Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Famed skip-tracer: The 'fluke' mistake that cost bin Laden his life

Frank M. Ahearn
For the past two decades, Frank M. Ahearn's life has been devoted to helping  people disappear. And finding those who don't want to be found.

The famed skip-tracer is the author of the best-selling "How to Disappear: Erase Your Digital Footprint, Leave False Trails, and Vanish Without a Trace." Osama bin Laden probably should have read his book.

The man behind the September 11 attacks, who was killed by an elite Navy SEAL unit in Pakistan, did many things right - but his blunders ultimately lead to his death, Ahearn said.
"He was hiding in plain sight, They always thought he was hiding in a cave, which makes more sense. He was such a huge target the government never thought to look in a busy residential neighborhood," Ahearn said.

"At the same time you can't build a compound of that size without attracting attention. I'm surprised someone in the neighborhood didn't ask questions. It was overkill."

Over the years, the expert in the art of vanishing has learned that even the best plan eventually unravels. And, as the saying goes, the devil is ultimately in the details.

In bin Laden's case, that devil was his courier, Ahearn says. Bin Laden lived in a world of electronic white noise - no Internet, no cell phones. "The courier turned out to be his vulnerability," Ahearn said. "Bin Laden stayed away from technology. His courier didn't. And that's what brought him down."

Bin Laden was tracked to the compound 25 miles outside the Pakistani capital after the Central Intelligence Agency followed a series of leads that allowed them to identify the courier, then trace his cell phone calls and movements.

"You are always looking for that fluke, the one thing someone leaves behind. It usually happens. In bin Laden's case, the courier happened. Once he let that courier come into his house, that was his vulnerability. The CIA showed up and saw that whoever was living there was obviously more important than the courier."

About nine years ago Ahearn's business began to shift from tracking to protecting. The advent of Google, social networking and sites like ZabaSearch created a demand among those who don't want to be Facebook friends with the world.

Ahearn's client portfolio includes victims of stalkers, celebrities and international travelers interested in controlling their privacy and combating the digital information known about them. He recently began work on a second book, "How to Deceive," with co-author Kyle Dowling.

"I've come to learn that the only way to combat online information is to deceive," he says. "Those services that offer to clean up your online history for $9.95 don't get it done."

Ahearn says he has watched with interest over the years as the hunt for bin Laden unfolded. And, he said, it played out pretty much as expected based on his experience.

What did bin Laden do right?

"He was living in a place with families, a regular neighborhood setting. He got that part of it right. It was the exact opposite of a cave. You would assume he would be in a place with more protection. And that's where he was being hunted."

Ahearn calls it "disinformation" or misdirection. Doing the opposite of what everyone might suspect.

"That theory of him living in a cave somewhere was disinformation. Whether he did it on purpose, we don't know. It's like the murderer on the run who winds up being a teacher or president of the PTA. Nobody ever questions him. You set up shop in a regular neighborhood and go about business as usual."

And what did he do wrong?

Aside from the courier, Ahearn says bin Laden's self-imposed technology blackout was a mistake.

"Technology is your enemy, but it is also your friend," he says. In Pakistan, for instance, pre-paid cellular phones are the norm. They are difficult, if not impossible, to trace. "Especially if you use dozens of them at the same time and then throw them away."

And connecting with your network over these phones can be as simple as a classified advertisement buried among thousands in an online service like Craigslist.

"You run an ad for a certain make and model of car, for instance. Your people know to look for the ad. Then they just call the number. The courier was the weak link, one that wasn't really needed."

But, he said, it ultimately comes down to what Ahearn calls "the fluke factor." The one break that breaks the case.

Ahearn recalls a case of his own that was at a dead end. "A total dead end," he says. The man on the run owed money, lots of it. But he had vanished into the night.

"I went back to my client who mentioned the guy was a total muscle car fan," Ahearn says. Figuring that motorheads like to read about their hobby, Ahearn began calling magazines. Posing as the "skip," he hit the jackpot on the fourth or fifth call. The circulation department verified the fugitive's mailing address and Ahearn had his man.

"He should have cut that tie to his past life," Ahearn says. "Just like bin Laden should have cut his tie to the courier. That was his fatal mistake."

While it took nearly 10 years to find bin Laden, Ahearn says that the CIA's assets - which include "gobs of money" - made the outcome inevitable.

"There is no perfect way of going on the run, no perfect way of hiding," he says. "We all make mistakes. Bin Laden made his. And it was costly."

The man who has spent most of his adult life tracking those who don't want to be found is quick to praise the CIA for its work in the bin Laden case.

"They know how to use information and how to manipulate," he says. "These guys are the greatest of the greatest."