Journalism in the Public Interest

Bin Laden Reading Guide: How to Cut Through the Coverage


Passers-by take pictures of newspaper headlines reporting the death of Osama Bin Laden in front of the Newseum, in Washington, D.C., on May 2, 2011. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The death of Osama bin Laden has sent news organizations scrambling for details on how it happened, where it happened, and what it all means. 

We’ve rounded up some of the best coverage, being careful to note what’s been said, what’s already being disputed, and what still remains to be seen.

How they found the most wanted man in the world:

The New York Times has a vivid account of the hunt for bin Laden in the weeks leading up to the strike, with dialogue straight from the situation room as the operation unfolded. As for the specific trail of intelligence, the Associated Press traces how detainees in both the CIA’s secret network of prisons and in Guantanamo provided clues about the trusted courier who ultimately led the United States to bin Laden’s hideaway. The AP cites former officials asserting that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 9/11 mastermind, was not being waterboarded while discussing the courier, though that still leaves unanswered what interrogation methods were used on the other, tip-giving detainees—many of whom haven’t been identified.

But here’s the interrogation file of one detainee who may have proved useful: The file of Abu al-Libi contained an early clue as to the whereabouts of a bin Laden courier in Abbottabad.

What we actually know about the operation and what’s still fuzzy: 

Most accounts of the bin Laden operation at this point cite background briefings from the White House. Those transcripts are interesting for both the details they provide and the details that officials skirt around. Here’s yesterday’s and today’s.

Many of the blow-by-blows of the bin Laden operation are still fairly sketchy, and Obama administration officials already appear to be backing away from a few of the earlier descriptions of the circumstances surrounding bin Laden’s death. For instance, early claims that bin Laden was armed at the time of his death and had used his wife as a human shield have since been contradicted by officials, Politico reported.

Given this, Slate’s Jack Shafer has a must-read, pointing out several instances of vague sourcing and inconsistencies in some of the coverage of the bin Laden story.

Of course, some have taken that skepticism a step further and veered into conspiracy theories, seizing on the sea burial and the timing of the President’s announcement as suspicious. (Slate has more on why the sea burial is unusual.) The administration has said it’s considering releasing the photo of bin Laden’s body or videos of the raid and the burial to put these suspicions to rest.

The Joint Special Operations Command, whose elite team of Navy Seals executed the operation, costs the country more than $1 billion annually, according to National Journal. Despite some of its personnel having been involved in abuse of prisoners and rendition, JSOC has operated without much scrutiny since 9/11—read the piece for more helpful context.

About the town where he was found, Abbottabad:

Abbottabad is north of Islamabad, less than mile away from the Pakistani military academy—the Pakistani equivalent of West Point, as some have noted. ProPublica’s Scott Klein mapped it out.

Some useful people to follow on the ground in Abbottabad are CNN’s Nic Robertson (@NicRobertson), TIME journalist Omar Waraich (@Omar Waraich), and IT consultant Sohaib Athar (@ReallyVirtual), the man who unwittingly live-Tweeted the U.S. operation as it unfolded and has since been tweeting photos and observations from the city.

The New Yorker’s Steve Coll notes that the location raises serious questions about what Pakistan knew about the whereabouts of the United States’ most wanted man:

It stretches credulity to think that a mansion of that scale could have been built and occupied by bin Laden for six years without its coming to the attention of anyone in the Pakistani Army.

The initial circumstantial evidence suggests that the opposite is more likely—that bin Laden was effectively being housed under Pakistani state control. Pakistan will deny this, it seems safe to predict, and perhaps no convincing evidence will ever surface to prove the case.

What Pakistan knew:

The Obama administration has paid lip service to its robust counterterrorism partnership with Pakistan, but it also said that it planned and executed the operation without Pakistan’s prior knowledge. Pakistan’s ministry of foreign affairs has said that “U.S. helicopters entered Pakistani airspace making use of blind spots in the radar coverage.” Pakistan has also maintained that it had no idea that bin Laden was in Abbottabad.

Foreign Policy has a roundup of Pakistani officials’ past denials that bin Laden could be hiding in their country. An unnamed Pakistani intelligence official told the BBC that they’re embarrassed that they weren’t able to find bin Laden, and that, though they raided the Abbottabad compound while it was in construction in 2003, it was “not on our radar” since then.

In a White House press briefing yesterday afternoon, Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, said that bin Laden must have had some Pakistani support, though he refused to speculate who might have given it and how high it went.  

Relations between the United States and Pakistan have been complicated since 9/11—the recently leaked GITMO files showed that U.S. officials have been suspicious of Pakistan for years. Last week, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff publicly accused the Pakistani military of supporting the Haqqani network, a wing of the Taliban with close ties to al-Qaida. We’ve covered how Pakistan’s intelligence service has been a frenemy in past cases. Last year, we laid out the evidence that officers in Pakistan’s powerful intelligence service collaborated on the Mumbai terrorist attacks.

This mission also wasn’t the first time the United States has carried out a covert raid in Pakistan without alerting local officials. We have a look at past U.S. military operations in Pakistan in recent years and the tensions that have grown out of them.

As details continue to emerge, some good reporters and experts to follow on Twitter include our own national security reporter Dafna Linzer (@dafnalinzer), TIME’s national security correspondent Mark Thompson (@mthompsontime) and National Journal’s Marc Ambinder (@marcambinder), who authored one of the most detailed early stories on the team that killed bin Laden.

Background on bin Laden and his followers:

The New York Times obituary for bin Laden is six pages—a detailed retrospective on who he was and how he founded al-Qaida.

Check out Frontline’s bin Laden files—seems there’s a lot to dig through, including a chronology of his political life and a brief biography. Frontline’s also airing a show tonight about a band of bin Laden loyalists in Afghanistan, CIA kill raids in Pakistan, and new evidence of secret Pakistani support for elements of the Taliban.

The New Yorker’s 2005 piece on bin Laden has several interviews with former schoolmates about his childhood and his radicalization. Over the years, several pieces have been written about the U.S. trail on Osama going cold, including Jane Mayer’s 2003 piece in the New Yorker and the Washington Post’s 2006 piece. Peter Bergen, writing for the New Republic in 2009, gives an account of a failed attempt by the U.S. military to capture bin Laden at Tora Bora, a mountainous region in Afghanistan near the Pakistani border—crucial for the years of war it could have spared the United States had it succeeded.

The Daily Beast has a few more suggested long reads on the subject.

So, what happens next?

While national security officials are saying bin Laden’s death and the raid itself have been important blows to al-Qaida, the consensus seems to be that the threat isn’t over. The New Yorker’s Steve Coll writes that while this is the first time al-Qaida will have to face a change in leadership, it’s also a decentralized network—essentially an ideology—that can’t be dismantled by just picking off the leaders.  

Foreign Policy has a useful guide to all the major arguments being made about the implications of bin Laden’s death; the Atlantic has a good selection of post-bin Laden analysis and predictions; and the New York Times has a Room for Debate segment on what comes next in the war on terror.

Al Jazeera has a piece with reactions from Afghan officials and residents, some of whom fear for the long-term stability of the region if NATO and U.S. forces leave. The Guardian has a guide to bin Laden’s inner circle, a potential roadmap of who’s next in line.

For following all the developments, Al Jazeera and the New York Times have live blogs going, and Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel is continually rolling out analysis.

The rightie conspiracy theories interest me the most: Gosh knows they wouldn’t want to give PRESIDENT OBAMA credsit for anything.  I guess he is really alive in that secret room in the White House basement along with FDR, Adolf Hitler and JFK. Kidding aside, the blogosphere has exploded with “Well, I heard…”  Stop it but then some of them might have to get out of their mother’s basements.

The question isn’t how they found him. It’s how did they not find him for 10 years while he was moving about and hiding out in one of the most desolate parts of the world. Well, at any rate, things have sure changed a lot with the assassination of this aging terrorist icon while he was hiding behind a woman’s skirts that was watched by our leaders from the comfort and safety of their offices while they had their wore their grim fearless game faces on. Millions of Americans are now going back to work and moving back into their homes that they were driven from by, wait, it wasn’t the terrorists. It was the U.S. Governmental. As soon as we throw some domestic government asses to the fishes along with bin Laden, things might start to get better in our country.

Patrizia Cioffi

May 3, 2011, 3:31 p.m.

I cannot imagine hunting down a most wanted criminal of this magnitude for ten years and then placing his dead body in the sea in less than 24 hours.  It seems an irrational a decision.


May 3, 2011, 3:36 p.m.

Whither the Rule of Law?
If the United States, the richest and likely one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the history of the world, stands for anything—it is the rule of law.  Our ideals shine in contrast and active opposition to the notion of ”might makes right” and the power of violence and the “gun.”

Always imperfectly, Americans espouse the ideal of a civil rather than a power and violence-driven society – a society of laws, principals and processes over the rule of individuals or the ancient human drives of inter-ethnic hate and violence, blood feuds, honor killings and revenge.

Mainly, our society proposes that killing and physical violence is usually harmful to the state and civil society.  Isn’t this the core of what we hope to demonstrate to other societies struggling to emerge from violence as the main political tool?

Thus, the assassination of Bin Laden has a sad “frontier justice” feel to it.  Legitimate questions include: Why was this handled as an assassination rather than a judicial and police action?  Would it not have been preferable to capture him for legal proceedings, perhaps at the World Court?  Might not we have learned so much more from him and also been an example to all the world of restraint and adherence to the rules of law?  Did his family not deserve the benefit of the doubt?  Could America not have remediated our many missteps in the Middle East by treating him better than he treated us – in the name of our ideals?  Do not all individuals deserve dignity before the law – out of respect for the law?  Could he not have been tried in absentia?

Was there no such consul to decision-makers?

Sadly, this “teachable moment” for the world and our children seems to have come down to a gunfight similar to those in video games and action movies where the “gun” is judge, jury and executioner.  This is a false stereotype of America – but one we missed an opportunity to dispel.

America is a cash cow for Pakistan, as we are to other like countries. They are aiding Islamic radicals and corrupt Islamic governments in attempts to keep the U.S. engaged. They do this in order to continue to receive monies and arms from our dysfunctional government. Good grief, it would be cheaper to bomb, when necessary, these despots than to be engaged on their soil for years and years. We, meaning Americans, must call on our government to get out of Afghanistan, the Middle East and North Africa, secure our borders by curbing the influx of those who wish to do us harm. Cheaper and more effective. We can not afford to prop up these failed states. Who exactly benefits, certainly few in those countries, not the American peoples could it be corporations special interests either now or future planning?

Get out of Afghanistan, Iraq, N. Africa now.

John Wheat Gibson, Sr.

May 3, 2011, 4:35 p.m.

The reports all agree that Bin Laden was unarmed when the Seals allegedly murdered him.  Why didn’t they take him prisoner and put him on trial?  Why did they immediately dump his body in the ocean?  A trial could have shown whether Bin Laden really had anything to do with 9-11.  The body reportedly was dumped in the ocean because there was no body.  But what an explosive way to kick off Obomber’s re-election campaign and whip up enthusiasm among the gullible media-brainwashed masses for murdering more sons and grandchildren!

Here comes the righties who refuse to give the PRESIDENT any credit.  If he had been killed or captured to W.‘s term, W would have been god-like.  I think he is still alive with FDR, Hitler and JFK in that secret locked room in the White House basement.

The moment I took notice that this article gave credibility to this giant
hoax, I realized how poorly informed these writers are!  This is by far a garbage piece of journalism equal to the media onslaught of a massive
propaganda campaign designed to boost Obama’s ratings.
Bin Laden died on December 13, 2001 beset with numerous health problems. That these writers have failed to elucidate a known and publicly stated fact already documented reflects a total lack of professionalism
and willingness to submit to the sensationalism of another giant government lie!  Your staff has failed the very audience you deem to serve!

An undead Osama been killed for the last time.
Becoming disapeared, no evidence left - just like at least two airplanes on 9/11 in Shanksville and Pentagon.
The actual president-actor got the live-scene !?
Just like GWB saw it on TV ?!

How things are corresponding.

Dead Osama saved undead Obama ?

Al Qaida can now claim their very own"resurrection” story. lol

Jason Pacifico

May 3, 2011, 5:58 p.m.

Al-Qaeda 100% CIA And Pentagon Run: The “War ...and Osama bin Laden is a “cast of characters” his death is mostly likely a fiction, contrived by the “Corporate State on oil, pipelines(COOP, Caspian Sea, NABUCCO) and a hegemonic move on the region tantamount to the ancient Persian Empire of 550 bc, or the 19th century Ottoman Empire. Astoundingly,  on Psycho Electronic Surveillance (see Osama bin Laden is probably in New York in the surveillance state w/ the NSA/FBI managing (with the Pentagon, joint chief of staff, General Petraus (CIA), Gates, Leon E. Panetta, former presidents, etc.) the war in Afghanistan-Pakistan.

Furthermore, if you read the book by Michel Chossudovski “America’s War on Terrorism” the issue are quite apparent on 9/11 was an inside job orchestrated by the FBI/CIA/NSA to go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan over oil, pipelines and global hegemony.Through meticulous research, the author uncovers a military-intelligence ploy behind the September 11 attacks, and the cover-up and complicity of key members of the Bush Administration. According to Chossudovsky, the “war on terrorism” is a complete fabrication based on the illusion that one man, Osama bin Laden, outwitted the $40 billion-a-year American intelligence apparatus. The “war on terrorism” is a war of conquest. Globalisation is the final march to the “New World Order”, dominated by Wall Street and the U.S. military-industrial complex.

Who cares if Osama swims with the fishes or rots in hell. I don’t even care if we murdered the devil. What is important now is that we get out of Afghanistan and tell Pakistan to go rot or swim with Osama.

Andrew Jones

May 3, 2011, 6:12 p.m.

Reuters put out an article yesterday stating that the US choppers also took away “other male captives”. Other media picked uP and ran the article - but noone seems to have Asked who these people are, and where they are.

Oil price hike in 1974 created huge fresh laundered cash into the banking system.Creation of credit -  fractionlization x 10 on deposits - loaned to countries around the world. Some only just coming out of that debt. read “economic hit men” on how that credit was applied to control countries and their forward to 2000+. Perfect storm of higher oil and commodity prices (fresh laundered cash -tax on every soul on the planet) and Chines usd surpluses….....fractionlize this baby and you can not shovel out cash fast enough to keep up…...well not quite….... u can forget about oreign deals which take to long…...then go for WAR, bonus is that the military industrial complex will support u 150%.......and nothing like a good houseing bubble any amount of plastic for the people. At the end of this excercise , wrap it all up into a bonus package i.e. consolidate the banks to 3-4 majors and have one client…the people of america….via gov. debt. whats wrong with this picture….its so dam obviuos….....and it doesnt matter….cause the Chinese, Indians, Brazilians , russians etc are on to it….......nd that is the point. ..America has served its purpose, or is serving its purpose, but only as a tool and foot soldier to the central bankers over all objective…...which is stated by jason..and GB Snr.” the new one world order”

Can we please get out of Afghanistan now so that our children/grandchildren don’t have to pay anymore of our debts?  We went in there because Taliban wouldn’t hand him over…...remember? Or maybe we were in the wrong country all along.

Jason Pacifico

May 3, 2011, 9:07 p.m.

Al-Qaeda 100% CIA And Pentagon Run: The “War ...and Osama bin Laden is a “cast of characters,” his death is mostly likely a fiction, contrived by the “Corporate State on oil, pipelines (COOP, Caspian Sea, NABUCCO) and a hegemonic move on the region tantamount to the ancient Persian Empire of 550 bc, or the 19th century Ottoman Empire. Astoundingly, on Psycho Electronic Weapons Surveillance (see Osama bin Laden is probably in New York in the surveillance state w/ the NSA/FBI managing (w/ Pentagon, joint chief of staff, General Petraus (CIA), Gates, Leon E. Panetta, former US Presidents, etc.) the war in Afghanistan-Pakistan.
  On Michel Chossudovski’s book “America’s Global War on Terrorism” the issue are quite apparent on 9/11 was an inside job orchestrated by the FBI/CIA/NSA to go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan over oil, pipelines and global hegemony.  According to Chossudovsky, the “war on terrorism” is a complete fabrication Osama bin Laden is probably alive in New York in the surveillance state w/ the NSA/FBI managing (w/ Pentagon
      September 11, 2001 provides a justification for waging a war without borders. Washington’s agenda consists in extending the frontiers of the American Empire to facilitate complete U.S. corporate control, while installing within America the institutions of the Homeland Security State.

your an idiot

May 3, 2011, 11:35 p.m.

Re-read your comments people. The blind vitriol towards opposing rational borders on mental disease. I am apolitical. so stop the accusations about being a “conservative plant” before you start them. most of you need to review your lives. Your naked anger is scary.

Fantastic article, as always.

CIA like terrorrism,cause they are the real moral author in how to use terrorrism to frustrate the population around the world and to start a war.CIA means conflicts in all history,is not a secret service, they are the real terrorism in the world.

Buy stock in Amazon because there will be a huge amount of books sold.

Carlo Caraluzzo

May 4, 2011, 7:39 a.m.

sleeprunning that was very well said but unfortunately you are taking America as actually acting like they claim to act and actually believing in what they claim to believe in. The fact is that throughout our history we have had classes of people to victimize. There has never been a single period in our history when we acted like we claim to act. We have had far too few Presidents like Obama and far more like the Bushes simply because people LIKE cowboys. America is actually one of the most anti intellectual cultures in the world and the ONLY one in which you can be turned down for a job because you are “overqualified”. From the very beginning 80% of our Presidents have been millionaire businessmen who in turn appointed other millionaire businessmen to run the country.

SO,YOUR COMMENT IS CLOSED WITH : WALL STREET-MONEY NEVER SLEEP” THE MOVIE-but pleasure is pleasure;and CIA ditain a bloody pleasure or bloody a brain washhing era,to control,to hypnotize, to create wrong behaviours,to lie anytime, to lough into a public execution against who?

1980: bin laden- CIA- italy
9/11- perfect murder covered by feelings, half from what you seen

behind was nature-firemens; the automatic pilot from the plane with gps coordonates, thats means CIA

Thanks for collecting all those resources in one place. I think you should have included books, for example those by Michael Scheuer, former director of CIA’s Bin Laden Unit. Scheuer spent a lot of time getting inside OBL’s head and is never afraid to criticise American presidents or our policies that fuel [no pun intended] extremism.


May 4, 2011, 8:32 a.m.

Why do so many conspiracy theorists read and comment on ProPublica?
With no interest in anything resembling facts or accuracy, why would you bother going to a site devoted to accuracy?

Very well written. I think this country was set up to embrace the firewall that is ‘gun’ ownership, however, to allow the civilised behaviour you are quoting.

It is the same argument as calling the police for a violent break in, or carry a gun in the house to deal with it yourself, but on the level of Nations.

Who would we have gone to try him in front of? How long would that have lasted? How much of a mockery of our country’s ability to act decisively would that have made.

Our right to self defense, and defense of our homes and property, at the individual and at the State level, are what have allowed our society to mature into the wonderful things you mentioned.

Just like Rome, we are separated as a society from subsistence living, from the ‘barbarians’ as it were because i can’t think of a politically correct way to say it. Our enemies do not exist in the same cushy civilised existence that we do, so to expect them to rationally debate us, and be tolerant of our world views?

It was a good thing that that man died, and a good lesson to our culture about the appropriate time and place for violence.

Jason & John Wheat Gibson:  Give it up…you are the very people who have put this nation in turmoil!!  We don’t need naysayers…we need people who believe in the United States and in our president.


May 4, 2011, 11:43 a.m.

Interesting new research on conspiracy theorists we found:
“Know any conspiracy theorists?  In fact, they were imparting genuinely interesting information — about themselves. New research suggests belief in such theories may reveal a Machiavellian mindset.

  * The researchers found that “personal willingness to engage in the conspiracies predicted endorsement of conspiracy theories.”
  *  So did a propensity to manipulate others for personal gain.
  * “At least among some samples and for some conspiracy theories, the perception that ‘they did it’ is fueled by the perception that ‘I would do it.
  * These studies suggest that people who have more lax personal morality may endorse conspiracy theories to a greater extent because they are, on average, more willing to participate in the conspiracies themselves.”

Glad to provide citation to the study.

It’s very disappointing watching the lack of leadership in the Republican Party and the amount of amnesia they carry on the facts and events in this war on terrror and hunt for Bin Laden.  In 2003 the special forces int Afghanistan had him surrounded and were ready to take him then. The secretary of defense Mr. Rumsfeld and other personnel in the Bush administration decided not to take him out at that time and prolong the hunt for Bin Laden and the war on terror to support a different agenda in Iraq.  The Bush administration did not expect the military, CIA and special forces to be so efficient and to have found Bin Laden so fast.  Now that Obama took care of the problem they want to denied the current administration and leadership the credit of this major accomplishment in the War on Terror.

What about the important people who say the man died in 2001 and give details of his illness?
Ref. David Icke

Why do the majority only believe what is spoon feed by the existing establishment without question… credible experts, whistle blowers, eyewitnesses, trace evidence, contradicting policies and stories mean nothing! History shows us that establishments lie to the people but that also means nothing.

It’s like living in a bad episode of the twilight zone.
My wife calls them weak minded and easily fooled.

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