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Osama bin Laden

Osama bin Laden


While the specific systems and devices used during the assault on Osama bin Laden's compound on May 1, 2011 remain closely guarded secrets, media outlets are speculating about the technologies used during the raid and also employed by intelligence-gathering organizations in the months and years leading up to the May 1 event.

For example, media reports indicate that the U.S. Navy's Black Hawk helicopters used advanced stealth technology, developed in a classified military project, to evade detection. One of the helicopters reportedly crash-landed inside the bin Laden compound and had to be destroyed with explosives by the Navy Seals team. The main section was destroyed, but a large portion of the helicopter's tail remained intact and was extensively photographed, leading to media speculation that the airship was a modified Black Hawk capable of moving quietly and mitigating radar and infrared detection.

Media reports also indicate that the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel, a remote-controlled aerial drone with stealth capabilities, was used during the raid to provide surveillance information to the Navy Seals on the ground. In addition, the Seals reportedly used helmet-mounted cameras capable of streaming live video feeds to the U.S. officials monitoring the raid in the Washington D.C. situation room.

Navy Seals are said to use a variety of other advanced devices, including small surveillance robots developed by Recon Robotics and fast-tint eyewear that can change lens color instantly to accommodate varying brightness in different environments. But information about the specific devices used during the raid has not been disclosed.

Prior to the raid, state-of-the-art technology is said to have played an important role in finding the al Qaida leader, who had long evaded detection. Over the years, there have been many estimates about bin Laden's possible location. In 2009, for example, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, used a probabilistic model to determine there would be an 88.9% chance that bin Laden would be in a city fewer than 300 kilometers from Tora Bora, where he was last seen. The site of bin Laden's compound, located in Abbottabad, Pakistan, lies within that estimated zone.

But it was not until 2010, when, according to statements made by U.S. government officials, technology used by the U.S. National Security Agency discovered a link between Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti and bin Laden. Through voice and data analysis, the NSA identified al-Kuwaiti as bin Laden's courier after al-Kuwaiti made a phone call to a person under surveillance. That connection by the NSA is said to have led directly to the discovery of bin Laden's compound.

"Data analytics are the key to combating terrorism, and were essential to finding bin Laden," says William Pulleyblank, professor of operations research at the United States Military Academy, West Point. Pulleyblank says that the data collected from different sources, including video surveillance, transcriptions of informant interviews, and location observations, required sophisticated technologies to piece together patterns and leads.

New technologies, explains Pulleyblank, are enabling the intelligence community to analyze such data more effectively and even manage streaming data more efficiently, making it easier to add new sources and quickly incorporate new analysis algorithms. One example Pulleyblank cites is IBM's Infosphere Streams technology, which is designed to analyze streaming data from a broad variety of sources. "Systems such as this require technical innovation plus significant engineering advances to make it possible to rapidly deal with large amounts of data," he says.

A major source of such data is, of course, social-networking sites, which have facilitated communication for recent news-making events in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere. And in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 1, 2011, a Twitter user only later discovered that he had been posting to the social network about the raid on the bin Laden compound while it was happening, several hours prior to the event breaking in the mainstream media.

As Twitter and other social-networking sites have become increasingly popular as communication channels for eyewitness information, advanced technologies capable of identifying potentially valuable data in a sea of personal chatter may become increasingly important. Pulleyblank says that analysis of the structure and dynamics of social networks is underway, and is already proving to be useful as the intelligence community begins to rely more on automated technologies that can analyze data from these networks quickly, but not yet in real time.

"Social networks are turning into a very important area of analysis," says Pulleyblank. "We are developing systems capable of analyzing this data on platforms that will enable us to come much closer to real-time processing."


Further Reading
"Top secret stealth helicopter program revealed in Osama bin Laden raid: experts," ABC News, May 5, 2011.

"The Navy Seal team 6: weapons and gadgets that brought down Osama bin Laden," ABC News, May 3, 2011.

"US Navy Seals: five technology tools of the special forces," The Telegraph, May 5, 2011.

"Bin Laden tracked and slain by technology he helped to promote," Philadelphia Inquirer, May 4, 2011.

"ONR's TechSolutions providing Seals with new glasses that change lens color on the fly," Office of Naval Research, January 27, 2011.

"Osama bin Laden's death reveals the value of state-of-the-art technology," May 6, 2011, Venture Beat.

"Tweeting the raid: social media, national security, and eyes on the ground," Newswise, May 2, 2011.

"Geographers had predicted Osama's possible whereabouts,"” Science, May 2, 1011.


Based in Los Angeles, Kirk L. Kroeker is a freelance editor and writer specializing in science and technology.


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