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Making sense of the Osama op through tweets

May 05, 2011 13:58 IST
The credit for breaking the news about the raid on Osama bin Laden's mansion in Abbottabad can probably be given to Twitter. IT consultant Sohaib Athar, who live tweeted the operation (without knowing it), is an internet star today. Interestingly, there were others also who wrote about the operation, and a reconstruction of all the tweets brings to the fore the loopholes in America's bin Laden story, says analyst B Raman

Chirpstory is a website that facilitates the reconstruction of events through a study of tweets. It has compiled some 'on-the-ground tweets from Abbottabad, Pakistan, posted by some well-informed journalists and researchers'. Most of the tweets discuss the coming down of one of the helicopters participating in the raid. They discuss the following questions without being able to come to definitive answers:

'Was it an American or a Pakistani chopper? Did it come down due to technical reasons or was it brought down by ground fire? What was the source of the explosions heard around the same time?'

There are also references in the tweets of a blackout in the town, roads being blocked, telephones going dead and sirens being sounded. It is not clear whether these things happened during the raid or after the US choppers had left with bin Laden's body.

A taxi-driver has been quoted as saying, "The army has cordoned off the crash area and is conducting door-to-door searches in the surrounding." This was possibly after the raids.

A sweeper said, "A family also died in the crash, and one of the helicopter's pilots got away and is now being searched for."

There is also a reference to a plane flying over Abbottabad, but it is not clear whether this was a Pakistani or an American plane and whether it was during or after the raid.

During a media briefing on May 2, John Brennan, assistant to United States President Barack Obama on homeland security, was asked about the incident involving the downed chopper. He replied, "Seeing that helicopter in a place and in a condition that it wasn't supposed to be, it raised a concern -- at least for me, and I know for the other people in the room -- that now we have to rely on the contingency plan. And thankfully, they were as able to carry out that contingency plan as they were the initial plan."

What place and condition did one of the two helicopters find itself in, forcing the Navy SEALs to move from the initial plan to the contingency plan? How did the contingency plan differ from the initial plan? Brennan did not give these details, nor did the media pose these questions. Where did that chopper land that it was destroyed and abandoned?

Was it in bin Laden's compound or elsewhere? Twitter gives differing versions of where the chopper crashed. One of the tweets says it was very close to the Pakistan military academy.

According to briefings by US officials, Pakistan was not associated with the planning and execution of the operation to prevent any leaks. It was informed of the raid after the US Navy SEALs team returned to Afghanistan. 

To quote Brennan, "We didn't contact the Pakistanis until after all of our people, all of our aircraft, were out of the Pakistani airspace. At the time, Pakistanis were reacting to an incident that they knew was taking place in Abbottabad. Clearly, we were concerned that if Pakistanis decided to scramble jets or whatever else, they didn't know who were on those jets. They had no idea about who might have been on there, whether it be the US or somebody else.

"So, we were watching and making sure that our people and our aircraft were able to get out of the Pakistani airspace. And thankfully, there was no engagement with Pakistani forces. This operation was designed to minimise the prospects, the chances of engagement with Pakistani forces. It was done very well, and thankfully no Pakistani forces were engaged and there were no other individuals who were killed apart from those in the compound," he added.

Brennan said that Pakistan was not informed till "all of our aircraft were out of Pakistani airspace". This would indicate there were other US planes and choppers in the Pakistani air space during the raid.

One US claim can be accepted without raising any doubt -- that it was purely a US operation with no involvement of Pakistan in the planning and execution. The problem arises with reference to the US claim that Pakistan was informed only after the US Navy SEALs team re-entered the Afghan airspace. The entire operation in Abbottabad itself lasted at least for an hour -- 40 minutes for the firefight and at least 20 minutes for the time taken by the choppers to manoeuvre. During this period, there was the heavy noise made by the choppers as they descended near bin Laden's house, the noise made by the crashing chopper and the noise of the firefight.

And this can be confirmed from an interesting tweet. One of the tweeters said, "It was too noisy to be a spy craft, or, a very poor spy craft it was." He added, "I started noticing the helicopter when the noise got irritating."

Of course this raises another question -- If the helicopters were so noisy, how is it that the local security including those in police stations and the military academy did not hear the noise and try to make inquiries about its source?

How come, during the duration of the operation, none of the security personnel posted in Abbottabad for the protection of the military academy and the senior army officers living in the town and in the campus noticed that there was something amiss and alerted the local units of the armed forces, paramilitary forces and the police?

Only two explanations are possible: Either there was total security incompetence at Abbottabad, or the local security had been told by the Pakistani military leadership not to worry and keep quiet. If the second explanation is correct, the Pakistanis must have known of the impending raid before it took place.

B Raman