U.S. Special Forces were able to track down Osama bin Laden thanks to a well-placed, well-planned phone call to one of bin Laden’s couriers. It all started when Al Qaeda leader Khalid Sheikh Mohammed gave authorities the nicknames of several of bin Laden’s chief couriers. It took the CIA years — and extreme interrogation efforts — to discern the courier’s real name and get the information from Mohammed, which drew criticism from human-rights groups. "We got beat up for it, but those efforts led to this great day," said retired CIA officer Marty Martin. Strangely, though, Mohammed gave up his contacts nicknames via standard interrogation, calling into question whether Martin and the CIA's tactics really were necessary or effective.
The CIA was then able to use those leads to track a pivotal phone call with one of bin Laden’s most trusted aides. Last summer, the aide placed a phone call to someone who was being monitored by U.S. intelligence. That one phone call helped lead the CIA to the courier, and from there, they were able to gather enough intelligence to locate and watch him. And then in August 2010, the courier actually went to Osama’s Abbottabad compound.
By February, the CIA was confident that a high-value target was living there.
"'This is different. This intelligence case is different. What we see in this compound is different than anything we've ever seen before,'" explained John Brennan, the president's top counterterrorism adviser. "I was confident that we had the basis to take action."
But an air strike wasn’t advisable. Especially because it would be difficult to confirm bin Laden’s death. And that’s why U.S. Special Forces pursued bin Laden in a firefight. Said Brennan: "The president had to evaluate the strength of that information, and then made what I believe was one of the most gutsy calls of any president in recent memory."