Out of thick darkness, the helicopters appeared – their target, a large compound outside the Pakistani city of Abbottabad. Just 38 minutes after touching down, the helicopters once again took to the skies, but now with a dead body on board that signified the end of a nearly 15-year hunt for the man responsible for the largest terrorist attack in U.S history.
If the final stages in the pursuit of Osama Bin Laden had moved quickly, everything up till that point had progressed at a painfully slow speed – and sometimes not at all. The hunt for the leader of Al Qaeda had become a source of continued frustration for just about everybody involved, but on 2nd May 2011, President Obama addressed the nation with the news that so many had craved – Osama Bin Laden was dead.
It’s easy to simply connect Osama Bin Laden with the attacks on 11th September 2001, but the truth was he was already firmly nailed to the FBI’s most-wanted list by that point. His declaration of war against the United States in 1996 was preceded by the attack on the Gold Mihor Hotel in Aden in 1992, and followed by the 1998 attacks on the U.S embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, which killed over 200 people.
As the new millennium dawned, he was linked with a series of attacks planned in Jordan that were eventually foiled by the Jordanian security services before they could be carried out, but any notion of success in the fight against Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda was to be short-lived. A suicide attack on the USS Cole on 12th October 2000 claimed the lives of seventeen U.S Navy sailors, making it the worse attack on a U.S vessel since 1987 when the USS Stark was hit by two Iraqi Exocet missiles, killing 37 on board.
Many of us will never forget where we were on 11th September 2001. The images of the planes hitting the World Trade Centers and the subsequent collapse are now seared into our public consciousness. After initially denying involvement, Bin Laden released a statement shortly after the attacks, which read,
“What the United States is tasting today is nothing compared to what we have tasted for decades. Our umma has known this humiliation and contempt for over eighty years. Its sons are killed, its blood is spilled, its holy sites are attacked, and it is not governed according to Allah’s command. Despite this, no one cares”
It would be several years until he unequivocally took responsibility for the attacks but suspicion fell on him and Al Qaeda almost immediately.
With no immediate claims of responsibility, all U.S authorities had to go on were the 19 hijackers. As the nation mourned, the full weight of the U.S government swung into gear and it wasn’t long until detailed profiles of the hijackers began to emerge.
Fifteen of them were Saudi Arabian citizens, two were from the United Arab Emirates, one was from Lebanon, and one from Egypt. Communications intercepted on the day of the attack by both the NSA and the German intelligence agency appeared to point towards Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Telephone conversations and bank transfers seemed to provide further evidence and very quickly one man and one organization became the sole focus of the investigation.
Now, we probably should mention at this point, that this is a story that has of course become entangled in countless conspiracy theories. Some believe that the attacks on 9/11 were carried out by the U.S government, others claim that Bin Laden had nothing to do with it and the U.S simply needed an available fall guy with a proven track record of terrorism. Believe me, I could go on, but we’re going to draw a line under the ifs and buts for the time being. Not to shy away from them, but simply because it would take several videos to go through it all and would rather detract from the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.
With American eyes now firmly fixed on the bearded face of Bin Laden, their attention turned to his most likely whereabouts, Afghanistan.
If you’re a little rusty on Afgan history before 9/11 then let me quickly run through a few things. Back in the 1970s, Afghanistan, and in particular Kabul, then known as the “the Paris of Central Asia,” was relatively liberal. Men and women socialized in public together, women were uncovered and often even sported fashionable miniskirts, while music, cinema and alcohol were all part and parcel of everyday life.
But this existence began to unravel after a bloodless coup in 1973 which saw the king abdicate his throne and the nation become a republic for the first time. This was followed by a much bloodier coup in 1978, the Soviet invasion in 1979 and the subsequent decade of hell for this tragic country with a long proud history of fighting off would-be invaders. Even after the Soviets withdrew in 1989 with their tails firmly between their legs, it merely signalled the beginning of another stage as the country collapsed into civil war, spurred on by interference from various outside sources, namely Pakistan, Iran and of course, the United States who had been supplying weapons to the Mujahideen throughout the Afghan-Soviet War. Somewhat ironically, money was also coming into the country to fund the same fighters from a man who had grown up within one of Saudi Arabia’s richest families, the Bin Ladens. Yes, that’s right. There once was a time when the USA and Osama Bin Laden played for the same team.
After moving back to Saudi Arabia after the end of the war with the Soviet Union, he was expelled from the country in 1991, after publicly denouncing the country’s support for the United States during the First Gulf War. He then moved on to Sudan before returning to Afghanistan in 1996.
At this point, what had begun as a small group known as the Taliban had spawned into a sprawling movement that swept across the country. Their firebrand extremism caught on in a nation that had been plagued by corruption, murder and tribal infighting. Taliban territory quickly grew and they took the capital Kabul on 27th September 1996. Almost immediately, two factions who had once fought each other now united to form the Northern Alliance, a disjointed at best attempt at holding back the Taliban tide.
And it was around this time that Osama Bin Laden’s influence in Afghanistan really grew. His 055 Brigade, formed in 1996 and made up of mercenaries from various Arab countries, was a guerrilla organization sponsored and trained by Al Qaeda to carry out mass killings as well as fighting alongside the more formal Taliban army.
Operation Enduring Freedom
And that brings us back to the early stages of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. U.S intelligence seemed certain that their man was hiding somewhere in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban regime. They asked them nicely if they wouldn’t mind handing him over and closing the Al Qaeda bases spread around the country, but the Taliban rejected the proposal outright.
In October 2001, the U.S military was by far the most powerful anywhere on the planet. It may not have been the biggest in terms of physical numbers, but the level of technology available made picking a fight with the United States a suicidal proposition. When you add in the understandably vengeful rage following 9/11, it was a fight that was only going to go one way – and very quickly. Shortly before the war began, and possibly foreseeing the carnage that was about to ensue, the Taliban made several covert offers to put Bin Laden on trial either in Afghanistan, Pakistan or a possible third country once proof of his connection with the 9/11 attacks had been provided. These offers were rejected and by that stage preparations for what would go on to be the longest war in U.S history – and cost roughly $1 trillion in the process – had been finalised.
Operation Enduring Freedom commenced on 7th October 2011, as U.S and British warplanes began hitting Taliban and Al Qaeda targets across Afghanistan. Special forces then combined with the Northern Alliance to surge across Northern Afghanistan at a blistering pace. Kabul fell on 13th November 2001, just over a month after the attacks had begun, with most of the Taliban eventually slipping across the border into Pakistan. It had almost been too easy for the U.S and its allies but the next twenty years would prove Afghanistan to be a scourge of the U.S military and the three Presidents tasked with ending the conflict.
The Battle Tora Bora
As planes and missiles began pulverizing Tablian targets, one area received far more attention than most. The frenzied assault on the mountainous Tora Bora region in eastern Afghanistan, close to the Pakistani border, signalled the first major attempt by U.S forces to target Bin Laden within the country.
Intelligence suggested Bin Laden was now held up inside a series of cave complexes in Tora Bora, effectively hemmed in with what they thought was a properly defended border behind. The Battle of Tora Bora was a painstaking process as small groups embedded with the Northern Alliance slowly pushed deeper into the mountains with the area frequently carpet-bombed beforehand.
When information emerged suggesting the Al Qaeda leader was in a specific location, the shocking might of the United States came crashing down. The level of devastation was such that the landscape was forever altered with most on the ground saying it was the most ferocious bombing campaign they had ever experienced, as the U.S sent wave after wave of attacks.
Things begin to get a little murky in the first weeks of December. Whether it was down to bad intelligence, lack of commitment from higher up or the newly signed ceasefire between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban it’s difficult to say, but it’s clear that Osama Bin Laden was able to leave Tora Bora and enter Pakistan on 12th or 13th December (or sometime in January according to some sources). The United States had allowed their most wanted man to slip through their fingers and it would be ten years until they got their next shot.
It is of course difficult to be completely sure about Bin Laden’s movements over the coming years, but some patchy details suggested that he and his family moved regularly and stayed in a series of safe houses in 2002, before renting some accommodation in the Shangla district in the Swat valley, then Haripur, a small town close to Islamabad, before finally moving to Abbottabad in June 2005.
After Bin Laden’s escape into Pakistan, the hunt turned cold. Lingering suspicions that he was being protected by at least some elements inside the Pakistani government eventually proved to be true, but with the U.S being stonewalled and certainly unwilling to enter Pakistan to find him themselves, there was little that could be done. After failing to capture Bin Laden, the U.S soon instigated another war with the attacks on Iraq beginning in March 2003 under the – and I’m just going to say it – bullshit pretence of weapons of mass destruction. After smashing Iraq apart, President Bush stood on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln and made his famous ‘mission accomplished’ statement – which now sounds about as shaky as Nixon proclaiming he was not a crook.
The hard truth was that the U.S had found neither weapons of mass destruction nor Osama Bin Laden. These two conflicts would drag on for years to come, costing trillions and nearly 10,000 U.S deaths.
The long road to the eventual killing of Osama Bin Laden began when information from a suspect at Guantanamo Bay led to the identification of one of his couriers, known as Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, who was eventually tracked to a location in Abbottabad. In 2010, he was followed to a large compound on the outskirts of the city – a compound eight times the size of your typical house in the area, with high walls topped with barbed wire, and residents inside who never left and who chose to burn all of their rubbish.
Satellite images were inconclusive, but there was a growing sense that they may have found their man. However, options were still horribly limited. They could of course drop a bomb that would completely level the compound, but how would you explain that to a Pakistani government who you were formally allied with and who was receiving millions in U.S aid to fight extremism? And what if it turned out to simply be a rich, reclusive family? Another option was a raid involving special forces, but this too came with plenty of drawbacks, and would certainly require positive identification before being sanctioned.
With a devious plan that only the CIA could devise, a local doctor set up a fake polio vaccine program and visited the compound under the guise of vaccinating the children present, but also extracting DNA that could then be compared to that of Bin Laden’s sister who had died in the U.S in 2010. Now, the ethics of this have been debated ever since, especially considering this episode had a debilitating effect on Pakistan’s drive to eliminate polio. It’s not even entirely clear whether a DNA match was found as the U.S government has remained relatively tight-lipped on the matter. But for whatever reason, the degree of certainty over the mystery resident’s identity, who came to be known as ‘the pacer’, gradually increased, and one of the most audacious raids in U.S military history was set in motion.
As I mentioned, this would be a raid with countless unknowns and moving pieces. You needed only to go back 18 years to the chaos of Mogadishu and the famous Black Hawk Down incident to see just how easily a simple operation like this could go so drastically wrong. A targeted missile attack was out of the question, so the responsibility would fall to SEAL Team Six.
President Obama formally authorized the operation and intense training began using a replica compound. The mission to fly in 25 Navy Seals aboard helicopters, who would then storm the compound and kill Bin Laden, got its final approval on 1st May.
In the early hours of the 2nd May, two modified Black Hawk helicopters crept through the darkness as Operation Neptune Spear began. Two Chinook helicopters, stuffed with commandos waited a short distance off ready to assist in case the SEALS needed to fight their way out. The Black Hawks used hilly terrain and nap-of-the-earth techniques (low altitude flight course) to stay off Pakistani radar as they approached the compound.
Things went wrong almost immediately as one of the black hawks experienced a hazardous airflow condition known as a vortex ring state, which resulted in one of its rotors clipping the compound wall and the helicopter crash landing. Miraculously, there were no significant injuries as the SEALS piled out and into the compound. The other helicopter had landed safely just outside the compound with its occupations soon scaling the walls.
There are many conflicting reports of exactly how things played out from here. Certain SEALS have since come out to declare that they were the ones to kill Osama Bin Laden, but there’s no conclusive story. The compound was pitch black as the SEALS entered and they quickly dispatched four people – three men and women, some who seemed to be armed and some not. Others people in the compound that the SEALS came into contact with had their hands zipped tied before being moved outside to clear the building.
As the SEALS climbed the stairs Osama Bin Laden knew his time was up. There are reports that he tried to hide behind a female relative and was shot in the process, or alternatively, he was shot while peering out of the room as the stampeding SEALS approached. However it happened, the most wanted man in the world was killed just 15 minutes after the raid began and the codeword that had been assigned for this exact moment was finally heard over the radio. Geronimo.
Bin Laden’s body was placed in a body bag and taken outside to a waiting helicopter, while the SEALS scoured the compound for additional intelligence, which included 470,000 computer files discovered on 183 separate devices. The damaged helicopter was then destroyed as a replacement arrived to ferry out SEAL Team Six and the body of the man the U.S had been searching for, for well over 15 years. Just 38 minutes after one of the most potentially damaging and embarrassing U.S military options in history began, it was all over. It’s difficult to see Operation Neptune Spear has anything but an unbridled success.
The Hunt Ends
Osama Bin Laden’s body was formally identified shortly after and buried at sea within the 24-hour window stipulated by the Islamic faith. On the evening of 2nd May 2011, rumours began to circulate the globe that Bin Laden had been killed and not long after, President Obama addressed the nation to confirm the news.
This was followed by celebrations around the country. Groups gathered outside the White House, baseball games were interrupted as the news broke live. Joy is probably the wrong word to use, but a profound sense of relief was clear. The hunt for Osama Bin Laden had gone on for so long, many simply assumed it was now a lost cause.
In the subsequent days, months and even years, the tremors emanating from the raid spread. Pakistan cried foul as you can probably imagine, but when it became clear that Bin Laden had been living comfortably inside Pakistani borders for many years and almost certainly had had plenty of assistance in doing so, things quietened down pretty quickly. Then there was the legality of what had happened and whether he could have been taken alive to stand trial in the U.S. Considering that Guantanamo Bay remains a stain that the U.S just can’t remove, it’s difficult to imagine a system where Bin Laden would have faced his day in court on U.S soil.
It sounds bad to even say it, but killing Osama Bin Laden and throwing his body over the side of a ship with 140 kg (300 lb) worth of iron chains wrapped around it, was seen as by far the quickest and easiest solution. A show trial would have been great for the media but would have provided years worth of headaches in the process, during which his figure as a martyr would have no doubt grown exponentially.
The hunt for Osama Bin Laden began back in the mid-1990s, with his dark shadow eventually growing to become the most despised and hunted person in recent U.S history. His continued freedom removed a scab that just wouldn’t heal. The idea of revenge now feels a little outdated, but let’s be honest, there was plenty of that. In the early days of the war, there was even talk of bringing Bin Laden’s head back to the U.S – whether that was entirely true or simply some hyperbole we can’t be sure – but it gives us an idea of the merciless pursuit of the man responsible for 9/11.
The mega-terrorist who delivered the most painful blow the United States had ever experienced was dead. When it comes to a rabid, vengeful U.S Intelligence chase, you can run, you can hide – but eventually, they will find you.