.

That is an area near the capital that is subject to integrated air defense system - very hard to believe that those military helicopters could fly in undisturbed unless somebody knew they were coming.

MONTAGNE: And Tom, just to extend that just a little bit, would it be possible that bin Laden has become such a liability to the Pakistani government - should it be the case that they knew he was there - that this would be the moment for them to allow this to happen?

GJELTEN: It's possible, but we're totally in the area of speculation here. Who knows what kind of deal, or what kind of thinking, might have been behind this, Renee.

INSKEEP: Well, Steve Coll, let's come back to you. Since we are getting to the edge of speculation here, let's at least try to frame the questions. What don't you know about this episode, that's important to know as we try to learn more?

Mr. COLL: Well, I think, first of all, what is the history of his exile? The last he was truly sighted was at Tora Bora, and then we knew that he came across into Pakistan and has been fragmentary - but suggested reports that he's been in Pakistan continuously since then. But where? With what networks of support? And did the Pakistani state touch him at any point along the way? How was this house built? Who owned it? How was it discovered? And so on.

And then, how did he operate? We know he was able to make public statements from time to time. There's been speculation - some of it informed, some of it guessing - about the extent of his operational role, whether he planned attacks.

Al-Qaida, though fragmented and weakened, still exists, it still operates. And it will probably attempt to demonstrate its relevance over the next six or twelve months. So those questions are particularly important to the safety of al-Qaida's likely targets.

MONTAGNE: Well, what does, though, this mean for the fight against terrorism, and also for Afghanistan?

Mr. COLL: Well, it's a big event - mostly positive; some fresh complications. First of all, it gives President Obama an enormous amount of flexibility that he didn't possess before. Any American president in the world after 9/11 had to bring justice to a close.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number two, is still out there. But Osama bin Laden's death does bring a chapter to a close. Al-Qaida is still resilient militarily. There are a few hundred people along the Pakistan-Afghan border, by U.S. estimates, that are occasionally actively planning attacks, including one -apparently - in Germany just last week that traced back to that area.

There are affiliates, such as the one in Yemen, that are perhaps even more potent than the group along the Afghan-Pakistan border. But it does mean that President Obama's stated plan to responsibly exit out of Afghanistan without leaving behind a Taliban revolution, or a civil war, now has a little bit more running room.

And I think the other complication that we'll have to watch is how the United States manages what are currently really sour relations with Pakistan in the aftermath of this discovery. I did note, as Tom said, that the Pakistan that President Obama took pains not to call the Pakistanis out last night. The United States has no interest in deepening this breech, but there is a breech.

INSKEEP: Tom Gjelten...

Mr. COLL: It will now be exacerbated.

GJELTEN: Steve mentioned Ayman al-Zawahiri, and he is now the leader of al-Qaida. And I think this is a very interesting question - to see how he performs in that role. A senior administration official talking to us last night says that he is far less charismatic, and not as well-respected. Can he carry off the leadership role now that Osama bin Laden is gone?

INSKEEP: And we'll leave it with that question, at least for now, although our special coverage is continuing. NPR's Tom Gjelten, thank you very much. And Steve Coll, author of "Ghost Wars" and also "The Bin Ladens," thank you as well this morning.

Mr. COLL: My pleasure,

INSKEEP: You're listening to special coverage on the death of Osama bin Laden, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.