What the Snowden Files Say About the Osama Bin Laden Raid

Secret documents related to the Abbottabad raid neither prove nor disprove Seymour Hersh’s controversial account but do add context.

A Pakistani soldier and policeman stand in a cordoned-off street near the final hideout of slain Al-Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad on May 11, 2011, where bin Laden was killed in a US Naval Commandos special operation. Three Pakistani lawmakers offered prayers for Osama bin Laden in parliament a week after US commandos killed the Al-Qaeda leader in a covert raid near the capital, a lawmaker said.  The Saudi-born terror mastermind was killed by Navy SEALs in the garrison town of Abbottabad, where he may have lived for five years, in a raid that has raised tensions between Islamabad and Washington. AFP PHOTO/ AAMIR QURESHI (Photo credit should read AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images)

June 11th, 2015: This article has been updated.

Secret intelligence documents disclosed by Edward Snowden provide new context for evaluating the various accounts of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan in 2011.

The U.S. has long maintained that the raid was conducted without the knowledge of the Pakistani government, and that the critical intelligence that led to bin Laden’s location came from a years-long effort by U.S. analysts and operatives to trace the path of an Al Qaeda courier.

A new report by veteran investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, published last week in the London Review of Books, calls that story a lie.

Hersh reports that bin Laden had been in Pakistani custody since 2006, and the tip-off to his location came from a former Pakistani intelligence official in August 2010. Senior Pakistani military officers knew of the U.S. raid ahead of time, and the courier story was created to cover the role of the Pakistani informant, Hersh alleges; his account relies on a former U.S. intelligence official, two Special Operations Command consultants, and mostly unnamed sources within Pakistan. While the White House has vehemently denied Hersh’s account, other reports have supported the existence of a Pakistani walk-in informant.

The Intercept is publishing a number of documents from the Snowden archive related to the Abbottabad raid and the hunt for bin Laden, which neither explicitly prove nor disprove any aspect of Hersh’s account. However, the documents reference a number of things that are relevant to the debate, including the tracking of Al Qaeda couriers in Pakistan and the existence of intelligence gathered from the Abbottabad compound, as well as the impact of the raid on U.S.-Pakistani counterterrorism partnerships.

The files provided by Snowden by no means represent the totality of intelligence community documents from that time period. The archive, sourced from the NSA’s computer systems, offers only a partial window into the intelligence community’s CIA-led efforts to find bin Laden.

The documents The Intercept identified that are related to bin Laden offer few specific details, and often use boastful language designed to justify budgets and boost career accomplishments.

Moreover, given how vast the intelligence community is — and its compartmentalization and secrecy — its members may be unaware of what other agencies, or even units within their own agency, are doing.

The British intelligence service GCHQ declined to comment on these documents, and the NSA did not respond to The Intercept’s inquiries.

The Courier

The White House has maintained that the key to finding bin Laden came when the CIA identified Al Qaeda courier Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed (alias Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti) and tracked him to Abbottabad. Yet this apparent intelligence coup surfaces rarely in the internal NSA documents reviewed by The Intercept.

The intelligence community budget justification (or “Black Budget”) sent to Congress in 2012 reports the “identification of the courier and compound” as a highlight of the previous year and a “model of integrated [intelligence community] support.” The budget justification — designed to convince Congress to fund intelligence programs — states that “NSA analysts tracked the use of ‘infrequent’ numbers by persons of interest, and the use of Tailored Access Operations implants allowed for sustained collection access against these targets.”

It was CIA analysts who tracked the location of one of those numbers to the compound, the budget states.

According to the black budget, the CIA also conducted “pattern of life analysis” on “a collection of assets in Pakistan to identify any potential linkages, as well as digital footprints.” This analysis, the budget continues, “paired with other technical tests, increased confidence in each asset’s authenticity, reliability, and freedom from hostile control and directly contributed information leading to the successful mission on UBL’s compound.”

Ahmed’s true name does not appear in the archive files The Intercept reviewed. The one concrete reference to him is in a list of top terror suspects, updated in 2008, which identifies him only by various pseudonyms. The document states that he is still at large, believed to be in the Zabul province of Afghanistan, and that he may have location information for bin Laden and his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

In 2007, the internal NSA newsletter SIDtoday boasted about an intercepted message from bin Laden to Abu-Ayyub al-Masri, Al Qaeda’s “#1 man in Iraq.” The “movement of the letter from Pakistan to Iran provided the U.S. Intelligence Community with unique insights into the communications path used by senior al-Qa’ida leaders,” and the report on it had “received rave reviews from senior U.S. policy makers including the Vice President,” the newsletter says.

On May 17, 2011, not long after the bin Laden raid, SIDtoday published an interview with Jon Darby, NSA’s then-associate deputy director for counterterrorism. Much of the interview is unclassified, and Darby offers few specifics. Darby said the NSA “played a key role in identifying the compound where bin Laden was found.”

When asked if, after 9/11, the NSA ever saw “reflections of UBL himself or members of his inner circle in SIGINT,” Darby responded, “[o]ur loss of SIGINT access to bin Laden actually occurred prior to 9/11 — it happened in 1998” with one possible exception in 2001. Bin Laden, Darby says, “was isolated and had to conduct all his business by courier,” but Darby does not explicitly state that the NSA tracked any courier. He does say that the NSA had collected intelligence on Al Qaeda figures “on the #3 level and below — who are responsible for coordinating operations abroad” and “have no choice but to communicate electronically.”

A November 2011 “Year in Review” SIDtoday article by Teresa Shea, director of Signals Intelligence at the time, is both vague and congratulatory. “For nearly a decade a dedicated group of SIGINT professionals would not let go of the search, and their persistence paid off in substantive contributions at critical points on the road to Abbottabad,” she writes. “In the end many of you brought your expertise to bear in the final weeks and hours.”

In another SIDtoday interview, dated July 13th, 2012, a hacker from the NSA’s Tailored Access Operations unit describes the “UBL takedown” as one of the most exciting moments of his career. “I was brought in early on, months in advance,” he told his interviewer. “I was told, ‘We think UBL is in this compound — how can you help?’ In the prep stages, one of the NSA primary analysts was flown to Afghanistan and even DIRNSA [the Director of NSA, then Keith Alexander] was involved.”

He also describes following the raid “on chat rooms” with other NSA employees: “When we heard that the helicopter had crashed, that was a ‘Whao, what just happened??’ moment. Were lives lost? Then when we heard ‘Jackpot!’ there was a moment of great jubilation. It was awesome!”

The Compound Files

After the raid, U.S. officials described a “treasure trove” of materials collected by the SEAL team in Abbottabad, from bin Laden’s letters to his pornography collection, and said that they led to hundreds of intelligence reports and a number of overseas operations. The U.S. government cited evidence from the Abbottabad compound in the court martial of Army Private Chelsea Manning in 2013 and documents were used in the successful terrorism prosecution of Abid Naseer earlier this year in a U.S. court.

Hersh’s American source asserts that the compound materials were actually of little operational significance, as bin Laden had long been sidelined in Pakistani custody. The source goes so far as to question the authenticity of the portion of the documents supposedly gathered at the compound, which were translated and published by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.

The Snowden documents suggest that, at least in 2011, analysts were combing through material from the compound, but do not reference any actionable intelligence gained from them.

The black budget sent to Congress reports that the intelligence community provided “linguistic and analytic” help “to exploit materials captured at the compound,” and that the National Media Exploitation Center “continues to examine and exploit the electronic materials.”

Darby, in the SIDtoday interview days after the raid, said that an interagency task force including NSA representatives is “mining the media captured during the raid on [bin Laden’s] residence,” which he said consists of “nearly 3 terabits of data.”

A GCHQ internal wiki entry dated September 2011 notes that the British government’s Joint Terrorism Analysis Center had among its “current work priorities” the “exploitation of UBL compound intelligence.”

The Aftermath of the Raid

Military intelligence assessments from coalition troops in Afghanistan detail political and diplomatic fallout in the weeks following the raid, as well as mixed reactions from the Taliban.

A May 13 NATO intelligence report assessed that the Taliban insurgency would be “largely unaffected” by bin Laden’s death, as the relationship between Al Qaeda and the Taliban had long been strained and Al Qaeda no longer offered the group as much financial or operational support. The Al Qaeda leader’s death in Pakistan, the report notes, “offers an opportunity for the Taliban to highlight that they were not harboring [bin Laden], in an attempt to detach themselves from international terrorism and increase their political and moral legitimacy.”

The raid had also led to infighting among the Taliban, a June Regional Command Southwest report states, with some members of the Taliban feeling betrayed by the “extravagant nature of [bin Laden’s] living conditions.”

A June 1 NATO intelligence report noted that while the Pakistani parliament had asked for an investigation into the raid and a halt to drone strikes, subsequent drone strikes “have not provoked any additional PAK reactions.”

In mid-June, Regional Command Southwest reported that Pakistan was seeing a “backlash from extremist organizations who feel the Government of Pakistan is weak and complicit with Western Powers” as well as international outrage from the opposite perspective, that Pakistan had been turning a blind eye to militant groups in its backyard.

The mounting political pressure led General Kayani — who Hersh says knew about the raid ahead of time — to limit cooperation with the U.S. military and tell U.S. commanders “that drone strikes in the tribal areas near the AFG-PAK border were not acceptable,” the report says.

But Pakistan still needed U.S. military aid, and the report notes U.S. and Pakistani officials were “undergoing reconciliation talks in an attempt to … regain trust.”


Documents published with this article:


This article was updated on June 11th, 2015, to include a July 2012 SIDtoday interview with a Tailored Access Operations employee.

Photo: A Pakistani soldier and policeman stand in a cordoned-off street near the final hideout of slain Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad on May 11, 2011. (Aamir Quareshi/AFP/Getty)

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