“May 1, 2011. The Take Down of Bin Laden.” (Excerpt from Afghanistan Declassified. A Guide to America’s Longest War).
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attack CIA Counterterrorist Center chief Cofer Black told CIA SAD (Special Activities Division) operatives that were deploying to Afghanistan that he wanted them to “capture Bin Laden, kill him and bring his head back in a box on dry ice." President Bush famously pledged to get Bin Laden “dead or alive.” But Bin Laden, the focus of the largest manhunt in modern history, was allowed to escape from his border base at Tora Bora in December 2001. From there he made his way into Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (FATA) and then disappeared into thin air for almost a decade. Every day, week, month and year bin Laden remained at large served as a victory for Al Qaeda and inspiration for extremists who subscribed to this warrior-prophet’s struggle against the American hubal (idol of arrogance). His sermons, threats and mocking were also a finger in the eye to the grieving post 9/11 Americans and source of funds for Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies.
While there were reports of Al Qaeda number two Ayman al Zawaheri being active in the tribal agency of Bajaur (which resulted in two attempts to kill him in drone strikes) there were was no information on Bin Laden’s whereabouts in the succeeding years. In one of his numerous videos sent to threaten the West and garner support from followers, Bin Laden and Zawaheri were, however, seen walking together on the side of a rocky hill leading some to speculate that they were both still in FATA. There were several FATA-based Pakistani Taliban commanders who were known to protect Arabs in their midst so most assumed that Bin Laden would not venture out from this protected tribal zone.
For this reason most analysts felt bin Laden was in the FATA, but this was pure speculation because he proved impossible to trace. It quickly became obvious that Bin Laden was incredibly security conscious and was not going to make the same mistake as Pakistani Taliban leader Nek Muhammad who was killed by a drone after the US honed in on his cell phone signal. Bin Laden only communicated using couriers.
So America’s counter-terrorist agencies focused on trying to find the identity of Bin Laden’s couriers. If they could find Bin Laden’s messengers, they might be able to find Bin Laden himself.
US counter-intelligence officials began to question such high profile detainees at Guantanamo Bay as Khaled Sheikh Muhammad and former Al Qaeda number three, Abu Faraj al Libi, about the identities of Bin Laden’s couriers. During this interrogation process Khaled Sheikh Muhammad and Abu Faraj al Libi held out information on one courier whose kunya (nickname) had been mentioned by another captive. The interrogators grew suspicious that the courier who Khaled Sheikh Muhammad and Libi were covering up for might be important and might even have direct contact with Bin Laden.
In 2007 the real name and identity of the courier was discovered, Sheikh Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti, a Pashtun who had been brought up in Kuwait. But it proved all but impossible to find the courier in Pakistan, a country of 170 million people.
Then, in August 2010, the Kuwaiti courier finally tripped up when he answered a call from another Al Qaeda operative who was already being monitored by the Americans. The courier was quickly traced from the location of his phone call in Peshawar, western Pakistan to a compound in a town in northeastern Pakistan known as Abbottabad. When the American spy satellites began to monitor the compound where the courier had answered the phone the CIA and NSA grew increasingly excited. Ahmed al Kuwaiti was living in a recently built, walled concrete compound surrounded by 18 foot walls with barbed wire on them. Satellite images also showed images of a tall man going for walks in the compound garden (bin Laden was said to be over 6 foot four inches). The compound, which was built in 2005, seemed to have been constructed to house someone important. Most interestingly, the Americans soon discovered that the compound did not have phone or internet connections which could be tapped and monitored. This seemed bizarre in a mansion worth over 1 million dollars and indicated that its owners had something to hide.
To investigate the matter further in September 2010 the CIA set up a surveillance safe house near the compound to monitor its inhabitants. The CIA agents quickly began to notice other strange behavior, such the fact that the compound’s inhabitants burnt their trash instead of having it picked up like everyone else in the neighborhood. The inhabitants of the compound also kept to themselves and rarely left it except to go shopping or to attend Friday prayers at the mosque. The courier and his brother also did not have jobs.
There seemed to be three families living in the compound. The family of the courier Ahmed al Kuwaiti, his brother’s family, and a third family that seemed to be roughly the size of the family bin Laden was estimated to have traveling with him. After months of surveillance by spies and satellites the CIA were said to be 60-80% sure that bin Laden was hiding there. This was enough certainty to convince the US president to launch an attack on the compound.
By late April 2011 President Obama held several meetings with his national security team to plan an attack on the Abbottabd compound. While a strike by a remote control Reaper drone seemed to be the most obvious path to take in light of Obama’s stepped up use of drones against Al Qaeda this was quickly ruled out. The Reaper did not carry powerful enough munitions to totally destroy the strongly built compound. In addition, the slow moving Reaper drone would have been easily detectable on Pakistani radars. Since the town of Abbottabad was located in the so-called Air Defense Intercept Zone for the Pakistani capital of Islamabad the drone would have been quickly shot down.
President Obama that consulted with General Bill McRaven, the head of Joint Special Operations Command, the unit tasked with organizing the mission, about the prospect of using B-2 stealth bombers to bomb the compound. But the heavy payload dropped by the bombers would kill all 22 people said to be in the compound, including women and children, and neighbors. The bombs would also obliterate Bin Laden’s body thus preventing the CIA from getting any DNA proof of his death. Al Qaeda could then claim he was still alive and well and Pakistanis would be infuriated by the deaths of so many innocents.
In the end Obama decided to approve a third approach that was fraught with risks, a helicopter-borne “capture or kill” raid on the house. There were two previous debacles stemming from similar heliborne missions that pointed out the dangers of such a risky decision. The first was President Jimmy Carter’s fateful decision in 1980 to send in helicopters to free fifty two US hostages being held in Tehran, Iran by Iranian militants. Unfortunately, during the operation known as Eagle Claw one of the helicopters carrying elite Delta Forces crashed into a fuel transport plane killing eight soldiers and destroying both aircraft. The mission was subsequently aborted and Iranian news proudly broadcast images of the blackened remains of the aircraft in the Iranian desert. As the man who took the risky decision to order the raid, Carter took the blame for the debacle and was heavily defeated by Ronald Reagan in the presidential elections held that year.
The second incident that set a dire precedent for Obama was the September 3, 2008 raid by three to five Black Hawk helicopters carrying US Navy SEAL Special Forces on a Taliban-controlled town in the Pakistani tribal agency of South Waziristan. In the ensuing raid as many as twenty people were killed, including women and children. US sources claimed the women who were killed were actively helping the militants. Several suspected Taliban militants were also killed or captured by the US soldiers in the helicopters who then disappeared into the night. After the raid a local reported "The situation there is very terrible. People are trying to take out the dead bodies."
As word spread in Pakistan that innocent Pakistani women and children had been killed in the raid there were howls of outrage from Pakistani leaders across the board. One senior Pakistani official called the night raid a “cowboy action” and criticized it for not targeting anyone “big.” The Pakistani Foreign Ministry condemned the attack, and called it "unacceptable" and "a grave provocation…which has resulted in immense loss of civilian life." But it was the Pakistani military that drew the firmest line in the sand. Using bellicose terms more suited for an enemy than an ally the new head of Pakistan’s army, General Pervez Ashfaq Kayani, stated that Pakistan’s territorial integrity would be “defended at all cost.” Lest their be any ambiguity Kayani also stated “There is no question of any agreement or understanding with the coalition forces whereby they are allowed to conduct operations on our side of the border…No external force is allowed to conduct operations inside Pakistan.”
By deploying US ‘boots on the ground’ in a bold helicopter raid on a town that was just seventy five miles from the Pakistani capital and home to its most prestigious military academy, without notifying the Pakistanis, Obama was taking a huge risk. He was risking his presidency, the lives of the Special Forces, and the already shaky alliance with America’s most important strategic partner in the war on Al Qaeda and the Taliban, Pakistan.
But the chance to kill Bin Laden, a man who had been hunted by three American presidents, proved to be worth the risks. The word to launch the raid was given and President Obama went off to put on a public face and attend an annual correspondents dinner with the media. The mission was kept secret even from America’s closest allies. Even the Pakistanis were not notified since CIA head Leon Panetta worried that "any effort to work with the Pakistanis could jeopardize the mission. They might alert the targets."
After waiting two days for cloudy skies and low moon visibility four US helicopters carrying an elite Navy SEAL unit (Sea Earth and Land, elite Navy Special Forces) known as Team Six, two Blackhawks and two larger Chinook transport helicopters flew from a US base in eastern Afghanistan at Jalalabad into Pakistani air space. The risky, long distance mission to hunt down the man responsible for killing almost 3,000 almost a decade earlier had begun.
University of Pennsylvania Press. 2011
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