How luck and stupidity can go a long way

Osama's killing raises fundamental questions that are much more basic in nature than the legal ones heard so far. Primarily, how is it that Public Enemy Number One lived in one place for so long and will almost zero protection?

Air view of bin Laden compound 521 (photo credit: REUTERS/Ho New)
Air view of bin Laden compound 521
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ho New)
On May 1, I happened to be in New York. When I heard the news about Osama bin Laden’s death, I hurried to Times Square to find that a huge crowd had gathered there, singing, hugging and kissing each other. Later on, an exuberant stranger kindly drove me to Ground Zero where the festivities continued. People were singing the Star-Spangled Banner, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and all the while chanting: America! America!
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Had such an explosion of patriotism occurred in Israel, no doubt the local press would have labeled the revelers as “fascists” for celebrating the death of an arch-terrorist in this manner. But following a period of consecutive defeats and humiliation, these Americans were in desperate want of a victory to prove to themselves and others that America is still the best country in the world.
The bin Laden operation was indeed a great feat. As Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, once told me: “You don’t judge a winner.” Nevertheless, this monumental feat raises some questions. The first is the way in which the events were presented to the public. To begin with, both US President Barack Obama and his spokesmen referred to the operation as “the killing of Osama Bin-Laden.”
When the press began asking questions about the exact orders given to the US Navy SEALs, the narrative was changed and spokespeople announced that the order was “to capture or kill” Bin Laden. So invariably the next question is, why wasn’t he captured?
A new version was then presented to the press by Obama’s anti-terrorism adviser: Bin Laden was killed in a firefight in which he was firing an AK-47 (Kalachnikov) submachine gun while using a woman as a human shield. The woman was subsequently killed.
That same afternoon came another version – this time by the White House spokesman: A) Bin Laden didn’t fire at the SEALs, and neither was he holding a weapon, but there was an AK-47 within his reach B) The woman in the room was not being used as a human shield, and was only wounded in the foot. There was indeed a woman killed, but that happened in a separate confrontation on a floor below.
The bottom line remains the same: the SEALs broke into bin Laden’s room and killed him. These were probably their orders.
I’ve since met with people in New York who argued heatedly that he should have been captured and brought to trial. Such an outcome conjures up images of an endless circus in an American courtroom, with a (very likely Jewish) lawyer eloquently defending the al Qaida leader while a smart-alec reporter vividly describes the grief and pain suffered by bin Laden’s multiple wives and family.
The success of the operation itself can be attributed to two main factors: the Americans’ astonishing luck and bin Laden’s astonishing stupidity.
Why luck you ask? It was in August 2010 that US secret services discovered the house in Abbottabad and began suspecting that bin Laden was residing there. Consequently, a safe house was set up in the town, spies and agents were brought in along with electronic and photographic equipment, and surveillance began. This went on for nine months.
Nine full months, during which the bird could have flown the coop a thousand times. The CIA and its acolytes had no way of knowing that bin Laden would stay there for any determinable length of time. He could have easily escaped at a moment’s notice, or simply chosen to move to another location. Had this been the case, the operation would have ended in much the same way the Battle of Tora Bora did, when armed forces arrived on the scene too late.
But thank God this time around, bin Laden’s stupidity rescued the operation.
So why stupidity? Well despite being the universe’s Number One terrorist and the man sought after by every secret service in the free world, bin Laden managed to overlook the three cardinal rules of clandestine life. First of all, it seems bin Laden was not exempt from the lure of a sedentary life enjoyed by your garden-variety manor squire. And in yielding to those temptations, he neglected the most basic rule: Never stay in one place for too long. A month or two maximum, but five years?
When our own Mossad tracked arch-terrorist Imad Mughniyeh, they were aware that the Hizbullah military chief never spent two nights in the same place - and for his part, rightly so. Finding him and killing him was therefore an arduously long and sophisticated process. How then, did bin Laden, the ultimate Islamist terrorist, settle with his family in one house for all those years?
A second stupid infraction of fugitive rules was bin Laden’s distinct lack of protection. There were very few guards in the house and since the SEALs didn’t have to battle it out with an organized unit of terrorists, the assault was over in minutes and without any casualties. Had bin Laden been protected by an elite group of fanatic fighters armed to the teeth, things could have panned out very differently.
But perhaps there were no guards because bin Laden was secretly being protected on a larger scale, by his Pakistani hosts who were aware of his hideout? Yet even if this was the case, another crucial rule of clandestine life is never trust anyone. Amazing stupidity indeed.
Luck or stupidity or a combination of both, the results are what count in any case. Bin Laden is dead, al Qaida suffered a terrible blow, Hamas did Israel a great service in denouncing the killing, and Obama’s popularity has soared to the highest it’s been in two years.
To reiterate Ben-Gurion, “You don’t judge a winner.”
The writer is a former Labor Party MK and the official biographer of David Ben-Gurion and Shimon Peres.