Osama’s death a triumph for the CIA and Obama
Crispin Black: Bin Laden was living in Pakistan’s Sandhurst, among retired army generals and spooks
The CIA's headquarters in the leafy Washington suburb of Langley, Virginia is normally dry. A hangover from the days of Prohibition, no alcohol is served on campus. But the Budweiser and Bourbon will be circulating today in celebration of an extraordinary and sustained intelligence achievement. President Bush ordered them to get Osama bin Laden "dead or alive" the day after 9/11. Now, on President Obama's watch, they can finally say "Mission accomplished".
It has been a dangerous and sometimes morale-sapping quest. American soldiers and spooks were a few maddening minutes behind when he escaped from a hideout in Afghanistan's Tora Bora Mountains in October 2001 and then the trail went cold. Their efforts were successful enough to keep him on the run but not to run him down.
The worst moment came in January 2010 when seven of the CIA's top Bin Laden hunters were killed by a suicide bomber at their base in northern Afghanistan in a cleverly planned al-Qaeda sting. The most senior casualty was the head of station – a female veteran clandestine service officer with three children back home.
But on Sunday night, at last, all the pieces of the puzzle clicked into place. And they made their own luck. Two broken-down helicopters tragically scuppered President Carter's 1980 mission to rescue American hostages from Teheran. This time when a helicopter conked out, US SEAL commandos blew it up and continued in a spare.
President Obama and his national security chiefs understood that it was not just a question of 'getting' Bin Laden. The 'aesthetics' of the operation had to be right too. Killing a symbol means your own symbolism has to be right.
Obama decided on a raid by special forces rather than a drone strike. This not only reduced the possibility of civilian casualties but gave the operation both a face and an heroic quality. American warriors finally cut down Bin Laden - not American technology. Crucially, it also meant that, in President Obama's words, the US "took custody of the body". There can be no doubt that he is dead. The corpse has apparently been given an Islamic funeral at sea so that no shrine or place of pilgrimage can be set up.
One of the reasons Bin Laden had been able to hide for so long was that he did not seek to be in day-to-day charge of his acolytes and affiliates. By not communicating with his followers he made himself safe from the US National Security Agency's extraordinary technical capabilities. Or so he thought.
One of the signs that may have given the game away was that his compound did not appear to have any telephone or internet connection – unlike every other nearby building. Whatever the truth, the full intelligence details will remain secret. If the first clues came from eavesdropping, the Americans will want to keep it under wraps – it may be a technique they will need to use again. If the lead came from a human source, perhaps within Pakistan's shadowy Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), protecting his identity will be paramount.
The Americans will want to keep any intelligence from the Pakistani authorities for very good reason. Parts of the Pakistani Army and parts of ISI were no doubt helping to track Bin Laden down. However, it looks as though elements of both were seeking to protect him. Abbottabad, the town where he was killed, is the Pakistani equivalent of Sandhurst or Aldershot. Thirty-five miles from the capital Islamabad and lying at over 4,000 feet, it has a pleasant hill station climate and is home to Pakistan's principal military academy. The villas of retired generals and spooks line the streets. Bin Laden had one of the grandest in town. 'Do the math' as Dubya used to say.
President Obama's speech announcing the operation avoided criticising Pakistan – for now. It was a dignified affair without the triumphalist tone since adopted by much of the US media and the crowds outside the White House. His main theme was that justice had been done.
But he could not resist the temptation to show off the crucial part his own directives and decisions played in the successful mission, claiming ownership of the operation in strong terms. It was a good day to broadcast good news. This will grate on the ears of Republicans whose more intemperate supporters have made much play in their propaganda of the one-letter difference between Obama and Osama.
The full effects of this symbolic decapitation of the al-Qaeda cause on the world stage won't become clear for some time. But it is safe to make one prediction – for American domestic politics at least. Osama bin Laden got George W Bush re-elected in November 2004 and from beyond his watery grave he will do the same for Barack Obama in November 2012. ·
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