Kuwaiti’s response was vague but heavy with portent: “I’m back with the people I was with before.”
There was a pause, as if the friend knew that Kuwaiti’s words meant he had returned to bin Laden’s inner circle, and was perhaps at the side of the al-Qaeda leader himself.
The friend replied, “May God facilitate.”
When U.S. intelligence officials learned of this exchange, they knew they had reached a key moment in their decade-long search for al-Qaeda’s founder. The call led them to the unusual, high-walled compound in Abbottabad, a city 35 miles north of Pakistan’s capital.
“This is where you start the movie about the hunt for bin Laden,” said one U.S. official briefed on the intelligence-gathering leading up to the raid on the compound early Monday.
The exchange and several other pieces of information, other officials said, gave President Obama the confidence to launch a politically risky mission to capture or kill bin Laden, a decision he took despite dissension among his key national security advisers and varying estimates of the likelihood that bin Laden was in the compound. The officials would speak about the collection of intelligence and White House decision making only on the condition that they not be named.
U.S. intelligence agencies had been searching for Kuwaiti for at least four years; the call with the friend gave them the number of the courier’s cellphone. Using a vast number of human and technical sources, they tracked Kuwaiti to the compound.
The main three-story building, which had no telephone lines or Internet service, was impenetrable to eavesdropping technology deployed by the National Security Agency.
U.S. officials were stunned to realize that whenever Kuwaiti or others left the compound to make a call, they drove some 90 minutes away before even placing a battery in a cellphone. Turning on the phone made it susceptible to the kind of electronic surveillance that the residents of the compound clearly wished to avoid.
As intelligence officials scrutinized images of the compound, they saw that a man emerged most days to stroll the grounds of the courtyard for an hour or two. The man walked back and forth, day after day, and soon analysts began calling him “the pacer.” The imagery never provided a clear view of his face.
Intelligence officials were reluctant to bring in other means of technical or human surveillance that might offer a positive identification but would risk detection by those in the compound. The pacer never left the compound. His routine suggested he was not just a shut-in but almost a prisoner.
Was the pacer bin Laden? A decoy? A hoax? A setup?
Bin Laden was at least 6-foot-4, and the pacer seemed to have the gait of a tall man. The White House asked the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which provides and analyzes satellite imagery, to determine the pacer’s height. The agency said the man’s height was somewhere between 5-foot-8 and 6-foot-8, according to one official.