Washington: The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) conducted clandestine flights over Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan’s Abbottabad city for months before the May 2 raid on the compound.
Bin Laden, who had evaded capture for a decade, was killed on May 2 in a top-secret US unilateral military operation involving a small team of American Special Forces in Abbottabad.
The CIA employed sophisticated new stealth drone aircraft to fly dozens of secret missions deep into Pakistani airspace and monitor the compound where bin Laden was killed in the May 2 raid, The Washington Post quoted current and former US officials, as saying.
Using unmanned planes designed to evade radar detection and operate at high altitudes, the agency conducted clandestine flights over the compound for months before the May 2 assault in an effort to capture high-resolution video that satellites could not provide, the report said.
The aircraft allowed the CIA to glide undetected beyond the boundaries that Pakistan has long imposed on other US drones, including the Predators and Reapers that routinely carry out strikes against militants near the border with Afghanistan, it added.
The agency turned to the new stealth aircraft “because they needed to see more about what was going on” than other surveillance platforms allowed, said a former US official familiar with the details of the operation.
“It’s not like you can just park a Predator overhead — the Pakistanis would know,” added the former official, who, like others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The monitoring effort also involved satellites, eavesdropping equipment and CIA operatives based at a safe house in Abbottabad, the city where bin Laden was located, according to the report.
The extensive aerial surveillance after the compound was identified in August helps explain why the CIA went to Congress late last year, seeking permission to transfer tens of millions of dollars within agency budgets to fund intelligence-gathering efforts focused on the complex, the report said.
The stealth drones were used on the night of the raid, providing imagery that US President Barack Obama and his national security team members appear in photographs to have been watching as US Navy SEALs descended on the compound shortly after 1 am in Pakistan.
The drones were also equipped to eavesdrop on electronic transmissions, enabling US officials to monitor the Pakistani response, said the report.
According to it, the CIA never obtained a photograph of bin Laden at the compound or other direct confirmation of his presence before the assault, but the agency concluded after months of watching the complex that the figure frequently seen pacing back and forth was probably the world’s most wanted terrorist.
The CIA’s repeated secret incursions into Pakistan’s airspace underscore the level of distrust between the US and Pakistan- often described as a key counterterrorism ally, and one that has received billions of dollars in US aid.