How Osama Bin Laden's Low-Tech Compound Gave Him Away

In a world where everyone is connected all of the time, Bin Laden's lack of links to the outside world raised too many red flags


Right after it was announced, around 9:45 p.m. EST, that President Obama would address the nation at 10:30 p.m. (the speech was ultimately delayed by nearly an hour), reporters started to work their sources. Several confirmed over Twitter, about half an hour later, that Obama was planning to announce that Osama Bin Laden had been killed earlier that day.

As late evening turned into early morning, more details leaked out, one after another. We learned that Bin Laden had been killed with a bullet to the head after four helicopters stocked with a combination of Navy SEAL and CIA officers descended on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. At first it was referred to, on major cable networks, as a mansion, but the photograph above, released by Reuters earlier this afternoon, shows it was anything but. The compound, we learned, was surrounded by a high fence of barbed wire.

Then, on CNN, Wolf Blitzer, in a suit and tie despite having been at home when the news broke, told us that, while Osama Bin Laden's hideout was a large compound, it lacked many basic amenities. No Internet, no telephones, he said. But he didn't explain why. Bin Laden, of course, has long avoided satellite phones and video messages; too easy to trace, too hard to hide. ("How can we not find Osama?" begins a Joan Rivers joke made popular by the documentary of her life released last year. "There's one outlet in all of Afghanistan. Find it and follow the cord.)

But it may have been a lack of technology -- not an abundance of it -- that did Bin Laden in. "[I]n an odd way, it's fitting to me that bin Laden's last moments may have been brought about by his decision to distance himself from something I love so much," wrote Techland's Doug Aamoth this afternoon in his first professional piece about Bin Laden since he lost his cousin Gordy in the September 11 attacks.

Aamoth was referencing a post from Mark Thompson, who has been covering national security in Washington for the past 32 years. In "Bin Laden: How They Got Him -- And What Happens to al Qaeda Now" Thompson buried an interesting detail: "A U.S. official said a key clue to tracking bin Laden down was learning the name of a trusted courier, which led U.S. intelligence to the compound raided on Sunday," he wrote. "After noting the compound had few electronic links to the outside world -- and incinerated its trash, rather than putting it out to be picked up -- Obama gave the go-ahead on Friday for a helicopter raid...." Today, when everybody is carrying a smartphone and a laptop (and sometimes a tablet and an e-reader and...) wherever they go, and many homes -- yes, even in Abbottabad -- have active Internet connections or telephones or cable television or satellite dishes, someone trying to stay off the grid raises a lot of questions.