THE hideout where Osama bin Laden was killed by US commandos was under surveillance for months by a team of CIA spies who operated out of a nearby safe house in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad.
The surveillance was part of a massive intelligence gathering effort that set out to confirm the al-Qa’ida leader was inside the fortified compound after the US gained an important lead last August.
The Washington Post reported that secret intelligence-gathering was so extensive and costly in the final part of the long hunt for bin Laden that the CIA went to the US congress in December to ask that tens of millions of dollars in budget funds be redirected to finance the operation.
Surveillance, which also involved months of satellite imagery and eavesdropping to record voices inside bin Laden’s sanctuary, was intended to monitor the pattern of movements inside and identify the main target.
But the founder of al-Qa’ida was so careful to remain hidden that the CIA was not certain he was inside and rated the odds at 60 to 80 per cent.
President Barack Obama ordered the raid that ended a search lasting almost a decade for the world’s most wanted terrorist based on strong but circumstantial evidence accumulated after bin Laden’s courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, was tracked to the compound in the heart of one of Pakistan’s biggest military cities.
Revelations about the CIA safe house, which did not play a part in the commando raid this week and has been shut down, came as evidence seized from bin Laden’s home showed that al-Qa’ida had considered attacking trains in the US on the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
US authorities stressed yesterday the plans were “aspirational” and dated back to February last year. No recent intelligence indicated an active plan for an attack to proceed.
An intelligence message issued by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security yesterday advised that al-Qa’ida was “allegedly contemplating” an attack on trains at an unspecified location in the US on September 11 this year.
One of the options included trying to force a train off a bridge or derail it in a valley.
“We have no information of any imminent terrorist threat to the US rail sector, but wanted to make our partners aware of the alleged plotting,” Homeland Security spokesman Matthew Chandler said. As more details emerge about the raid on bin Laden’s compound – despite a White House decision to shut down issuing further information after several muddled accounts – it became clear yesterday that the gunfight inside bin Laden’s compound was brief and the terrorist leader was killed not long after commandos entered the building.
The US SEAL team led by Joint Special Operations Command in co-operation with the CIA spent most of the 38 minutes in the compound retrieving a mountain of computers, disks and documents.
After taking the material back to the US, intelligence analysts are wading through it to find leads that could identify al-Qa’ida operatives and possible future plots, with the hope of breaking what remains of bin Laden’s organisation.
The CIA is also combing the material for any evidence that bin Laden was protected for up to five years or longer that he lived in the compound by Pakistan.
A possible attack on the US rail system was the first intelligence to be released from the massive amount confiscated.
Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary, Salman Bashir, yesterday blasted the US raid that killed bin Laden for a “violation of sovereignty”, despite the arguments of US Attorney-General Eric Holder that it was legal as an act of war, and amounted to self-defence after attacks on the US.
Mr Bashir also vigorously denied that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate or elements within the government were “in cahoots” with al-Qa’ida in giving bin Laden sanctuary. “This is a false hypothesis,” he said.
“This is a false charge. It cannot be validated on any account and it flies in the face of what Pakistanis, and in particular the Inter-Services Intelligence, has been able to accomplish.”
Carl Levin, chairman of the US Senate armed services committee, said yesterday that high levels of the ISI organisation must have known about bin Laden’s whereabouts but admitted he could not prove it.
The senior Democrat senator also told US-based ABC News that he had “no doubt” that the highest levels of the Pakistani government were protecting other others including Taliban leader Mullah Omar and heads of the Haqqani terrorist network who had been responsible for killing US troops in Afghanistan.
The US gives $US3 billion ($2.8bn) in aid a year to Pakistan but the relationship between the two countries is at breaking point after bin Laden’s killing, and many in the US congress want to reconsider funds given to Islamabad.
Mr Obama marked the death of bin Laden by laying a wreath yesterday at the Ground Zero site in New York where the two most deadly terrorist attacks ordered by bin Laden occurred on September 11, when two passenger jets destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Centre and killed almost 3000 people.
Vice-President Joe Biden attended a separate ceremony at the Pentagon in Washington to honour those killed there in another 9/11 attack, which killed 184. Mr Obama will travel to Fort Worth in Kentucky today to congratulate the Navy SEAL team that conducted the successful raid in Pakistan. He is said to have already met Vice-Admiral William McRaven, who was in charge of the mission.
According to the Homeland Security Department, the alleged al-Qa’ida plot to attack US trains was based on “initial reporting” that was often inaccurate and subject to change.
US authorities issued a warning about a possible al-Qa’ida threat to New York public transport in 2008, and an Afghan immigrant, Najibullah Zazi, pleaded guilty last year to plotting a suicide bombing on the subway after he had attended an al-Qa’ida camp in Pakistan’s Waziristan region.
At the time, Mr Holder called Zazi’s plot one of the most serious US security threats since 9/11.