Tag Archives: bin laden
Forever Overhead: Pakistan

Forever Overhead: Pakistan

Drones, reactors, floods, and Usama bin Laden’s Google Earth debut–and you don’t have to work for a covert agency to see (most of) them…

The official US position on drone strikes in Pakistan is that they are “cross-border”, i.e. launched from bases in Afghanistan. However, Google Earth images obtained in 2009 by Pakistan’s The News and The London Times clearly showed Predator drones at Shamsi airfield North of Quetta. Denials were more pointed after an unwitting “outing”/mistake by Senator Feinstein when she said at a hearing (also in 2009), “As I understand it, these are flown out of a Pakistani base”. Her office attempted to walk the utterance back as well.

The aircraft are of course no longer visible on Google Earth, though new structures have since appeared. Ogleearth has a fairly enjoyable speculation and wonderment-rich post on the provenance of the images.

New America Foundation maintains a marvelous visualization/Google Maps mashup of drone strikes on Pakistani territory, with all available supplemental data on location/combatant vs. civilian casualties, etc. 2004-present.

Our study shows that the 244 reported drone strikes in northwest Pakistan, including 31 in 2011, from 2004 to the present have killed approximately between 1,493 and 2,379 individuals, of whom around 1,200 to 1,908 were described as militants in reliable press accounts. Thus, the true non-militant fatality rate since 2004 according to our analysis is approximately 20 percent. In 2010, it was more like five percent. [As of May 27, 2011]

The Nuclear Program
Newsweek recently reported on discoveries made by examining commercially-obtained imagery of the Khushab site. The images show construction (circa April 2011) of a fourth reactor for plutonium production (via reprocessing).

Not only does this represent expansion of the program itself, but also points to yet another track for the production of nuclear material. Heretofore (really, circa 10-15 years ago) the putatively prodigious output of Pakistan’s production had been based on Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) created in the enrichment process stolen, mastered, refined and in addition sold (sometimes in “turnkey” fashion including not just plans and the like but access to networks of businessmen who could illicitly provide the makings of similar programs)–thanks to the strikingly James Bond-bad guy-like A.Q. Khan–to a rogue’s gallery of countries including North Korea, Iran (where the P-1 became the Ir-1), and Libya (which, fortunately, “came clean” and sent its centrifuges to Tennessee, where good use is apparently being made of them–I imagine at more than one point in the last month or so the Colonel has been wondering if his short-lived return from pariah status was worth it).

Now, Pakistan’s diversification from just HEU into plutonium isn’t news, but again, the high points here are the pace of expansion and, the ostensibly public nature of the imagery and discovery (though seriously, one has to wonder how closely they were led to acquire imagery at this particular time from this particular site, and by whom).

I’m not going to belabor the plausibility and nuances of the “nightmare scenario” of loose (or acquisition-abetted) nukes at this point, but I will link to Sanger/Broad’s NYT article about US efforts to assist Pakistan in securing their arsenal, going so far as to offer assistance in developing PALs (Permissive Action Links–basically, as close as you will get to the real-life version of what are colloquially referred to as “launch codes” in popular culture). One interesting International Law nuance here is the question of whether giving PALs (or even assisting in the development of the technology) to a NPT non-signatory is a violation of our obligations under article 1 of said treaty.

Darn it, I was looking to some more canonical source, but the Wikipedia entry on PALs is pretty good.

Courtesy of NASA we have some astonishing imagery which brings home the scope of destruction of the 2010 flooding in the districts around the Indus River. Despite being a “show, don’t tell” advocate, the stats are hard to resist.

  • Approximately 1800 killed, BUT ~20 MILLION impacted
  • 1.5M displaced
  • 1.89M homes destroyed
  • An estimated $500 million crop damage (and of course let’s remember that you needn’t be anywhere near the vicinity of the flooding to be impacted by the absence of the food derived from those crops)
  • 5.3M jobs lost or attenuated, total economic impact estimated $43B; Pakistan’s GDP dropped or will bottom out 6-9% lower (obviously, taking us well into negative growth)

One unfortunately strategic beneficiary might be the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP, AKA “The Pakistani Taliban”), as they were able to provide assistance where the government couldn’t; this affords them a source of legitimacy they don’t normally pursue, more in the manner of Hizbullah in Southern Lebanon (which provides civil services there in absence–sometimes ensuring it–of the government; this is why you may sometimes hear Southern Lebanon referred to as “a state within a state”). As a result we have “inverse counterinsurgency” and a can count a strengthened TTP as one result of the floods. Also, government forces were distracted from their counter-TTP efforts by the floods.

Usama bin Laden Makes the Google Earth Scene
Some will remember a prior Contours of Catastrophe post musing about the familiarity of the outline of bin Laden’s compound. Well, the entrenchment of the shape and relevance of Google Earth continues apace–per geography.pk:

A milestone, all thanks to Bin Laden’s death perhaps that Google has “pre-announced” satellite imagery update for first time ever. This imagery update as expected includes the updated imagery for Abbottabad town of Pakistan that has gained attentions in recent days.

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Rule of Law vs. Outlaw

Rule of Law vs. Outlaw

I’d thought this was far enough down in the weeds that I’d have a couple of days before posting on this; alas, Raffi Khatchadourian and The New Yorker blog flushed me out:

The executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, has criticized the White House for its public handling of the killing. He recently wrote on Twitter, “White House still hasn’t clarified: OBL ‘resisted’ but how did he pose lethal threat to US forces on scene? Need facts.” This may be a worthwhile thing to know for broader ethical or policy or tactical reasons, but it is not the most pertinent question when judging the action against our existing military laws. The key legal question is not whether bin Laden was armed before he was killed, or even whether or not he posed an immediate “lethal threat,” but whether he was “positively identified” before the trigger was pulled, and whether Holder is accurate when he says that “there was no indication” that bin Laden was actively attempting to surrender.

Al Jazeera/AP

When video of UBL’s killing comes to light, a great deal of attention will be paid to his actions, gestures, and utterances before he was shot, and the question of just how one might indicate an intent to surrender, especially if they’re unarmed–or even what it means to be armed. And surrender is really about all he’d have going for him as far as legal grievances against the US might go.

I’m not sure what you might read/see/hear, but this was not an “assassination” (particularly not a political one) and therefore by no means covered by Reagan’s Executive Order 12333 (which basically reiterated Ford’s EO 11905 and Carter’s EO 12036). See this wonderful summary from the Congressional Research Service on EO 12333, where the narrowness of the proscription is detailed.

It is worth pointing out that this started with Ford’s EO, a response to the findings of the Church Commission (AKA “the family jewels”) on a host of previously-covert CIA activities the political ramifications of which are without question. And the Church Commission convened in an atmosphere of deep mistrust of the government, the CIA, and the FBI post-Watergate (particularly in response to a series of Seymour Hersh exposes showing that the CIA had engaged in domestic spying).


A summary of the family jewels–long kept from even FOIA-based release–by National Security Archive says:

The Central Intelligence Agency violated its charter for 25 years until revelations of illegal wiretapping, domestic surveillance, assassination plots, and human experimentation led to official investigations and reforms in the 1970s.

At any rate, we aren’t dealing with assassination, so I digress.

Khatchadourian also quotes himself in an earlier article and explains how conventional Rules of Engagement (ROEs)–as we might think of them–don’t apply to UBL and his ilk, introducing “status-based” ROEs:

For many years, soldiers have also been permitted to kill people because of who they are, rather than what they are doing—such people are “status-based targets.” During the Second World War, an American infantryman could shoot an S.S. officer who was eating lunch in a French café without violating the Law of War, so long as he did not actively surrender. The officer’s uniform made it obvious that he was the enemy. In Iraq, the R.O.E. listed about two dozen “designated terrorist organizations,” including Al Qaeda, and, if it can be proved that someone is a member of one of these groups, that person can legally be killed. For a time, the R.O.E. designated as a status-based target any armed man wearing the uniform of the Mahdi Army—the militia led by Moqtada al-Sadr. (After Sadr called a truce, in 2004, the militia was provisionally taken off the list.) But most insurgent groups in Iraq don’t wear uniforms, so their members must be “positively identified” by informants or other forms of intelligence before they can legally be killed. An insurgent is positively identified if there is “reasonable certainty” that he belongs to a declared hostile group.

Armed or not, UBL was a combatant, or target, under the status-based ROEs. Also, while the post-9/11 AUMF granted by Congress is sufficiently broad, the rules of Non-International Armed Conflict (NIAC) allow us to engage combatants across sovereign borders (NIAC is, perhaps obviously, distinguished from the laws of International Armed Conflict–IAC–which, for example in the instance of Israeli actions against Palestinians, are quite constraining). Israel cannot declare war against non-state actors and comply or expect compliance with laws under IAC. Again, this might seem a bit wonk-ish, recent events and questions of legality and territory in the Gaza Flotilla incident are a practical case study (how can Israel blockade or consider illegal–and attack–shipments bound for what is legally its own territory?)

I do always feel sorry for those IDF guys being attacked with plastic deck chairs...

BTW, references to diaries with operation details/plans and some video clips help buttress a case that bin Laden was still operationally active, increasing the legitimacy of targeting him as an NIAC combatant.

An active Navy JAG sums up–eloquently–the vox populi vs. the law:

In responses to articles and blog posts addressing the legality of the killing of bin Laden, there have been countless variations on the theme that it just doesn’t matter whether it was legal.  Illustrative of a large number of comments, one unhelpful commentator said: ”Who gives a shit?”  Another uninformed commenter suggested:  “Who cares – there’s no such thing as international law.”  And then there are the understandable comments by those who lost loved ones on 9/11 who simply agree with President Obama’s remark to the nation: “Justice has been done.”

To me, the question of legality is not a difficult one.  I accept the United States’ position that we are in an ongoing armed conflict with al Qaeda and therefore conclude Osama bin Laden was a lawful military target (regardless of whether he was armed or otherwise threatening to the SEAL’s who killed him) so long as he had not clearly expressed an intention to surrender or was not otherwise hors de combat.

BTW, I really can’t recommend some of the posting on topics of International Law at Opinio Juris highly enough. One of the main authors on IR law there, Kenneth Anderson, offers this quite decent and easy read on the topic.

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The Contours of Catastrophe

The Contours of Catastrophe

Last night I suggested that the outline of UBL’s compound had–at least to me–already taken on an archetypal aspect. The inverted delta with one squared-off side, so frequently cited that the main editorial option is what color to outline the perimeter in. Remove the background, and that outline’s been burned into my subconscious; so deeply that it might surprise me later to find that it’s still recognizable.

Another image with a simple, archetypal, vector-traceable contour is the iconic image of the Challenger explosion. Not the instant of the explosion, and not the images from moments later when the solid rocket boosters have begun to spiral. No, that decisive instant just after the explosion; the trail up to the bulge of the initial explosion, the now shuttle-less trajectory of the boosters like devil’s horns… this is the canonical image.

I remember the time when a friend of mine had just returned from Florida; one of his family’s destinations was the shuttle launch. I remember the terrible familiarity to the sequence of the photos, the manual animation that lead inexorably to the image above. I recall thinking at that moment–quite naively–“That looks just like the photos in the newspaper!” Indeed, at a distance of nearly 10 miles, the position of the news cameras wasn’t particularly privileged.

I could wax at length now about iconic photographs of disaster, catastrophe, or otherwise singular events, and the way that there’s so often one of many that becomes the image. The Hindenburg, Oswald, Kent State, Birmingham (to name just a few–seriously; I am, after all, doing my best to avoid an explosion of musings)…

I will, however, refer back to what has already become–at least temporarily–one of the iconic photographs of this event, and that’s the one from the Situation Room (not the sitroom proper–it appears to be the “small conference room” in the Situation Room complex). I could comment on the countenances of various individuals in the picture (while HRC’s gasping gesture steals the show, to me Bob Gates is the most interesting), or the fact that just this evening I noticed a burn bag in the photo (next to Obama’s knee)–but no: the star of the moment is Pete Souza. Some readers know my admiration for Souza and the now-famous WH Flickr photostream, but it really grows when I think of the circumstances of this image. On at least one of the screens we have helmet-mounted footage of the killing of Osama bin Laden, nearly in “real time” (20-minute delay); yet he’s focused on the reaction of the people in the room. He’s the only one not looking at those screens. Phenomenal.

BTW, those of you with Netflix accounts might be interested to see the Nat’l Geographic fluff-doc “The President’s Photographer”. Soft as down it may be, but great fun to watch, and revealing of the massive amount of material Souza shoots and the amount of time he spends with the President (of course more than Michelle; perhaps second only to Reggie Love).

Getting back to catastrophe, disaster, spectacle and iconic locales, I’ll end with a reference to Constantin Boym’s Buildings of Disaster series. Boym:

“We think that souvenirs are important cultural objects which can store and communicate memories, emotions and desires. Buildings of Disaster are miniature replicas of famous structures where some tragic or terrible events happened to take place. Some of these buildings may have been prized architectural landmarks, others, non-descript, anonymous structures. But disaster changes everything. The images of burning or exploded buildings make a different, populist history of architecture, one based on emotional involvement rather than on scholarly appreciation. In our media-saturated time, the world disasters stand as people’s measure of history, and the sites of tragic events often become involuntary tourist destinations.”

My favorite? The Watergate.

Also, since I mentioned the shuttle SRBs, this is probably one of the few opportunities I’ll have to mention the NASA cameras that show the spent rockets’ slow descent Earthward. There’s a combined video of both the fore- and aft- facing cameras, but I think nothing compares to a to the poignancy of one rocket’s lonely descent.


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Forever Overhead: Osama bin Laden’s Compound

Forever Overhead: Osama bin Laden’s Compound

It’s been barely two days and already the shape of UBL’s compound has begun to take on an archetypal aspect, like Chernobyl or the gazebo at Dealy Plaza.


I’ll attach a number of my favorite visualizations and annotated maps below, but first have to quote Sara Reardon’s article about a geography professor who predicted UBL’s location back in 2009 (h/t Matthew Yglesias):

According to a probabilistic model they created, there was an 80.9% chance that bin Laden was hiding out in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where he was killed last night. And they correctly predicted that he would be in a large town, not a cave.

… Based on information from satellites and other remote sensing systems, and reports on his movements since his last known location, the students created a probabilistic model of where he was likely to be. Their prediction of a town was based on a geographical theory called “island biogeography”: basically, that a species on a large island is much less likely to go extinct following a catastrophic event than a species on a small one.

Returning to the titular topic, The Atlantic notes that the compound has already been notated on Google maps.

NYT has a typically wonderful wonderful set of visualizations, again cementing that delta-shaped perimeter in our minds.


I’m re-linking to WaPo’s rundown of the event, taking particular note of the details the preparation and burial of UBL’s body. This is because a dear friend had remarked on being reminded of the Iliad, specifically the dragging of Hector’s body by Achilles (now, though his man could–and probably has–read the Iliad in the original Greek, he assures me the sequence is quite well-known and requires no special knowledge of Homer). The Wikipedia summary is worth quoting:

After his death, Achilles slits Hector’s heels and passes the girdle that Ajax had given Hector through the slits of the heels. He then fastens the girdle to his chariot and drives his fallen enemy through the dust to the Danaan camp. For the next twelve days, Achilles mistreats the body, but it remains preserved from all injury by Apollo and Aphrodite.

This is the first of a series (under the rubric “Forever Overhead”) about satellite imagery, drones, aerial sensing–any overhead technology where the seen subject may be unaware of the specific instances of that seeing (a sort of vertical Panopticon). And also, the sometimes power-balancing effect of public access to these data. The topic for me is an old one, and, incidentally, the title is the same ad my favorite David Foster Wallace story.

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The Death of Osama bin Laden

The Death of Osama bin Laden

Hearing of crowds gathering outside the White House, or chants of, “USA! USA!” at a ball game was that the primary beneficiary (or even impacted party) will be Americans themselves. The effect is largely symbolic: this is more a sort of closure for us rather than a strategic victory in the pursuit of the “Global War on Terror(ism)” (GWoT).

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

There’s a message here about our willingness to act unilaterally (it’s not clear whether the government of Pakistan approved the action or we have a de jure violation of sovereignty)–though it’s not really as if that was in doubt. And interestingly, the apparently stable residence of UBL was not in a cave somewhere on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border but not far from Islamabad–this puts a fine point on the reliability of our Pakistani partners. One can imagine both good and bad outcomes for that relationship as a result of UBL’s killing, and unfortunately my confidence is wholeheartedly for the former.


A dear friend just sent me this  pic from the decisive moment–which I’d missed because I was writing this. Incidentally, they appear to be in the briefing room aside the Situation Room. No idea why they’re not in the sitroom proper…

But this will not be a “decapitation” by any stretch of the imagination; there are a number of affiliates outside of AQ Prime, and the likelihood that they’ve acted without any direction from the franchisee is extremely high. AQAP, AQIM, what’s left of AQI. And then there are those more loosely affiliated (at least nominally): al-Shabaab, LeT, Abu Sayyaf, Islamic Jihad (in Egypt), the IMU, etc. The diversity of the groups associated (even barely) with AQ Prime puts the geographic and ideological diversity of these groups in sharp relief and should make us carefully weigh the costs versus the benefits of how we engage them.

There was something interesting in Obama’s speech:

Then, last August, after years of painstaking work by our intelligence community, I was briefed on a possible lead to bin Laden. It was far from certain, and it took many months to run this thread to ground. I met repeatedly with my national security team as we developed more information about the possibility that we had located bin Laden hiding within a compound deep inside of Pakistan. And finally, last week, I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action, and authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice.


The idea that the Obama administration was following this lead for months and pursued this degree of certainty before acting might temper old accusations of “dithering” regarding the delays in his 2009 Afghanistan strategy review (detailed in somewhat delightfully excruciating detail in Woodward’s Obama’s Wars). Or perhaps the “behind-the-scenes” insights offered by the book are a red herring. Or perhaps the duration reflects an effort to protect “sources and methods” as well as to “run this thread to ground”. One might hope there’ll be a Woodward accounting informed by another gang of self-serving (but on the whole honest, or at least mutually-balancing) insiders.

The elimination of UBL is yet another challenge to AQ sub-narratives (in this case, the inviolability of the figurehead). Al Zawahiri (now probably himself the “new #1 target) also took a hit when the government of Egypt was overthrown without resort to the methods prescribed by his prior affiliation, Islamic Jihad.

No doubt the GWoT has not been (nor will it be) “won”, but perhaps this symbolic event will serve as sufficient pretext for us to withdraw from some of the most costly and unattainable aspects of our engagement in Afghanistan.

Also, on the question of the reliability of our Pakistani partners, Steve Coll asks:

The initial circumstantial evidence suggests… 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. If I were a prosecutor at the United States Department of Justice, however, I would be tempted to call a grand jury. Who owned the land on which the house was constructed? How was the land acquired, and from whom? Who designed the house, which seems to have been purpose-built to secure bin Laden? Who was the general contractor? Who installed the security systems? Who worked there? Are there witnesses who will now testify as to who visited the house, how often, and for what purpose?

WaPo’s got an interesting set of graphics and text, particularly concerning the ritual preparation and burial of bin Laden’s body.


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