Errors in Man-hunting: The Long Road to Finding Bin Laden
by Will Chalmers
I wrote this short article with the intention to spark debate on the topic of why the conventional opinion on Osama bin Laden's whereabouts over the last decade turned out to be incorrect. Discussing and analysing the factors that led to this discrepancy between western observers and bin Laden's own assessment of his security needs is to me a worthwhile debate. This paper it not intended to be a criticism of any one individual's past comments but rather a vehicle for potentially improving future analysis.
Osama bin Laden's location had not been publicly known with any certainty since late 2001, during the battle of Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan. In almost a decade since that battle, massive amounts of resources were devoted to locating the world's most-wanted terrorist leader. Over the course of the long search for bin Laden, many experts and commentators have produced theories and speculation on his whereabouts. Attempting to see the world through the same lens as bin Laden promised one method that could potentially help shed light on his whereabouts. Over the years this speculation has placed bin Laden in a multitude of hideouts scattered all over the world. Consensus and conventional wisdom argued however that al Qaeda's founder and leader would eventually be found residing somewhere in the largely ungoverned and autonomous tribal areas of north-west Pakistan. Until the very night of his death, most informed commentators would probably have accepted this thesis. After US forces located and killed bin Laden in the garrison town of Abbottabad, far from and very distinct from the tribal areas, the question of how could the accepted consensus have been so wrong looms large.
In the aftermath of the bin Laden's death it seems reasonable to conclude that western observers, when considering where bin Laden would seek refuge fell victim to assumptions which ultimately led down the wrong path. Western observers used their own experience and knowledge in order to predict likely places of refuge. It was thought that bin Laden would be hiding in a small to moderate-sized village in the Pakistani tribal areas. Some observers had suggested that large teeming cities such as Lahore or Karachi could have provided sanctuary but this appears to have been a minority opinion. As Pablo Escobar demonstrated to good effect, large crowded cities create their own variety of security problems for high-profile fugitives. Some senior and mid-level al Qaeda operatives have been captured in Pakistan's cities but the common consensus posited that an individual of bin Laden's notoriety would be too vulnerable in an urban environment.
Instead the wild, effectively ungovernable frontier region seemed to offer the right mix of security and concealment that bin Laden required as the highest-priority target of the United States. Surrounded by a small core of loyal al Qaeda guards and interspersed with hundreds of sympathetic Pashtun tribesmen, bin Laden would have been both well camouflaged and well protected. American and Pakistani security forces hunting bin Laden would have great difficulty covertly infiltrating such a village and would have been operating far from their own bases and support networks. Such a location would 'split the distance' between American forces based in neighbouring Afghanistan and Pakistani forces based outside the tribal areas. Deploying a network of pickets would have given the al Qaeda leader forewarning of impending attack and enough time to employ a pre-planned escape and evasion drill. This scenario probably would have found general acceptance right up to the moment it was exposed as completely erroneous.
Where the consensus scenario seems to have fallen apart is that bin Laden's own assessment of his security needs and vulnerabilities differed vastly from that of western observers. By reportedly remaining static in a custom-built compound in the heart of Pakistan, bin Laden clearly decided that distance from American military bases in Afghanistan was more important than steering clear of Pakistani security forces. The revelation that the leader of al Qaeda chose to operate deep in the heart of official Pakistan right under the noses of the military raises the prospect that bin Laden viewed Pakistan as either complicit or incompetent, or both. Appearing either complicit or incompetent is not good news for Pakistan's powerful military establishment and the United States is focused at the moment on determining to what degree each label fits. The results of that investigation will likely determine the next phase of US-Pakistani relations and there is a very real chance that the flow of money from Washington to Islamabad is going to come under a serious review.
The aftermath of the successful US operation targeting Osama bin Laden has revealed that nearly a decade of assumptions by western observers developed very different conclusions then the terror leader himself calculated. Perhaps a vigorous 'red teaming' of bin Laden's security concerns would have exposed flaws in the core assumptions of the terrorism experts consensus. Determining why western assumptions were in the end inaccurate will also probably do much to outline the future of the alliance between the United States and its troubled Pakistani ally.
Will Chalmers is a research assistant at the Centre for Security, Armed Forces and Society (CSAFS) located at the Royal Military College of Canada (RMCC). He is a graduate of the War Studies MA program at RMCC.