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The Bin Laden Kill Op: A CIA Al Qaeda Hunter's Inside Intel

BINLADEN050311_main_blog.jpgIn 2008, we spoke to former CIA operative Art Keller, a weapons proliferation expert assigned to Pakistan to help track down and capture or kill leading Al Qaeda members. In the years since then, much has changed in the war on terror, but one thing remained constant — the main target of the joint intelligence task force in Islamabad, Osama Bin Laden, remained alive and at large. Last Sunday, May 1, the United States got their man. With assassination of Bin Laden on his mind, Keller spoke to us again about the massive group effort that achievement required and how some of those responsible for the death of the world's most wanted man might not even know their role in his defeat.

So we finally got Bin Laden. When you were hunting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan in 2006, were you seeing intelligence that you think lead to his assassination last weekend?

Well, it's both true and not true that we were hunting Bin Laden. It's true I was looking for senior Al Qaeda people, and now that they've been killed I can name them, something I couldn't do for your article. One was considered their field commander, a guy named Khalid Habib, and then the other one — a target near and dear to my heart because I was more involved in weapons proliferation than anything else — was their chemical-war guy, Abu Khabab Al Masri. But I was in Waziristan, and, at the time, we didn't think he was there. Bin Laden had been there in the past, and it's still an Al Qaeda safe haven today. Bin Laden stopped through, of course, but not while we were engaged in that search.

So you worked on intelligence that led to scratching these two guys off the list, but didn't know about it while you were at the Agency?

Yes. Look, we were just trying to get something on these guys. See, when you're in the field, you just get a little piece of the big picture. I didn't know what they did with the intel at the time I left. But now I know we got those two guys. As for what else they did with our work, well, I don't know to this day.

So there are guys out there who were integral to killing Bin Laden and might not even know it?

Yeah. It's a long-term chess game, and you might see one or two moves. But you're working it second- or third-hand, and you're working for people who are trained to tease out intelligence. If you were foolish enough not to use good operational security, we got you. Thus, it was a Darwinian selection among Al Qaeda leaders. The smartest survived. Most people who work on it in the field in a very focused way. But if you've moved on or rotated out from that assignment, you might not know that you were helping at all.

So the team that caught Bin Laden really extends way past the top intelligence players?

You have to understand that it's such a team effort on such a massive scale. It's actually pretty cool. In Islamabad station, they set up this large targeting cell where everyone — CIA, NSA, NGA — were sitting in one room next to each other, instead of walled off in their own vaults like they used to be. They set up these processes to break down firewalls. People could speak to each other and there was no need for requisitions. If you needed a satellite image, instead of fighting through departmental and agency firewalls, you just said, "Hey, Fred, I need a satellite image," and it was right there.

That's different than the picture most of us have of the intelligence community.

Really, it's the way it's supposed to work in an ideal world. Whoever got that platform up and running many years ago, they have a lot credit for getting this process moving and the outcome. No one knows about it, but truly, it's no inconsiderable thing.

Did you ever believe that Bin Laden was going to be killed with a drone strike or that maybe he just died in the mountains of kidney failure or something?

Well, I'm one of the nonbelievers in that kidney-failure theory. To lug around dialysis equipment in the mountains — that's just untenable. If he was sick like that, he would have been on his way out very quickly. Look, I wasn't surprised by how they did it — with an assault team. I was pleased that President Obama had the confidence to make the gutsy move, the right move.

So this was the ideal outcome for you?

The final degree of certainty wouldn't have been there if they had used an aerial strike and the risk of civilian causalities… Moreover, and he ordered that with the specter of Black Hawk Down and Operation Eagle Claw — the failed Iran hostage rescue attempt that torpedoed Carter's presidency — and all the things that can go wrong with those kinds of operations. It was a very gutsy decision, but it was definitely the right one. Also, remember that DOD is so used to conducting nighttime raids. They do them every night in Afghanistan and practice them endlessly. By now, I think they've got that down to a "T."

BINLADEN050311_2_blog.jpgU.S. troops in Khost Province, Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border, 2007

What about these "Deathers," who've already cropped up suggesting that this whole thing might be a government charade? After working in the Agency, is there any question in your mind that this is real?

I definitely league those people in with the faked-moon-landing people. It would be careless for the government to fake anything, and, more to the point, it would be pointless. After a week or two, one of the targets could just show up in a video with a newspaper going, "Haha, you missed me!" Also, I don't know why people said he was retired. You'd have to be there on the ground with him to even know if he was still a strategic leader.

How does the end of Bin Laden's story match up with your personal experiences in Pakistan?

I remember, there was a man who had served in the Pakistani Army, a real straight shooter — I don't want to get him in trouble, so I won't say more than that. Anyway, he once told me that his leadership in Pakistan had no intention of telling the U.S. where Bin Laden was, because that's where the gravy train of financial aid ends, just like when the Russians pulled out and the U.S. then ignored Pakistan and Afghanistan. I wasn't so sure back then, but given how this went down, how we did it without their intel, maybe that was a more realistic appraisal than I first appreciated. When I was there, I was always asking myself, is the level of cooperation with the Pakistanis really as lacking as it seemed? Are we really that shorthanded in terms of enough getting enough CIA officers to staff the bases? Is the double game the Paks seemed to be playing really this fucked up? I guess the answer was "yes" to all those things.

So this is a victory for the American intelligence community alone?

It's a symbolic victory, if anything. It sends a message that needed to be sent. It says that no matter how well you've hidden, if you piss us off enough, we'll get you. Above all that, it's a vindication for all those people in the community who were accused of failing their country both before and after 9/11. Now it's clear that the failure to get Bin Laden was a political failure, not an intelligence failure.

Art Keller is a former Case Officer in the Directorate of Operations of the Central Intelligence Agency, a writer, and a media consultant. He offers a weekly podcast on Iran on his website, regularly contributes to Foreign Policy, and is currently shopping his first novel, a thriller about the CIA and Iran.

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Photos courtesy of Reuters and The U.S. State Department
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