The CIA maintained a safe house in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad for a small team of spies who conducted extensive surveillance over a period of months on the compound where Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. Special Operations forces this week, U.S. officials said.
The secret CIA facility was used as a base of operations for one of the most delicate human intelligence gathering missions in recent CIA history, one that relied on Pakistani informants and other sources to help assemble a “pattern of life” portrait of the occupants and daily activities at the fortified compound where bin Laden was found, the officials said.
The on-the-ground surveillance work was part of an intelligence-gathering push mobilized after the discovery of the suspicious complex in August that involved virtually every category of collection in the U.S. arsenal, ranging from satellite imagery to eavesdropping efforts aimed at recording voices inside the compound.
The effort was so extensive and costly that the CIA went to Congress in December to secure authority to reallocate tens of millions of dollars within assorted agency budgets to fund it, U.S. officials said.
Most of that surveillance capability remained in place until the execution of the raid by U.S. Navy SEALs shortly after 1 a.m. in Pakistan. The agency’s safe house did not play a role in the raid and has since been shut down, in part because of concerns about the safety of CIA assets in the aftermath, but also because the agency’s work was considered finished.
“The CIA’s job was to find and fix,” said a U.S. official, using Special Operations forces terminology for the identification and location of a high-value target. “The intelligence work was as complete as it was going to be, and it was the military’s turn to finish the target.”
The official, like others quoted for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak for the record. The CIA declined to comment.
U.S. officials provided new details on bin Laden’s final moments, saying the al-Qaeda leader was first spotted by U.S. forces in the doorway of his room on the compound’s third floor. Bin Laden then turned and retreated into the room before being shot twice — in the head and in the chest. U.S. commandos later found an AK-47 and a pistol in the room.
“He was retreating,” a move that was regarded as resistance, a U.S. official briefed on the operation said. “You don’t know why he’s retreating, what he’s doing when he goes back in there. Is he getting a weapon? Does he have a [suicide] vest?”
Despite what officials described as an extraordinarily concentrated collection effort leading up to the operation, no U.S. spy agency was ever able to capture a photograph of bin Laden at the compound before the raid or a recording of the voice of the mysterious male figure whose family occupied the structure’s top two floors.
Indeed, current and former U.S. intelligence officials said bin Laden employed remarkable discipline in his efforts to evade detection.
“You’ve got to give him credit for his tradecraft,” said a former senior CIA official who played a leading role in the manhunt. When spotted by surveillance drones a decade earlier, bin Laden “had bodyguards, multiple SUVs and things like that. He abandoned all of that.”
The officials also outlined emerging theories as to why bin Laden apparently selected the Pakistani military garrison city of Abbottabad as the place that afforded him the greatest chance to stay alive.
The discovery of bin Laden in Abbottabad has raised suspicion that he was placed there and being protected by elements of the Pakistani military and intelligence service, but U.S. officials said they have seen no conclusive evidence that was the case.
The city, about two hours north of Islamabad by car, offered a number of advantages for the al-Qaeda leader, officials said. Chief among them is that Abbottabad, deep inside Pakistan’s borders, is a safe distance from the tribal regions that are patrolled by armed U.S. drones.
U.S. officials said they are convinced that bin Laden, who had long immersed himself among the Pashtun tribes along the border with Afghanistan, was driven from that part of the country by the escalating drone campaign.
“Even five years ago things were dropping from the sky” in Pakistan’s tribal region, a U.S. official said. “He probably felt that if he could conceal his presence [in Abbottabad] it would be an unlikely area for the United States to pursue him.”
Strikes by conventional U.S. aircraft would have carried enormous risks, both because Pakistan has invested heavily in air detection and defense systems — to counter any threat posed by India — and because of the perils of an errant strike.