How Bin Laden Narratives Hindered Analysis

Immediately following 9/11/2001, hopes were high that Bin Laden and his gang would quickly be caught.  In early 2002, Bin Laden escaped the Tora Bora cave network slipping into Pakistan beginning the longest, most expensive and most exhaustive man hunt in world history.

In 2003, the Bin Laden mission lost focus; distracted by Iraq and the hunt for new villains.  By 2004, the American public narrative changed and repeatedly stated that Bin Laden was hiding in a cave, sickened, weak, and irrelevant.  By 2006-2007, this speculation was cemented into the minds of Western analysts, media pundits and the general public.

Looking back, this narrative hindered my analysis and I imagine the analysis of many others seeking the demise of Bin Laden.  Analysts were seeking to confirm a narrative constructed on two brief periods in Bin Laden’s Afghan existence: a hiding period in the so-called “Lion’s Den” during the mid-1980’s and the 2002 Tora Bora siege.  This narrative, derived from an appealing perceived pattern of Bin Laden’s behavior, drove many to look for things that weren’t there: guys in a cave, living on bread and water, coordinating through sophisticated electronic communication. Instead, he was killed in a compound similar to others he resided in, surrounded by family and communicating by courier.

Resources were poured into detecting a pattern that suited our narrative more than the realities described throughout Bin Laden’s life (See Patternicity for more on this).  During the 1980’s, he founded AQ in Peshawar guesthouses.  In the 1990’s, he occupied a Khartoum estate and later lived fairly openly in several different Afghan camps.  This pattern of life, rather than the cave narrative we created, turned out to be consistent with where Bin Laden was discovered.  His Khartoum residence looks strikingly similar to his Pakistani hideout. (See below)

In hindsight, Bin Laden hid not in caves but within people-social networks of loyalty sealed by ideology, bought with Gulf donations and maneuvered through political brokering.  Bin Laden lasted ten years because he leveraged his financial pull to sustain operations, his political value to engender Pakistani supporters, and his ideological credibility to garner protection from the Haqqani network.  People hid Bin Laden, not caves.

How was he identified and killed? Through the persistent work of dedicated analysts, investigators, military operatives and intelligence officers using human skills to turn interview results into a victory.  In the end, it was pursuing good analysis on Bin Laden’s human network, not adhering to narratives that brought mission completion.

Bin Laden’s Khartoum residence, early 1990’s (Source: PBS)





Bin Laden’s Pakistan hideout, 2011 (Source: Guardian)

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