Did the CIA almost let Osama bin Laden escape?

In late 2010, after the CIA had kept Osama bin Laden’s home under surveillance for several months, the agency was under increasing pressure to come up with conclusive proof that the Abbottabad house was indeed the location of the al Qaeda leader. CIA director Leon Panetta was running out of patience. Peter Bergen writes:

Over the next several months, Panetta became increasingly annoyed — some CIA officials even say “pissed” — about what he perceived as a lack of creativity among the bin Laden hunters.

They were directed to come up with 25 ways of getting inside the compound and encouraged to not be afraid of making some of them “kind of creative.” They came back with 38 proposals including one that sounds more comical than creative: set up loudspeakers outside the house from which could be broadcast the self-declared “voice of Allah” (speaking in Arabic I assume) saying to the inhabitants of the house, “You are commanded to come onto the street!”

One of the plans they decided to put into operation was to set up a phony vaccination program in the area in the hope that they could use this as a pretext for collecting blood samples from the house’s residents, thereby finding markers of bin Laden’s DNA in that of his children.

Matthieu Aikins describes what happened when this plan was put into operation:

[O]n April 21, 2011, a gray jeep pulled into town and parked in front of a property dealer’s shack a short distance from the Big House [where bin Laden and his family lived]. It was an official vehicle, with the logo of the provincial health department painted on the door, and from the passenger side stepped a doctor, here on business from the province’s capital, Peshawar. In his collared shirt and pressed trousers, the doctor stood out among the wheat fields and dirt paths of this semi-rural suburb: a handsome, imposing man with a thick head of black hair, his filled-out frame a point of pride in a country where stunted growth can be a mark of the lower classes. Leaving his driver behind, the doctor set off along a narrow gravel-strewn path, beside fields thick with grass and dusky cauliflower leaves, his gaze focused intently on the house ahead.

Waiting for him outside the compound’s forest-green metal gate were two nurses, Bakhto and Amna, their shawls drawn across their foreheads. All day, as part of a hepatitis B vaccination team that the doctor had assembled, the nurses had been canvassing the area, knocking on doors and looking for women ages 15 to 45 to cajole into taking the needle. First a drop of blood would be drawn from the patient and blotted on a rapid-test strip, which would show, within minutes, whether the patient had been infected with hepatitis. If the patient was negative, the nurses were instructed to administer the vaccination.

Normally a jovial man, the doctor seemed tense at the gate. Amna wondered why he was so interested in this house in particular, the only one whose vaccination he had bothered to personally supervise. She watched as he rapped sharply on the metal door. They waited. Again he knocked, but there seemed to be no one home. Amna shrugged. Did it really matter if they missed this one house? Undeterred, the doctor strode across the street to a low brick compound and roused a neighbor, whose son, as luck would have it, did the occasional odd job for the Big House. The man had the cell number of one of the Khan brothers [Arshad and Tariq, who owned the house]. The doctor dialed it and handed his phone to one of the nurses, but when the brother answered and said the family was away on a trip, the doctor took the phone back from her.

“Hello?” he said. “This is Dr. Shakil Afridi.” The doctor urgently explained the need for the hepatitis test. It was crucial that it happen soon. The vaccine, he said, would be very good for them.

Bergen says Afridi was unsuccessful in collecting DNA samples. No one has described the effect of Afridi’s unsolicited call on the bin Laden household.

We already know that the al Qaeda leader had spared no effort in maintaining a high level of security and it’s reasonable to assume that the doctor’s presence must have aroused considerable suspicion inside the compound.

Afridi’s CIA handlers must have been briefed on the doctor’s over-zealous effort to collect blood samples and thus surely feared their quarry would flee.

Bergen’s account of discussions in Washington at that time paints a picture of somber deliberation. He quotes Panetta saying:

“[W]e’re probably at the point where we have got the best intelligence we can get. It’s now time to make a decision not about whether or not we should do something about it, but what we do about it. We’ve come this far. There’s no turning back. We have enough information such that the American people would want us to act.”

It doesn’t sound like he imagined the next word on bin Laden might be that he had fled — which probably means he didn’t know that Afridi had come close to blowing the whole CIA operation.

Since Afridi’s arrest and subsequent imprisonment (he has been jailed for 33 years convicted of crimes unrelated to his work with the CIA), Washington has portrayed the doctor as a hero, but it’s hard not to wonder whether both the CIA and the White House are content to see him remain behind bars. Afridi may have come dangerously close to turning Abbottabad into Obama’s Tora Bora.

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