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CIA found Bin Laden’s secret compound over his laundry, new book says

Osama bin Laden sits with his adviser Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri during an interview with Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir. Hamid in November 2001 in Kabul. (Hamid Mir/WikiMedia)
August 02, 2021

The U.S. intelligence agents tasked with hunting down Osama Bin Laden confirmed the Al Qaeda terrorist leader’s presence at a Pakistani compound by observing his hanging laundry and other patterns at the compound, according to excerpts published Saturday from a forthcoming book.

According to excerpts of “The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden” written by national security analyst and former CNN producer Peter Bergen, Central Intelligence Agency officers tracking Bin Laden first caught a lucky break when a Pakistani informant spotted a man he believed to be Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed abd al-Hamid, Bin Laden’s longtime bodyguard, the New York Post reported.

In August 2010, the CIA agents first followed Ibrahim to the Abbottabad, Pakistan compound that U.S. Navy SEALs would raid on May 2, 2011. Soon after identifying the compound, agents conducted a “pattern of life” study to gather any clues to help determine whether Bin Laden lived there.

While the various details added to the suspicion surrounding the compound, according to Bergen’s book, it was the clotheslines at the property that gave away a secret family. Each day, women’s garments and children’s clothes hung on the lines, suggesting more clothing than Ibrahim and his 10 family members would likely wear.

According to laundry calculations made by observing intelligence officers, there was enough extra laundry on the clotheslines for an adult man, several adult women, and at least nine children. That detail betrayed the likely presence of polygamous like that of the one led by Bin Laden.

By the time of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Bin Laden had been known to have been living with three wives. At his Abbottabad compound, he was living with those wives, eight of his youngest children, and four more grandchildren.

According to Bergen’s book, the laundry calculation was the final detail that convinced Panetta to bring the body of evidence before then-President Barack Obama on Dec. 14, 2010.

Ibrahim had taken several precautions to preserve the secrecy of the compound, according to Bergen’s book. Ibrahim and his brother Abrar used public phone booths in large city areas to make important calls and they took the batteries out of their own cellphones so they couldn’t be traced back to the compound. 

Ibrahim had purchased the compound in his own name and, by outward appearances, he owned it. He, Abrar and their wives and children regularly came and went from the compound, lending to the impression they were the only true residents of the compound. However, intelligence officers noticed Ibrahim and his family only lived in a small annex of the compound and not its main building.

Aside from the laundry clues, intelligence agents noted several other unusual details about the compound.

While neighbors put their trash out for regular garbage pickups, the compound dwellers burned all their trash. The compound had no phone line or internet service, despite the fact that it appeared to be inhabited by someone wealthy enough for those amenities.

The compound’s few windows and the top floor balcony’s surrounding wall were also seen as signs that whoever was living at the compound didn’t wish to be seen.

“Who puts a privacy wall around a patio?” then-CIA Director Leon Panetta reportedly asked analysts observing the compound.

“Exactly,” an analyst replied. 

Bergen wrote that agents never captured photos of Bin Laden at the compound before members of U.S. Navy SEAL Team 6 launched their fateful raid, but intelligence officers also never found “evidence that undercut the notion that he was living there.”

Obama was ultimately convinced by the intelligence gathered by Panetta’s analysts and approved the raid that resulted in Bin Laden’s death.