Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

In the End, a Lack of Tech May Have Helped Bring Bin Laden Down

Osama bin Laden met his end yesterday in a raid on a luxury compound in Abbottabad, a city north of the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. His remains, according to numerous reports emerging this morning, have been buried at sea.

Details are beginning to emerge of the painstaking detective work that led to the raid, and one fact that has caught my attention is this:
The property where he was hiding, while valued at $1 million, had no phone service, nor any Internet connection. This turned out to be a key red flag that helped bring an increase in scrutiny that in time led to the attack on the compound that President Obama ordered yesterday. A report in The National Journal mentions that it was the National Security Agency, which gathers America’s electronic intelligence, which determined, in some secret manner that didn’t tip off the government of Pakistan, that the compound had no phone or Internet.

I find it ironic that among the clues that led to this important victory was a lack of technology infrastructure. Consider for a moment the untold billions of dollars in electronic intelligence-gathering that has gone into the effort to finding even the vaguest clue as to bin Laden’s whereabouts since 2001, with no result.

Add to that the years of legal and moral hand-wringing that U.S. citizens have endured after learning that their own government was illegally monitoring their phone and email communications. This collection, disclosed by the New York Times in 2005, was part of a broader effort, the argument went at the time, to collect any information that may reveal a threat to the United States. Perhaps some terrorist operative inside the U.S. would call, or send an email or text message to a handler. And it wasn’t just eavesdropping. As USA Today reported in 2006, the NSA also built a massive database of American’s telephone calling patterns using data provided by the phone companies.

It would have seemed reasonable were it not for the fact that the government didn’t follow the law, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, that sets out the conditions under which the government may eavesdrop on the communications of U.S. citizens. The revelation that it was eavesdropping without authorization by the secret FISA court naturally led to lawsuits. In 2010 a federal judge ruled that the government had overreached its authority.

Ultimately the eavesdropping efforts contributed little. In practically all cases, the information gathered under the program led to dead ends, and the sheer volume of information forwarded by the NSA so overwhelmed FBI investigators that they complained.

Meanwhile, bin Laden himself has been described numerous times as eschewing electronic communications. The story has been repeated many times that bin Laden had been an active user of satellite phones until sometime in 1998. In fact, the Inmarsat phone’s number was published in a fascinating book entitled “Body of Secrets” by the intelligence expert James Bamford. Following a 1998 missile attack on camps in Afghanistan thought to be frequented by bin Laden–and which he narrowly escaped–he severely curtailed his satellite phone use in order not to make himself an easy target for another missile strike. Some reports have said that since then he relied instead on an elaborate system of human couriers and opted not to use electronic communications at all.

Over the years there were numerous video and audio tape message. Intelligence analysts sought to pick out what clues they could from these. At one point in 2001, U.S. intelligence agencies turned to geologists to try and glean clues about his whereabouts. It wasn’t by accident that later video messages showed him speaking in front of a cloth background and that later messages were only audio tapes.

One has to wonder if bin Laden had chosen instead to be less careful, whether he might have been discovered at all. Presumably he had been able to purchase this property though intermediaries without raising attention, and had lived there for some time. Had he or someone living with him engaged in routine communications with the outside world, making the occasional local and international phone calls, he might have been safer, ironically more camouflaged amid the background noise of modern life in urban Pakistan.

There is still a lot we don’t know about the events leading up to the attack that ultimately killed bin Laden. But looking ahead I have to wonder if his choice to forgo all the modern communications technologies that so permeate 21st century life may in the end turn out to have been his biggest strategic mistake.

(Image from Google Maps.)