Michael collins portrait

Nothing new about hiding in plain sight

If you know anything about the struggle for Irish freedom nearly a century ago, you ought to be more than a little skeptical of assertions that Pakistan must have known that Osama bin Laden was hiding in a compound just an hour's drive from the nation's capital.

Maybe somebody in the Pakistani secret service did, in fact, know that the world's most-wanted man was hanging out in his living room, watching television, drinking Coke and eating take-away. It's possible.

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A Philadelphia Inquirer columnist, Trudy Rubin, spoke for many when she recently noted that "few experts familiar with Pakistan doubt that some agents in Pakistan's Interservice Intelligence Agency knew of bin Laden's hideout. How could they not?" Rubin quoted a Pakistani journalist who wrote, "Did they know he was here? Surely they knew he was here."

Many Americans similarly are convinced that somebody in Pakistan knew something. But then again, maybe they didn't. Sure, bin Laden was found in a highly unlikely location - not in a cave in the mountains, but in a lightly guarded compound near an elite Pakistani military academy - but that doesn't necessarily mean that somebody in the Pakistani government was in on the secret.

Maybe bin Laden decided to take a page from another sought-after fugitive with a price on his head - Michael Collins, the IRA's chief strategist during the Black and Tan war from 1919 to 1921. Collins famously chose to hide in plain sight while British intelligence scoured the countryside and tore through flats in Dublin in hopes of finding the man they correctly saw as the brains behind Irish resistance.

Collins, of course, had lots of help in keeping the British guessing. That is precisely the point many American critics have made about the Pakistanis. But Collins also had lots of chutzpah, as they say in West Cork.

Frankly, maybe bin Laden had that kind of nerve as well. It didn't help him much when he received a surprise visit from Uncle Sam, but if bin Laden really did spend five or so years hiding in plain sight without any help from the locals, well, that was no small bit of daring.

Of course, if it's daring you want, then how about those Navy SEALS?

Actually, when it comes to dash and style, bin Laden had nothing on Collins, even if he consciously decided to hide in a quiet town crawling with military officers without so much as a secret handshake or a wink of recognition. After all, it's not as though bin Laden put on a disguise, hopped on a bike, and took a ride into downtown Abbottabad (named after a British army officer no less) - just for the fun of it. Instead, he spent his waking hours behind high security walls that proved pretty darn useless when America's avengers showed up in the dark of night.

Collins, on the other hand, seemed to take delight in taunting his pursuers, even though they didn't even know they were being taunted. As Collins' biographers have shown, the Big Fella really did hide in plain sight - not behind the four walls of a secure compound, but out in the open. Collins rode a bicycle through the streets of Dublin, collected his own intelligence, nodded to the very soldiers and police officers who were desperately looking for him, and managed to suppress a smile as he read about Britain's desperate efforts to find him.

And here's where the two narratives really differ. Collins eventually earned the respect and even the grudging admiration of his pursuers, so much so that they accepted him as a partner during peace talks that led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921.

As for bin Laden, he never attained that kind of stature, and for good reason. By all indications, he was a madman who delighted in the deaths of those whose beliefs he considered heretic, blasphemous, or immoral. Collins was a wanted man because he sought democracy and self-determination in Ireland. Bin Laden was a wanted man because he sought to bringdeath and destruction to his enemies, a group that included a sizeable portion of the world's population.

Bin Laden's choice of a hideout understandably raises suspicions. But as Michael Collins demonstrated in Dublin 90 years ago, sometimes the best place to hide is the one place where few would even think to look. British authorities didn't imagine that Ireland' s most-wanted man was cycling the streets of Dublin in front of their very eyes.

It's possible that bin Laden thought the very same thing. He would hide where nobody would think to look. If that was indeed his calculation, he was right until, that is, the SEALs paid him a visit.