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Osama Bin Laden's Trail Really Hadn't Gone Cold


Realistically, we do not - and will not know - everything about this raid that we want to know, at least not today. But NPR national security correspondent Rachel Martin has been talking with sources and pulling together all the information she can. She's in our studios.

Rachel, good morning.

RACHEL MARTIN: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Years and years passed in which there seemed to be no leads on Osama bin Laden. What changed?

MARTIN: Well, senior administration officials say that critical information came down from U.S. detainees held by U.S. forces. That key information came in about four years ago. It was a tip about a courier in bin Laden's inner circle.

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And intelligence officials worked this lead for years. It is a painstaking process - requires much patience - and that intelligence just kept mounting, accelerated over the past few months.

INSKEEP: OK, you mentioned a courier. This is the guy who's going to lead them, eventually, to bin Laden. What's known about him?

MARTIN: So very little at this point, publicly. What we do know is that U.S. intelligence officials knew this man's operational nickname, and said that he was a protege of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed - of course, the mastermind of 9/11. And detainees apparently indicated that this courier may have been living with bin Laden and helping to protect him. But for years, U.S. officials were unable to identify this man's real name or his location. All that changed last fall.

INSKEEP: And let's just describe what we mean by courier. This is a guy, Osama bin Laden, who can't make a phone call; someone's going to listen in. He can't send an email; someone is going to track that. All the resources of the United States government are aimed in the direction of this guy. He needs to send messages. The courier is the guy who's supposed to do this, and he ends up - bin Laden does - living with the courier as well?

MARTIN: Correct. As you explained, these people can be incredibly important to bin Laden. And U.S. officials say that ultimately, this courier and his brother were living in this particular compound outside of Islamabad, harboring Osama bin Laden and members of his own family, including his youngest wife.

And the details, Steve, about this particular compound are very interesting. No Internet access in this huge house - what's described as a house eight times larger than anything else in the neighborhood.

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Extraordinary security. A relatively affluent suburb, actually, with a lot of retired Pakistani military living around. But the compound itself, 12- to 18-foot walls, and everything about this is consistent with what U.S. intelligence analysts had expected Osama bin Laden's hideout to look like. And everything just kept lining up.

INSKEEP: Well, as things began to line up, what did they do then? Let's go to last fall, say - last summer and fall, when things seemed to speed up a little bit.

MARTIN: Well, the information started crystallizing to the point where the CIA and the president started having meetings. And then in mid-February of this year, they felt they had enough intelligence to develop an action plan focused on this particular compound. They didn't know for sure that this was Osama bin Laden, but they knew there was a high-value target there.

And so by mid-March, the president holds a series of National Security Council meetings. The final order came on Friday - this past Friday - and the operation was actually carried out just yesterday evening, which was early morning -Monday morning in Pakistan.

INSKEEP: Is this a good moment to call attention to the patience and restraint that must have been called for here? There have been efforts in - the U.S. government for years and actual, specific efforts in which missiles were fired at locations where they thought Osama bin Laden was.

Instead, they were waiting to make sure they had a moment when he was there, and then they sent in people, on the ground.

MARTIN: You're absolutely right. As you remember, in 2009, that episode with the CIA station at (unintelligible) Afghanistan. They thought they had key information that could have led them at least to Osama bin Laden or perhaps to number two, Zawahiri.

I think there was an overwhelming sense of caution, that there was a fear that operating too soon would lose this ultimate key figure that was leading them to bin Laden. So the patience here is incredible.

INSKEEP: Some question in the last eight, 10 hours about exactly who it was that went in.

MARTIN: NPR has confirmed that this was a team of Navy Seals, one of the most elite special forces units, working in cooperation here with the CIA. We understand they used two helicopters to descend on the compound. We know there was a firefight; bin Laden was said to have resisted. He was killed as well as three other adult males, including that courier.

INSKEEP: Just about 10 seconds. Navy Seals working with the CIA, but not working with the Pakistanis?

MARTIN: At this point, it looks like the Pakistanis were not given a heads-up that this happened - which is very telling.

INSKEEP: Even though the helicopters were able to slip in past whatever air defenses there might have been.

MARTIN: That's exactly right. Others have confirmed that telling Pakistani officials before U.S. strikes, sometimes those targets are informed that the strike is going to happen.

INSKEEP: Rachel, thanks very much.

MARTIN: You're very welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's national security correspondent Rachel Martin, reporting this morning on the death of Osama bin Laden. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.