A Short History of Being Close, But Not Catching Osama Bin Laden

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The rumor about Osama bin Laden evading U.S. forces in Tora Bora on a mule might not have been the only time we came close, but not close enough. Scanning WikiLeaks' trove of diplomatic cables, the Guardian discovered that in 2008, U.S. troops were stationed just a few hundred yards from his Abbottabad compound. U.S. soldiers were there "training the trainers" of Pakistan's 70,000-strong federal military unit, the Frontier Corps, possibly at the Pakistan Military Academy, located just a few streets away from the compound. It was a cooperative mission between Pakistan and the U.S.

Separate WikiLeaks cables — these leaked from the military prison in Guantanamo and released last week — show that as far back as 2008, the U.S. may have gotten a clue that bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad. In fact, the interrogation notes were from a Libyan named Abu al-Libi, a man a Pakistani ISI official said earlier today might have been arrested in bin Laden's compound while it was still under construction. According to the WikiLeaks cable, Libi was living in Pakistan and asked to become one of bin Laden's messengers in 2003. The cable says, "In mid-2003, detainee moved his family to Abbottabad (Pakistan) and worked between Abbottabad and Peshawar."

But the people who came perhaps closer than any U.S. forces to bin Laden may have been a reporter and photographer from the Miami Herald and their driver-translator. In February 2002, reporter Meg Laughlin and photographer Carl Juste were retasked from Afghanistan to Islamabad. Daniel Pearl had just been kidnapped, and their editors instructed them to lie low. On the way to buy shampoo and toothpaste, they spotted bin Laden outside their car window.

We couldn't believe our eyes. There, in front of us was the most wanted man in the world, the face on countless posters offering a reward of $25 million for information on his whereabouts. There was no mistaking him. Towering over the men with him, he was lanky with olive skin and that scraggly long beard, those sad brown eyes and that splayed nose.

The three of us began screaming, "It's Osama bin Laden! Osama bin Laden!"

He wore a white shalwar kameez, the loose long shirt and pantaloons that are traditional clothing in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and a white turban. He walked slowly with a cane, flanked on each side by a man holding on to him.

Unfortunately, they had left the camera back at the hotel. By the time they returned and called their international editor, he told them they probably saw someone who looked just like him — reminding them that U.S. intel had bin Laden somewhere in the tribal territories between Pakistan and Afghanistan. In a God-forsaken cave, he probably muttered under his breath.

US may have got Osama bin Laden's Abbottabad clue in 2008 - WikiLeaks [Guardian UK]
US troops were yards from Osama bin Laden house in 2008 - WikiLeaks files [Guardian UK]
Even in 2002, bin Laden was hiding in plain view [St. Petersburg Times]
Bin Laden: Pakistan intelligence agency admits failures [BBC]