Tag Archives: bin Laden

Catching the Bad Guys — The Pursuits of bin Laden and Pablo Escobar Show Similarities

The killing 18 years ago of Pablo Escobar, the feared leader of the Medellin Cocaine Cartel, and the tracking and Osama bin Laden bear strong similarities — so much so, Steve Coll notes, that CIA operatives studied the Escobar case in the methodical, eventually successful discovery of bin Laden’s hideout.

“As they reset their work, the analysts studied other long-term international fugitive hunts that had ended successfully, such as the operations that led to the death of the Medellín Cartel leader Pablo Escobar, in 1993. The analysts asked, Where did the breakthroughs in these other hunts come from? What were the clues that made the difference and how were the clues discovered? They tried to identify “signatures” of Osama bin Laden’s life style that might lead to such a clue: prescription medications that he might purchase, hobbies or other habits of shopping or movement that might give him away.”

Covering the pursuit of Escobar in the early 1990s, it became evident that Colombia’s security forces were sometimes in conflict with elements of the military, and sometimes it appeared that Escobar was slip-sliding through the dragnet with official complicity. Escobar was fabulously wealthy, as was bin Laden, and neither hesitated at using bribery or violence to buy safety and time. Escobar ultimately was tracked down by making a mistake and using a telephone. Officials used electronic tracking equipment to pinpoint his location. He died in a firefight with security forces. We don’t know how or whether bin Laden tripped up after all these years.

At first the official version in Escobar’s case was that Colombian authorities maintained operational security and conducted the raid. But the chief of Colombian security forces, Gen. Miguel Maza, squirmed when I asked him whether U.S. officials accompanied Colombians when Escobar was gunned down in a roof-top firefight. It became clear that a phantom U.S. helicopter was airbrushed out of the official government account in that case.

Similarly, Pakistani officials were uneasy about describing their knowledge and role in the final pursuit of bin Laden. In both cases, U.S. officials were rather pragmatic on two accounts — they got the job done, no matter the details or whether either foreign government needed to save face. And in both cases, they overlooked the circumstantial evidence: either for corruption or looking the other way, it seemed incredible that either Escobar or bin Laden would not have been detected — both living in plain sight in the middle of a well-patrolled city.

There was another striking parallel between the cases of Escobar and bin Laden — both had become symbols of the violence they engendered, but neither was able to operate his respective terror network by the time they were tracked down.

By that time, smaller, lesser known cells were doing the dirty work, and devising means of pursuing their criminal enterprises. In Escobar’s case, no drug dealer became as well-known nor as powerful after him, but narcotics dealing became almost institutionalized at a low level. U.S. officials never won their War on Drugs, but were able to turn down the volume after Escobar’s death.

It remains to be seen whether bin Laden will have as mighty and newsworthy a successor, but U.S. officials have said many times that pursuing terrorism is a long term effort. Nevertheless, both of these central actors, bin Laden, and Escobar a generation earlier, have gone to early graves.

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Looking ahead to President Obama’s Bully Pulpit

Preliminary thoughts about the killing of Osama bin Laden.

The elimination of Osama bin Laden warranted jubilation, public demonstrations and cheers, dampened by somber reminders of Sept. 11, 2001. Americans recognized the obvious – This was a historic victory. President Obama said it well:

For over two decades, bin Laden has been al Qaeda’s leader and symbol, and has continued to plot attacks against our country and our friends and allies.  The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda.
Yet his death does not mark the end of our effort.  There’s no doubt that al Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us.  We must –- and we will — remain vigilant at home and abroad.
As we do, we must also reaffirm that the United States is not –- and never will be -– at war with Islam.  I’ve made clear, just as President Bush did shortly after 9/11, that our war is not against Islam.  Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims.  Indeed, al Qaeda has slaughtered scores of Muslims in many countries, including our own.  So his demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity.

Bin Laden leaves the stage in May 2011, but his operational capacity was limited if not eliminated years before his death. He existed as a symbol of terror. It is hard to think that anyone could rise to the same level, anytime soon.

His death now is as strong a blow to international terror as it would have been years earlier. Striking down the symbol will be accompanied by newly energized pursuit of his number two – Ayman al-Zawahiri – and the estimated several hundred al Qaeda fighters along the Pakistan-Afghan border.

Questions and Answers


How could bin Laden have lived in plain site for so long, one kilometer from a Pakistani military post?

We don’t know yet, but U.S. officials won’t want to beat up on the Pakistanis. The civil government in Islamabad is a weak enterprise, and its stability depends on domestic public perception. The Pakistani military and intelligence service – ISI – are a power unto themselves and comprise a complicated, rivalry-ridden command structure. U.S. officials are giving the Pakistanis a chance to save face. The Obama administration will keep working with Pakistani officials on future operations of joint interest – decreasing violence, enhancing political and economic stability.


What about increased vigilance and retaliation?

Intelligence and police forces have been doing a fine job over the last decade to counteract, block and limit the scope of terror attacks. The system isn’t fool-proof, but there has never been a reason to live in fear. [Fortunately, Tom Ridge’s foolish color-coded alert warnings have gone the way of the Edsel.]

Will the death of bin Laden accelerate demands for a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan?
Probably so. However, the Obama administration will take some time, looking for a changes in the wind–the flagging ability and will of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters to pursue their goals.

What policies should be on the agenda?

–Israel and the Palestinians–Seizing the moment to push the Israelis and the Palestinians toward an equitable peace. Presidential persuasion is a key—a successful compromise is needed. A resolution for the West Bank and Gaza has always been a major recipe toward drying up the seedbeds of future terrorism.
The U.S. Abroad–—pursuing further efforts to improve the U.S. image abroad. That image could hardly have been worse when President Obama took office after the multiple failures of the Bush administration. Obama can use the moment and the bully pulpit to push recalcitrant players toward real mediation and compromise for peace in the Middle East.
–Middle East Uprisings–Hard work to land fairly in each of the civil uprisings burning in the Middle East. And taking care that Yemen evolves peacefully, and with a future government that continues to fight al Qaeda cells there with U.S. support.
–Kashmir — Push for peace talks and negotiations between Pakistan and India over Kashmir, supported by the United States and Europe. Success feeds world peace and creates the prospects for a more friendly relationship with Pakistan.

The bill of particulars is long, but President Obama has checked off one of the greatest action items he may ever face.

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