Image: U.S. President Barack Obama (2nd left) and Vice President Joe Biden (left), along with members of the national security team
Pete Souza  /  The White House via Reuters, file
U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden sit alongside members of the national security team during an update on the mission targeting Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House on May 1.
By
updated 7/5/2011 7:58:30 AM ET 2011-07-05T11:58:30

After Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden, the White House released a photo of President Barack Obama and his Cabinet inside the Situation Room, watching the daring raid unfold.

Hidden from view, standing just outside the frame of that now-famous photograph was a career CIA analyst.

In the hunt for the world's most-wanted terrorist, there may have been no one more important. His job for nearly a decade was finding the al-Qaida leader.

The analyst was the first to put in writing last summer that the CIA might have a legitimate lead on finding bin Laden.

He oversaw the collection of clues that led the agency to a fortified compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. His was among the most confident voices telling Obama that bin Laden was probably behind those walls.

The CIA will not permit him to speak with reporters. But interviews with former and current U.S. intelligence officials reveal a story of quiet persistence and continuity that led to the greatest counterterrorism success in the history of the CIA.

Nearly all the officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters or because they did not want their names linked to the bin Laden operation.

The Associated Press has agreed to the CIA's request not to publish his full name and withhold certain biographical details so that he would not become a target for retribution.

Call him John, his middle name.

John was among the hundreds of people who poured into the CIA's Counterterrorism Center after the Sept. 11 attacks, bringing fresh eyes and energy to the fight.

Disparate strands
He had been a standout in the agency's Russian and Balkan departments. When Vladimir Putin was coming to power in Russia, for instance, John pulled together details overlooked by others and wrote what some colleagues considered the definitive profile of Putin.

He challenged some of the agency's conventional wisdom about Putin's KGB background and painted a much fuller portrait of the man who would come to dominate Russian politics.

That ability to spot the importance of seemingly insignificant details, to weave disparate strands of information into a meaningful story, gave him a particular knack for hunting terrorists.

"He could always give you the broader implications of all these details we were amassing," said John McLaughlin, who as CIA deputy director was briefed regularly by John in the mornings after the 2001 attacks.

Video: Report: Bin Laden was worried for al-Qaida's future (on this page)

From 2003, when he joined the Counterterrorism Center, through 2005, John was one of the driving forces behind the most successful string of counterterrorism captures in the fight against terrorism: Abu Zubaydah, Abd al-Nashiri, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Ramzi bin Alshib, Hambali and Faraj al-Libi.

But there was no greater prize than finding bin Laden.

Bin Laden had slipped away from U.S. forces in the Afghan mountains of Tora Bora in 2001, and the CIA believed he had taken shelter in the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan.

In 2006, the agency mounted Operation Cannonball, an effort to establish bases in the tribal regions and find bin Laden. Even with all its money and resources, the CIA could not locate its prime target.

By then, the agency was on its third director since Sept. 11, 2001. John had outlasted many of his direct supervisors who retired or went on to other jobs. The CIA doesn't like to keep its people in one spot for too long. They become jaded. They start missing things.

John didn't want to leave. He'd always been persistent. In college, he walked on to a Division I basketball team and hustled his way into a rotation full of scholarship players.

The CIA offered to promote him and move him somewhere else. John wanted to keep the bin Laden file.

Image: Osama Bin Laden
AFP - Getty Images, file
Champagne was uncorked at the CIA's headquarters after it was confirmed that Navy SEALs had killed Osama bin Laden.

He examined and re-examined every aspect of bin Laden's life. How did he live while hiding in Sudan? With whom did he surround himself while living in Kandahar, Afghanistan? What would a bin Laden hideout look like today?

'We'll get there'
The CIA had a list of potential leads, associates and family members who might have access to bin Laden.

"Just keep working that list bit by bit," one senior intelligence official recalls John telling his team. "He's there somewhere. We'll get there."

John rose through the ranks of the counterterrorism center, but because of his nearly unrivaled experience, he always had influence beyond his title. One former boss confessed that he didn't know exactly what John's position was.

"I knew he was the guy in the room I always listened to," the official said.

While he was shepherding the hunt for bin Laden, John also was pushing to expand the Predator program, the agency's use of unmanned airplanes to launch missiles at terrorists.

The CIA largely confined those strikes to targets along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. But in late 2007 and early 2008, John said the CIA needed to carry out those attacks deeper inside Pakistan.

It was a risky move. Pakistan was an important but shaky ally. John's analysts saw an increase in the number of Westerners training in Pakistani terrorist camps. John worried that those men would soon start showing up on U.S. soil.

"We've got to act," John said, a former senior intelligence official recalls. "There's no explaining inaction."

Video: Is bin Laden’s death a turning point for the US? (on this page)

John took the analysis to then CIA Director Michael Hayden, who agreed and took the recommendation to President George W. Bush.

In the last months of the Bush administration, the CIA began striking deeper inside Pakistan. Obama immediately adopted the same strategy and stepped up the pace.

Recent attacks have killed al-Qaida's No. 3 official, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, and Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud.

All the while, John's team was working the list of bin Laden leads. In 2007, a female colleague whom the AP has also agreed not to identify decided to zero in on a man known as Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, a nom de guerre.

Other terrorists had identified al-Kuwaiti as an important courier for al-Qaida's upper echelon, and she believed that finding him might help lead to bin Laden.

"They had their teeth clenched on this and they weren't going to let go," McLaughlin said of John and his team. "This was an obsession."

It took three years, but in August 2010, al-Kuwaiti turned up on a National Security Agency wiretap. The female analyst, who had studied journalism at a Big Ten university, tapped out a memo for John, "Closing in on Bin Laden Courier," saying her team believed al-Kuwaiti was somewhere on the outskirts of Islamabad.

Bigger picture
As the CIA homed in on al-Kuwaiti, John's team continually updated the memo with fresh information.

Everyone knew that anything with bin Laden's name on it would shoot right to the director's desk and invite scrutiny, so the early drafts played down hopes that the courier would lead to bin Laden. But John saw the bigger picture. The hunt for al-Kuwaiti was effectively the hunt for bin Laden, and he was not afraid to say so.

The revised memo was finished in September 2010. John, by then deputy chief of the Pakistan-Afghanistan Department, emailed it to those who needed to know. The title was "Anatomy of a Lead."

As expected, the memo immediately became a hot topic inside CIA headquarters and Director Leon Panetta wanted to know more. John never overpromised, colleagues recall, but he was unafraid to say there was a good chance this might be the break the agency was looking for.

The CIA tracked al-Kuwaiti to a walled compound in Abbottabad. If bin Laden was hiding there, in a busy suburb not far from Pakistan's military academy, it challenged much of what the agency had assumed about his hideout.

Slideshow: After the raid: Inside bin Laden's compound (on this page)

But John said it wasn't that far-fetched. Drawing on what he knew about bin Laden's earlier hideouts, he said it made sense that bin Laden had surrounded himself only with his couriers and family and did not use phones or the Internet. The CIA knew that top al-Qaida operatives had lived in urban areas before.

A cautious Panetta took the information to Obama, but there was much more work to be done.

The government tried everything to figure out who was in that compound.

In a small house nearby, the CIA put people who would fit in and not draw any attention. They watched and waited but turned up nothing definitive. Satellites captured images of a tall man walking the grounds of the compound, but never got a look at his face.

Again and again, John and his team asked themselves who else might be living in that compound. They came up with five or six alternatives; bin Laden was always the best explanation.

This went on for months. By about February, John told his bosses, including Panetta, that the CIA could keep trying, but the information was unlikely to get any better. He told Panetta this might be their best chance to find bin Laden and it would not last forever. Panetta made that same point to the president.

Panetta held regular meetings on the hunt, often concluding with an around-the-table poll: How sure are you that this is bin Laden?

John was always bullish, rating his confidence as high as 80 percent.

Others weren't so sure, especially those who had been in the room for operations that went bad. Not two years earlier, the CIA thought it had an informant who could lead him to bin Laden's deputy. That man blew himself up at a base in Khost, Afghanistan, killing seven CIA employees and injuring six others.

Video: Gates: U.S. will 'keep after' al-Qaida (on this page)

That didn't come up in the meetings with Panetta, a senior intelligence official said. But everyone knew the risk the CIA was taking if it told the president that bin Laden was in Abbottabad and was wrong.

"We all knew that if he wasn't there and this was a disaster, certainly there would be consequences," the official recalled.

Reassuring confidence
John was among several CIA officials who repeatedly briefed Obama and others at the White House. Current and former officials involved in the discussions said John had a coolness and a reassuring confidence.

By April, the president had decided to send the Navy SEALs to assault the compound.

Though the plan was in motion, John went back to his team, a senior intelligence official said.

"Right up to the last hour," he told them, "if we get any piece of information that suggests it's not him, somebody has to raise their hand before we risk American lives."

Interactive: Al-Qaida timeline (on this page)

Nobody did. Inside the Situation Room, the analyst who was barely known outside the close-knit intelligence world took his place alongside the nation's top security officials, the household names and well-known faces of Washington.

An agonizing 40 minutes after Navy SEALs stormed the compound, the report came back: Bin Laden was dead.

John and his team had guessed correctly, taking an intellectual risk based on incomplete information.

It was a gamble that ended a decade of disappointment. Later, Champagne was uncorked back at the CIA, where those in the Counterterrorism Center who had targeted bin Laden for so long celebrated. John's team reveled in the moment.

Two days after bin Laden's death, John accompanied Panetta to Capitol Hill. The Senate Intelligence Committee wanted a full briefing on the successful mission. At one point in the private session, Panetta turned to the man whose counterterrorism resume spanned four CIA directors.

He began to speak, about the operation and about the years of intelligence it was based on. And as he spoke about the mission that had become his career, the calm, collected analyst paused, and he choked up.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: The compound

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  1. Pakistani boys while demolition takes place on the compound where Osama bin Laden was slain in 2011 in the northwestern town of Abbottabad on Feb. 26, 2012.

    More photos from Abbottabad one year after Osama bin Laden (Aamir Qureshi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. An aerial view shows the residential area of Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden was found and killed by U.S. commandos. (Asif Hassan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A general view of the town of Abbottabad, May 6. Bin Laden was living in a large house close to a military academy in this garrison town, a two-and-a-half hour-drive from the capital, Islamabad. (Khaqan Khawer / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Supporters of Pakistani religious party Jamaat-e-Islami rally to condemn the killing of bin Laden, in Abbottabad on May 6. (Aqeel Ahmed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A Pakistani woman photographs her daughter on May , at a gate of the compound where bin Laden was caught and killed. (Aqeel Ahmed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. School girls pass by armed Pakistani policemen guarding the sealed entrance to the compound in Abbottabad, May 5, in which bin Laden had been living. (MD Nadeem / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Part of a damaged helicopter rests in the compound after U.S. Navy SEAL commandos killed bin Laden, May 2, in a photo made available on May 4. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Boys herd sheep past the compound where U.S. Navy SEAL commandos killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad May 5. (Akhtar Soomro / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Pakistani security officials arrive at the Osama bin Laden compound in Abbottabad on Wednesday, May 4. (Aamir Qureshi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Local residents gather outside a burned section of bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad. (Aamir Qureshi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A Pakistani police officer gestures at a checkpoint along a road leading to a house where bin Laden was captured and killed in Abbottabad. Area residents were still confused and suspicious about bin Laden's death, which took place before dawn on Monday. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Pakistani children look out from a high vantage point at bin Laden's compound on Tuesday, May 3. (Aqeel Ahmed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Pakistan army troops remove canvas screens from outside the compound's house. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Neighbors and news media gather around the compound, right, after authorities ease security around the property. (Aqeel Ahmed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A satellite image, taken June 15, 2005, shows the Abbottabad compound, center, where bin Laden was killed in on Monday. (DigitalGlobe via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A Pakistani soldier secures the compound. (T. Mughal / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. The compound is seen in flames after it was attacked early May 2 in this still image taken from cellphone video footage. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Part of a damaged U.S. MH-60 helicopter lies the compound. The helicopter was destroyed by U.S. forces after a mechanical failure left it unable to take off. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A still image from video obtained by ABC News shows blood stains in the interior of the house where bin Laden was killed. (ABC News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Aerial views released by the Department of Defense show the area in Abbottabad in 2004, left, before the house was built, and in 2011, right. (Department of Defense via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. A graphic released by the Department of Defense shows the compound where bin Laden was killed. (Department of Defense via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Pakistani soldiers and police officers patrol near the house, background, where bin Laden had lived. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. The hideout of bin Laden is seen the day after his death. (Farooq Naeem / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Students look toward the compound from a nearby religious school in Abbottabad. (Faisal Mahmood / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Pakistani security officials survey the walls of the compound where bin Laden was killed. The outer walls were between 10 and 18 feet high. (MD Nadeem / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Pakistani soldiers stand guard near the compound May 2. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Boys collect pieces of metal from a wheat field outside bin Laden's house, seen in the background, on May 3. People showed off small parts of what appeared to be a U.S. helicopter that the U.S. says malfunctioned and was blown up by the American team as it retreated. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Pakistani security officials stand guard at the main entrance to the compound on May 3. (MD Nadeem / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. An image from video seized from the walled compound of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, and released by the U.S. Department of Defense, shows Osama bin Laden watching TV. He is said to have spent his last weeks in a house divided, amid wives riven by suspicions. On the top floor, sharing his bedroom, was his youngest wife and favorite. The trouble came when his eldest wife showed up and moved into the bedroom on the floor below. (Department of Defense via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
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    Above: Slideshow (29) After the raid: Inside bin Laden's compound - The compound
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    Slideshow (81) After the raid: Inside bin Laden's compound - World reaction

Video: Report: Bin Laden was worried for al-Qaida's future

  1. Closed captioning of: Report: Bin Laden was worried for al-Qaida's future

    >>> " washington post " front page record. intelligence recovered at osama bin laden 's compound show the leader has serious concerns about the health of the al- qaeda network. meanwhile, "the daily beast " reports heightened concerns of a terror attack as law enforcement tracks an uptick of online chatter about avenging bin laden 's death. evan, good morning to you. let's talk about the increased chatter, first of all. we're looking at the ultimate patriotic american holiday right here. how much does this concern you?

    >> there are home grown extremists out there that would love to make a statement just a few weeks after the death of osama bin laden . it's the number one u.s. patriotic holiday. you can see where someone would want to make a statement. of course, there's also al- qaeda and they are still looking to avenge the death of bin laden . they're looking for a high profile day. a day like july fourth, like the september 11th anniversary. it's a concern. al- qaeda 's having a problem with its chatter because its main discussion forum just got shut down apparently by hackers, so the last four or five days, al- qaeda hasn't been able to communicate properly. kind of a dramatic development. what that shows you is yeah, they might be planning something, but the question is how much has this disrupted that.

    >> what about the asengs offal zawahiri to the number one spot? now i've taken over, now i've got to make a splash.

    >> he wants to make a statement and has been around for a while. he's not a new player. he wants to make the statement, i'm in charge. there's a reason for that. because if you look right now, the only al- qaeda faction that has responded back and said, okay, you're the new leader, is shabaab in somalia, al- qaeda in the arabian peninsula . none of these groups have issued a statement saying he is the new leader.

    >> so is he?

    >> he is the new leader of al- qaeda , but the question is, do these various different franchises, are they really loyal to that new leader or maybe they have concerns. it's a mystery. it's been weeks now and there's been nothing from these groups. they've issued statements, but haven't said anything about zawahiri.

    >> another thing we get from this " washington post " article is that all the drone attacks that have been happening greatly affected al- qaeda 's operations.

    >> no doubt about that. whether we're talking about the drone strikes or financing, it's not a secret. al- qaeda has made several statements saying look, we have a real financial problem here. we have people that want to carry out suicide bombings and can't afford the car for the attack. this is what al- qaeda is saying publicly. so you have to imagine there really is a financing problem there and apparently, if what the report in the " washington post " is correct, it is having an immediate impact.

    >> you know, how does al- qaeda get financed? it's not like it's some company building up. is it all donations? various means? what is it?

    >> mostly, it's donations. mostly, it is people, individuals, many of whom are in the arabian gulf , giving large hand sums of money. the problem is that nowadays, trying to transfer that money through a bank account is very risky. it's likely to get seized. we see what happens with human couriers. law enforcement and intelligence agencies find these people. there's a desperate need for money and a desperate fear of the drone strikes because they have done tremendous damage to al- qaeda 's infrastructure.

    >> plus, there's global recession going on.

Timeline: A timeline of Osama bin Laden's life

Considered enemy No. 1 by the U.S., the Saudi millionaire is the perpetrator behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Click on key dates to learn more about the founder of al-Qaida, an international terror network.

  1. BIN LADEN
    Rahimullah Yousafzai / AP
    Above: Timeline A timeline of Osama bin Laden's life
  2. Timeline Al-Qaida timeline

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