The LWOT: U.S. kills Osama bin Laden

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Osama bin Laden dead in Pakistan gunfight

President Barack Obama announced last Sunday night that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had been killed during a daring and risky operation in Pakistan, bringing an end to a nearly 10-year manhunt for the terrorist mastermind (for a detailed collection of stories related to the announcement, commentary and obituaries of bin Laden, and in-depth discussion of the Afghanistan-Pakistan context, see Katherine Tiedemann's AfPak Daily Brief here and here).

The raid, a culmination of months of planning and observation of a walled compound in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, was conducted by helicopter-borne Navy SEALs of the fabled SEAL Team Six, accompanied by CIA operatives. The team recovered from a helicopter malfunction to storm the compound, methodically clearing the first floor before reaching the upper floors, where the SEALs confronted and killed bin Laden, shooting him once in the face and once in the chest, and then taking the body back to Afghanistan for identification (Washington Post, NYT, NPR, TIME, National Journal, Department of Defense, WSJ, White House).

Speaking yesterday about the assault, which also resulted in the deaths of one of bin Laden's sons as well as bin Laden's trusted courier, the courier's brother, and an unidentified woman, chief counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said that bin Laden attempted to use the woman as a human shield (Telegraph). President Obama and key national security officials watched the raid unfold live on Sunday from the White House, while CIA chief Leon Panetta watched from an impromptu command center at his office (AP, ABC, WSJ). Reports indicate that the raid was a "kill operation" though Brennan insisted that provisions were made both for killing and capturing bin Laden (Reuters). U.S. forces reportedly came away from the raid with a "trove" of computer hard drives, DVD's and documents that may provide information on al Qaeda (Politico, AP). Note: The New Yorker has a must-read roundup of their writers' coverage and analysis of bin Laden's death, available here.

Tracking down bin Laden

The U.S. government reportedly found bin Laden through his courier, a protégé of key al Qaeda plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, identified by the Associated Press and others as Kuwaiti Sheikh Abu Ahmed (NYT, CNN, AP, CNN, Washington Post). Officials reportedly learned aliases for Abu Ahmed in interrogations of Guantánamo Bay detainees as well as KSM and his successor Abu Faraj al-Libbi in secret CIA "black sites," but did not identify him until 2007 (Miami Herald, Telegraph, Independent). From there, it took another two years to find his approximate location, and it was not until intelligence officials traced a phone call the courier took in August 2010 that agents were able to tail him and discover the compound where analysts eventually concluded a "high value target" lived (AP, WSJ, NYT).

The revelation that detainees, some of whom like KSM were subjected to "enhanced" interrogation measures offered information on the courier, will undoubtedly rekindle debate about Bush administration detention and interrogation practices (Reuters, AP). However, analysts note that KSM and al-Libbi only gave pseudonyms for the courier, and that the information was reportedly only proffered after the CIA had given up its most intense interrogation tools, including waterboarding (Reuters, NBC, Lawfare Blog).

Robert Chesney of Lawfare Blog also breaks down the meaning of the raid for the future of the Authorization of the Use of Military Force, which has governed the deployment of the U.S. military against al Qaeda and affiliates since 9/11, and the oversight implications of the close cooperation of the U.S. military and CIA in military operations (Lawfare Blog, Lawfare Blog).

The aftermath

Once DNA and photo identification (as well as, reportedly, confirmation from one of his wives reported to be in the compound) were used to identify bin Laden, his body was flown to the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Carl Vinson, where it was prepared for burial according to Islamic rites and "eased" into the sea (Washington Post, Washington Post, NYT, WSJ, LAT, Guardian, ABC). Bin Laden's death spurred varied reactions across the world, from America to Europe, the Middle East, East Africa, and in online jihadi Internet forums (CNN, WSJ, Reuters, Der Spiegel, Reuters, NYT, AFP, NYT, NYT, AFP, AP, CSM). The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) released a statement yesterday, "We are proud on the martyrdom of Osama...We shall definitely take revenge (on) America" (CNN).  

Pakistan also faces serious questions over the presence of bin Laden for several years in a military cantonment town only a short distance from the country's military academy (AP, Guardian, Telegraph, Telegraph, Washington Post, Reuters). Pakistani officials denied knowledge of the raid, despite earlier reports of cooperation with American forces, while hailing bin Laden's death as a victory (NYT, AJE, Reuters, BBC, Reuters).

And analysts turned to the task of assessing al Qaeda's future without bin Laden, with some seeing an organization weakened by the Arab spring and without a charismatic leader, but with dangerous affiliates and a continued ability and desire to strike (NYT, CNN, Der Spiegel, NYT, WSJ, Washington Post, Reuters, Washington Post, NPR). 

German police disrupt al Qaeda-linked plot

German authorities on Friday arrested three men in Düsseldorf and Bochum, including two men of Moroccan descent and one of Iranian descent, in relation to what they said was an imminent threat of a terrorist attack (AJE, NYT, WSJ, Deutsche Welle, Telegraph). The group, who were allegedly recruited by and received orders to attack Germany from a high-level al Qaeda operative, included at least one man said to have trained in explosives and weapons handling in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, identified as Abdeladim El-K. (NYT, CNN).

Trials and Tribulations

  • The Pentagon has taken another step towards trying Guantánamo detainee and alleged U.S.S. Cole bomb planner Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, appointing an experienced attorney who has litigated several death penalty trials to help represent him (Miami Herald).
  • Moroccan authorities continue to investigate the deadly bombing last Friday of a popular Marrakesh café, and officials have said the bomb was remote-detonated and bore other hallmarks of al Qaeda, including the use of the explosive chemicals TATP and PETN (AFP, AJE, Reuters, CSM, NYT).
  • Algerian security forces yesterday arrested seven members of an alleged support cell for Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) (AFP). 
  • A Somali man living in Minnesota, Omer Abdi Mohammed, pleaded not guilty yesterday to charges that he helped recruit men and organize money and weapons for the Somali militant group al-Shabaab (AP). And a young Toronto man accused of trying to join al-Shabaab, Mohamed Hersi, was released on bail by a Toronto court this weekend (Toronto Star, National Post).
  • Danish prosecutors today charged a Chechen-born Belgian man, Lors Doukayev, with terrorism after Doukayev assembled a letter bomb allegedly intended for the newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which printed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in 2005 (AP).
  • After a lengthy and intense public debate, Portland, Oregon has decided to rejoin the local Joint Terrorism Task Force, a move prompted by an FBI sting operation that arrested local teen Mohamed Osman Mohamud for plotting to attack Portland's Christmas Tree-lighting ceremony last November (NYT).

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images


The LWOT: 16 dead in Marrakesh bombing; Gitmo lawyer seeks WikiLeaks access

Foreign Policy and the New America Foundation bring you a twice weekly brief on the legal war on terror. You can read it on or get it delivered directly to your inbox -- just sign up here.

Suspected suicide bomber strikes Marrakesh café

A suspected suicide bomber struck the popular Café Argana in the heart of Marrakesh's Jamâa el-Fna, a favorite area for tourists, killing 16 - including five Moroccans, eight French citizens, one Briton, and an Israeli (AP, BBC, CNN, NYT, Washington Post, Reuters). The attack is the deadliest since a series of bombings struck Casablanca in 2003, killing 45 people, among them 12 suicide bombers.

No one has claimed responsibility for the bombing, originally attributed to exploding gas canisters by Moroccan officials, though suspicion fell on either local militants or Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) (Guardian, NYT, Telegraph). The attack comes at a sensitive time for Morocco, which has experienced an increase in protests recently and whose economy depends heavily on tourism.

Gitmo lawyer seeks WikiLeaks access

Attorney David Remes, who has devoted his law practice to representing Guantánamo Bay detainees and is currently representing detainee Saifullah Paracha, went to court on Wednesday challenging government prohibitions on how Guantánamo lawyers can view and discuss WikiLeaks documents (NYT). The lawyers were warned on Monday that the documents are still classified, and had to be treated accordingly; however, in his petition, Remes said that he wanted to see the documents at home or at the office, and "print, copy, disseminate and discuss" the materials without being prosecuted (NYT, NYT).

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said on Apr. 26 that the documents were damaging, but likely will not impact future court proceedings for Guantánamo detainees (Reuters). NPR describes how often, intelligence analysts and federal judges interpreted the same information about detainees in starkly different ways (NPR). Such divergent analysis led to the eventual dismantling of the case against detainee Mohammed el-Gharani, an accused al Qaeda member who was freed in mid-2009 (NYT). And the Miami Herald notes that due to judicial practice and restrictions on detainee transfers, the documents are unlikely to help free current prisoners (Miami Herald).

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom continues to press for the return of Shaker Aamer, the last British detainee at Guantánamo, who was cleared for release by military officials in 2007 but remains at the prison (BBC). And British courts this week regained the authority to deport terrorism suspects, as the country continues to grapple with its legacy of sheltering extremists, a history that appears in some of the WikiLeaks documents (Telegraph, Telegraph, Telegraph).

Study asserts Gitmo doctors ignored abuse

A study released Apr. 26 by Physicians for Human Rights of the medical files of nine Guantánamo detainees concluded that, while detainees were given first-class medical care for a range of issues, doctors at the prison systematically ignored evidence of intentional abuse, including, "bone fractures, lacerations, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder," evidence that often did not make it into the detainees' medical files (ABC, Bloomberg, Telegraph). Multiple lawsuits are pending in state courts to force investigations into psychologists who advised and helped design the interrogation program at Guantánamo (NYT).

Post-9/11 surveillance tool removed

The government on Apr. 27 announced that it had scrapped the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEER) a program instituted after 9/11 that required people from 20 mostly-Arab countries to complete a special registration process when traveling to the United States, saying that technology had made the process unnecessary (WSJ).

In a ruling Apr. 27, a federal judge said that a group of Muslims in California cannot see their FBI files, though he also strongly criticized the government for making "blatantly false" assertions about the documents (NYT).

And in an unusual step, the judge presiding over a suit filed by the family of a 9/11 victim against United Airlines has ruled that each side will have the same amount of time, 50 to 60 hours, to present its case (NYT).

Terrorism watch list no obstruction for gun buyers

The Associated Press reports yesterday that last year 247 people on the government's terrorism watch list were able to purchase firearms, and that of the 1,453 people on the list who tried to buy guns between Feb. 2004 and Dec. 2010, 90 percent were successful (AP). The government can stop someone from buying a gun for 11 reasons, but not for being on the secret watch list, which is believed to include some 450,000 names of people suspected of terrorist links or activities.

Trials and Tribulations

  • AQIM this week released audio statements from four French hostages it kidnapped from the uranium mining town of Arlit, Niger last September, in which the men pleaded for France to withdraw from Afghanistan (Reuters, Bloomberg, AFP). The men were kidnapped with three others, who were released earlier this year, and reports continue to circulate that AQIM has asked for a ransom of 90 million euro in return for the release of the final four hostages (France24).
  • A panel of judges in Indonesia found Abdullah Sonata guilty this week of aiding the operations of a terrorist training facility in Aceh province, sentencing him to 10 years in prison (Jakarta Post). Police in Aceh reportedly made seven arrests this week in relation to ongoing terror investigations (Jakarta Post). 
  • A Somali man, Ahmad Dhakane, was sentenced to 10 years in prison Apr. 28 for lying to federal authorities about his links to two terrorist-linked groups (AP). Dhakane, an alleged human smuggler, sparked an alert last year on the southern border of the United States for a suspected member of the Somali militant group al-Shabaab.