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Presence Of His Family Likely Helped Bring Down Bin Laden

As they question the three wives of Osama bin Laden who were reportedly living with him at his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, when he was killed, U.S. and Pakistani officials likely won't learn much from them about the al-Qaida leader's plans and how the terrorist organization works, author and terrorism expert Peter Bergen says.

"I think the wives can provide atmospherics and an account of bin Laden's movements after 9/11, but not much more," he tells Morning Edition host Renee Montagne. "For a start, they wouldn't have been able to meet any male they weren't directly related to. ... I just think what they can say from an operational point of view would be very, very minimal."

Bergen was with CNN in 1997 when he produced an interview with bin Laden. Since then, he's gone on to write books — including The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda's Leader.

While the wives may not have much useful information, Bergen believes they indirectly played a role in the American intelligence community's ultimately successful effort to track down bin Laden. The al-Qaida leader was constantly surrounded by his extended family (he was married five times and fathered 20 children). Among the information that helped convince U.S. officials that bin Laden was in the Abbottabad compound, Bergen says, was the fact that there was a large extended family surrounding him.

"One of the patterns of life you'd be looking for with bin Laden is that he would be with his wives, he would be with his children," Bergen says. "One of the signatures of bin Laden's presence was an extended family and I think that's one of the building blocks that built the evidentiary case to find him."

Much more from Renee's conversation with Bergen is due on Tuesday's Morning Edition. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show.

Note: NPR follows Associated Press style on the spelling of al-Qaida. Other news organizations and experts, such as Bergen, use different spellings.

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Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.