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This article is from the In-Depth Report Osama bin Laden: The Science of His End
60-Second Science

Appointment in Abbottabad

Osama bin Laden's compound was apparently "off the grid" for secrecy. But the hole in the grid attracted the attention it sought to dispel. Steve Mirsky reports

The story is called Appointment in Samarra. A Baghdad merchant sends a servant to buy provisions. While at the market, the servant bumps into Death, who makes a threatening gesture. The servant races back to the merchant, borrows a horse and flees to the city of Samarra for safety.

The Somerset Maughan version of the old fable about fate continues, with Death narrating: “Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, ‘Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?’ ‘That was not a threatening gesture,’ I said, ‘it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.’”

I was reminded of this story by a detail in the accounts of the killing of Osama Bin Laden: his opulent hiding place had no telephone or Internet service. Presumably to minimize the risk of revealing his location through contact with the outside world. But the very lack of such modern technology, intended to avoid attention, attracted it instead. And enabled authorities to keep their long-standing appointment.

—Steve Mirsky

[The above text is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

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