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The Strategic Considerations In The Choice Of Osama's Safe House

Curious why Osama Bin Laden lived where he did? Stratfor Vice President of Intelligence Fred Burton examines the strengths and weaknesses of bin Laden’s safe-house and discusses how the al Qaeda leader was able to hide for so many years in a populated urban area.

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Transcript of the video from Stratfor

Above the Tearline: Osama bin Laden's Safe-House

In this week’s Above the Tearline, we’re going to talk about terrorist safe houses and how Osama bin Laden hid in plain sight for many, many years.

Al Qaeda has a long history of utilizing secure and trustworthy logistical channels to assist them with communications, operational security, safe houses and transportation. We have seen one report that the house that Osama bin Laden was hiding in had been utilized in the past to safe haven a previous al Qaeda high-value target. Therefore, that location would fit the intelligence collection requirement to look for safe houses that have been used before.

The choice of the urban environment to safe haven Osama bin Laden is a sound one from a security perspective. You have the advantage of an established community, a neighborhood watch system that you can call in to play, children, animals that could sound the early alert if outsiders move in for surveillance or arrest purposes. If you contrast that with a rural environment, it’s easier for counterterrorism teams to move into a rural environment that would be secluded because your neighborhood system is not in play that could provide that early warning system that something’s afoot.

One of the other aspects that benefits the urban environment is a safe house in that kind of community is the inability to come in and set up a surveillance observation post. The reason you can’t is you are going to call attention to yourself as an outsider based upon the fact that most of these environments are very much community-based and the presence of individuals that show up out of the blue is going to raise the hue and cry for everybody in the neighborhood to be asking questions.

When you’re selecting a safe house, you want to have the ability to control the geography. You own the public safety apparatus, you have a system in place that’s going to alert you to outsiders. But it appears to me that this safe house was chosen for a specific reason and one could certainly suspect that the area was controlled by al Qaeda.

The Above the Tearline aspect in this case is two-pronged. The first is the compromised safe house. This was a location allegedly used before. If so, that’s a fatal error but it tracks with previous al Qaeda methodology of using trusted communications and logistic channels. More importantly, the human error failure here, meaning a courier, a communications node was compromised and that individual ultimately led Western intelligence, specifically the CIA, to that specific safe house. Those two variables, the compromised safe house and the compromised courier, led to Osama bin Laden’s demise.