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Based on the initial reports provided by US officials on the operation that culminated in the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, it appears to be a textbook case of gathering and analysing intelligence on "high-value targets". Not only has the operation burnished the reputations of President Barack Obama, CIA Director Leon Panetta (soon to become secretary of defence), the CIA and the broader US intelligence community, but it also provides some valuable lessons about the collection and analysis of intelligence today.
The trail to Osama bin Laden was deemed by many American al-Qaeda experts to have gone cold after 2003, when an al-Qaeda commander reported having met him in Khost province in Afghanistan. Earlier, bin Laden had reportedly left Tora Bora for the frontier with Pakistan, but his continued absence led to suggestions that he had perished, either accidentally or from natural causes. Some CIA operatives began jokingly calling him "Elvis", a reference to the frequently reported sightings of the singer long after his demise. In hindsight, it emerges that bin Laden was careful enough to avoid all forms of communication that might have been compromised by the United States' sophisticated signals intelligence capabilities, including telephones and the Internet. This also proved to be the source of his downfall.
The US intelligence analysts honed in on the fact that bin Laden employed couriers to communicate with al-Qaeda's operational commanders, at least two of whom landed in US custody. The courier network was, in the words of one Bush administration official, "the holy grail" for locating al-Qaeda's senior leadership. The name Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti came up during interrogations at CIA "black sites" as that of one of bin Laden's couriers. The capture of an operative in 2004 identified the mysterious al-Kuwaiti as an associate of Faraj al-Libi, who had succeeded 9/11 architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed as al-Qaeda's operational commander. After al-Libi's capture in 2005, he seemed to confirm through his persistent denials that al-Kuwaiti was continuing to serve as bin Laden's courier. It was only later, in 2007, that the name was reportedly recognised as the nom de guerre of the Pakistani-Kuwaiti Sheikh Abu Ahmed.
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