HUNT FOR OSAMA BIN LADEN
FBI digitalized Osama picture After September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center President George W. Bush famously said he wanted Osama bin Laden "dead or alive." In another speech, Bush said, “If he thinks he can hide and run from the United States and our allies, he will be sorely mistaken.” However, Jane Mayer wrote in The New Yorker “as months went by without a successful capture—‘point’ targets, as individuals are called by military tacticians, are notoriously elusive—Bush rarely mentioned bin Laden’s name in public. The Administration’s attention shifted to building support for the war in Iraq, and Saddam Hussein seemed to replace bin Laden in the role of the world’s most notorious ‘evildoer.’”
The dragnet — perhaps the largest in history for a single individual— cost billions of dollars and brought 100,000 troops to Afghanistan. The hunt to find bin Laden began under the Clinton Administration and was continued by the Bush and Obama administrations. Before September 11th the CIA employed 15 Afghan agents whose duty was keeping an eye on Osama bin Laden. About once a month they were able to locate Osama bin Laden in a specific place but nothing ever came of it. To American spies and soldiers the leaders of Al-Qaida were high-value targets with Osama bin Laden and his No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri referred to as one and two HVT 1 and HVT 2.
A $25 million bounty was placed on Osama bin Laden’s head. In February 2005, a large advertising campaign was mounted for leads leading to the capture of bin Laden and other Al-Qaida and Taliban leaders. A 30-second television spot showed photographs of Osama bin Laden, al-Zawahiri and Taliban leader Mullah Omar with a plea for held to bring them to justice. Radio messages were broadcasts in Urdu, Sindhi, Baluchi and Pashtu with telephone numbers, e-mail addressees and promises of resettlement for informants. Osama bin Laden told confidants that he “would welcome death as a martyr” and he never would allow himself to be captured alive. He told a Pakistani journalist shortly after the US invasion of Afghanistan: "America can't get me alive... I can be eliminated, but not my mission." In July 2007 the bounty was doubled by the U.S. State Department and U.S. Congress to $50 million.
Newsweek called the search a “frustrating, at times agonizing, tale of missed opportunities, damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't choices, and outright blunders.” At least one free-lancer took part in he hunt for bin Laden. Gary Faulkner of Greely, Colorado was detained in northern Pakistan with a pistol, night-vision equipment and sword, which he said he planned to use to kill bin Laden. He was released after about a week and told he had go back to the United States.
Paul Haven of AP wrote: At several points in the years since the September 11 attacks, bin Laden's capture or death had appeared imminent. After the March 2003 arrest of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, officials in Islamabad and Washington were paraded out to deny a consistent stream of rumours that bin Laden had been captured. US forces poured into the border region looking for him and former Taliban and Taliban in hiding said bin Laden had constantly been on the move, travelling through the mountains with a small entourage of security. Through it all, bin Laden vowed repeatedly that he was willing to die in his fight to drive the Israelis from Jerusalem and Americans from Saudi Arabia and Iraq. [Source: Paul Haven, AP, May 2, 2011]
Book: ‘Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden—from 9/11 to Abbottabad’ by Peter L. Bergen (Crown, 2012).
Films and Books on Catching Osama bin Laden
“Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden—from 9/11 to Abbottabad” by Peter L. Bergen like its title says is the about the intensive, multi-year effort to track down Osama bin Laden that culminated with his death. Dina Temple-Raston wrote in the Washington Post: “Bergen’s three other books — about the al-Qaeda leader specifically and terrorism more generally — were all solid pieces of work. Over the years they have become required reading for national security buffs and counterterrorism reporters. But “Manhunt” is different. It goes to a higher level. Maybe the book is so engrossing because we know how it ends and there is such an appetite for all the details. Even with the media saturation of this story, Bergen has accomplished a journalistic feat: He manages to make the story of bin Laden’s end sound new. He has put together a real-life thriller that will be a must-read for years to come. [Source: Dina Temple-Raston, Washington Post, May 4, 2012]
“Bergen is the author of three other books,” Temple-Raston wrote, “but he may be best known for a 1997 journalistic triumph: a meeting with bin Laden. The sit-down took place in a mud hut outside the Afghan city of Jalalabad, not far from the mountains of Tora Bora. Bergen produced the interview for CNN. He is now a national security analyst with the network. Just four years later, Tora Bora became ground zero for an American dragnet aimed at capturing bin Laden. Instead, the terrorist leader disappeared, like a ghost melting through a wall, beginning a manhunt that tested not only America’s high-tech surveillance capabilities and its creativity, but the lengths to which its intelligence services were willing to go to bring bin Laden to justice. [Ibid]
“Manhunt” virtually crackles with insider details. Bergen traveled to Pakistan three times after the Abbottabad raid and eventually became the only outside observer to tour the compound. He arrived when the house was still a crime scene, when bin Laden’s blood was still on the walls. [Ibid]
Kathyrn Bigelow, the Oscar-winning filmmaker has a deal with Columbia Pictues to make a film about the killing of Osama bin Laden. The Pentagon said it would cooperate in making the film. Some members of the U.S. Congress opposed Pentagon help as a “security risk.” Later the admiral in charge of raid that killed bin Laden said it hadn’t cooperatung with making the film. George Clooney bought the films rights for the story of bin Laden’s driver. There was talk that Oliver Stone might make a film based on Jawbreaker, a book about the assault on Tora Bora.
Book: ‘Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden—from 9/11 to Abbottabad’ by Peter L. Bergen (Crown, 2012).
Hunt for Osama bin Laden Begins After September 11th
Before 9/11, Newsweek reported, “the hunt for bin Laden was marked by a certain tentativeness, an official reluctance to suck America into the dirty business of political assassination or to get U.S. troops killed. Within days after 9/11, President Bush was vowing to capture bin Laden "dead or alive" and Cofer Black, the CIA's counterterror chief at the time, was ordering his troops to bring back bin Laden's head "in a box." (In fact, CIA operatives in Afghanistan requested a box and dry ice, just in case.) With old-fashioned derring-do, CIA case officers, carrying millions of dollars, choppered into Afghanistan to work with tribesmen to drive out Al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts. The CIA's alacrity caused some heartburn at the Pentagon. According to Bob Woodward's "Bush at War," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld steamed impatiently while the military seemed to dither, stymied by weather and fussing with complex backup and rescue arrangements before the brass would commit any troops. [Source: Newsweek, Reported by Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border; Zahid Hussain in Islamabad; Rod Nordland in Tora Bora; Mark Hosenball, Michael Hirsh, Michael Isikoff, John Barry, Dan Ephron and Eve Conant in Washington; Christopher Dickey in Paris, and Roya Wolverson in New York. Written by Evan Thomas. September 3, 2007]
“Rumsfeld's foot-stamping was rewarded. By mid-October, CIA case officers and Army, Navy, and Air Force Special Operations units were working together in unusual harmony, using high-tech air support and, at one point, mounting what Rumsfeld gleefully called "the first cavalry charge of the 21st century" to kill, capture or chase away thousands of jihadists. The Taliban fled for the hills. Bin Laden, it seemed, would be cornered. Indeed, on Dec. 15, CIA operatives listening on a captured jihadist radio could hear bin Laden himself say "Forgive me" to his followers, pinned down in their mountain caves near Tora Bora.” [Ibid]
“As it happened, however, the hunt for bin Laden was unraveling on the very same day. As recalled by Gary Berntsen, the CIA officer in charge of the covert team working with the Northern Alliance, code-named Jawbreaker, the military refused his pleas for 800 Army Rangers to cut off bin Laden's escape. Maj. Gen. Dell Dailey, the Special Ops commander sent out by Central Command, told Berntsen he was doing an "excellent job," but that putting in ground troops might offend America's Afghan allies. "I don't give a damn about offending our allies!" Berntsen yelled, according to his 2005 book, "Jawbreaker." "I only care about eliminating Al Qaeda and delivering bin Laden's head in a box!" (Dailey, now the State Department's counterterror chief, told NEWSWEEK that he did not want to discuss the incident, except to say that Berntsen's story is "unsubstantiated.") [Ibid]
Berntsen went to Crumpton, his boss at the CIA, who described to NEWSWEEK his frantic efforts to appeal to higher authority. Crumpton called CENTCOM's commander, Gen. Tommy Franks. It would take "weeks" to mobilize a force, Franks responded, and the harsh, snowy terrain was too difficult and the odds of getting bin Laden not worth the risk. Frustrated, Crumpton went to the White House and rolled out maps of the Pakistani-Afghan border on a small conference table. President Bush wanted to know if the Pakistanis could sweep up Al Qaeda on the other side. "No, sir," Crumpton responded. (Vice President Dick Cheney did not say a word, Crumpton recalled.) The meeting was inconclusive. Franks, who declined to comment, has written in his memoirs that he decided, along with Rumsfeld, that to send troops into the mountains would risk repeating the mistake of the Soviets, who were trapped and routed by jihadist guerrilla fighters in the 1980s (helped out, it should be recalled, with Stinger missiles provided by the CIA). [Ibid]
To catch bin Laden, the CIA was left to lean on local tribesmen, a slender reed. NEWSWEEK recently interviewed two of the three tribal chiefs involved in the operation, Hajji Zahir and Hajji Zaman. They claimed that the CIA overly relied on the third chieftain, Hazrat Ali—and that Ali was paid off (to the tune of $6 million) by Al Qaeda to let bin Laden slip away. Ali could not be reached for comment. But Crumpton, who admits that he has no hard evidence, told NEWSWEEK he is "confident" that a payoff allowed Al Qaeda to escape. Unsure which side would win, some tribesmen apparently hedged by taking money from both sides. [Ibid]
Legal Action and Early Efforts to Kill Osama bin Laden
In 1998, U.S. President Bill Clinton signed a “lethal finding,” a way of skirting the 1976 ban on political assassinations which held the U.S. security service blameless if Osama bin Laden was killed in a covert operation. During Clinton administration the CIA hatched a plan to capture or kill Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. Special Forced rehearsed the capture but the plan was aborted in 1997 due to “foot dragging” by Pakistani intelligence services and the difficulty of the mission. Before September 11th the CIA trained an Pakistani intelligence (ISI) team to go into Afghanistan and snatch Osama bin Laden but nothing came of it, in part because it is believed that ISI higher ups wished it so.
After the Africa bombings in 1998 American warships fired seventy-nine Tomahawk cruise missiles into Afghanistan and Sudan. In Afghanistan, the attack failed to hit its main targets—bin Laden, Zawahiri, and the other Al Qaeda leaders.
After the Africa attacks a $5 million award was offered by the U.S. government for information leading to capture or arrest of Osama bin Laden. This figure was raised to $25 million during the Afghanistan campaign. The ability of bin Laden to avoid being killed by the world’s only superpower gave him a reputation of invincibility and added to his legend and drew more supporters to his cause.
In August 1996, in New York City, a federal grand jury began meeting to consider charges against Bin Laden. Disputes arose among prosecutors and American law enforcement and intelligence officers about which attacks against American interests could truly be attributed to Bin Laden — whether in fact he had, as an indictment eventually charged, trained and paid the men who killed Americans in Somalia. In June 1997, the grand jury that had been convened two years earlier issued its indictment, charging Bin Laden with 1) conspiracy to attack the United States abroad, 2) heading a terrorist organization (Al Qaeda) and for financing terrorist activities around the world. In January 1999, the United States government issued a superseding indictment that affirmed the power Bin Laden had sought all along, declaring Al Qaeda an international terrorist organization in a conspiracy to kill American citizens. [Source: Lawrence Wright, The New Yorker, September 16, 2002]
Osama bin Laden in Pakistan
In September 2004, Pakistan’s President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said intelligence reports suggested that Osama bin Laden was alive. The intelligence included information gleaned from interrogations and human intelligence. In December 2004, Musharraf said the search for Osama bin Laden had grown cold. He admitted that his intelligence services had no idea where he was and had ideo how they could get wind of his whereabouts. Newsweek reported CIA analysts began calling bin Laden "Elvis" because he was here, there, but really nowhere.
Newsweek reported in 2007: “Bin Laden was not so much seeking refuge as coming home when he disappeared into the jagged peaks along the frontier of northwest Pakistan. He had always liked hunting and horseback riding in the mountains... Though a wealthy Saudi, bin Laden had long since learned to live close to the ground, abjuring his followers to learn to survive without modern comforts like plumbing or air conditioning. [Source: Newsweek, Reported by Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border; Zahid Hussain in Islamabad; Rod Nordland in Tora Bora; Mark Hosenball, Michael Hirsh, Michael Isikoff, John Barry, Dan Ephron and Eve Conant in Washington; Christopher Dickey in Paris, and Roya Wolverson in New York. Written by Evan Thomas. September 3, 2007]
“Local Pashtun tribesmen were not about to turn bin Laden in for a reward, even a $25 million one. The strictly observed custom of defending guests, part of an ancient honor code called Pashtunwali, insulated Al Qaeda. The Pakistan central government could do little to crack this social system. The wilds of the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) have been virtually ungovernable for centuries. The British Raj failed, and the Pakistan government never tried very hard, leaving administration up to federally appointed tribal agents and law enforcement in the hands of a local constabulary of dubious loyalty. In the 1980s, during the insurrection against Soviet rule in Afghanistan, the tribal agencies were a kind of staging area for jihadists like bin Laden. Saudi money built hundreds of madrassas—fundamentalist schools that radicalized local youth—and Pakistani intelligence (the ISI) formed alliances with the jihadists to subvert the Soviet-backed Afghan regime. [Ibid]
“In Pakistan, President Musharraf was wary of his American allies in the War on Terror. In 2002, he told a high-ranking British official: "My great concern is that one day the United States is going to desert me. They always desert their friends." According to this official, who declined to be identified sharing a confidence, Musharraf cited the U.S. pullouts from Vietnam in the 1970s, Lebanon in the 1980s and Somalia in the 1990s. Still, he quickly gave the Americans considerable leeway to operate inside Pakistan. Musharraf told the Americans he understood that they would do what they had to do to attack high-value targets, although he indicated the Pakistanis might have to issue pro forma denunciations. His one request, said a U.S. official who dealt directly with the Pakistani leader, was that bin Laden not be captured alive and be brought to trial in Pakistan. [Ibid]
Hunting for Osama bin Laden in Pakistan
Tens of thousands of Pakistani troops and 17,000 U.S. personnel were employed in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. No one seriously tried to claim the bounty on Osama bin Laden’s head even after it was doubled to $50 million in July 2007. I was unclear why nobody claimed the $25 million reward, which was made known on. radio announcements, posters and matchbook advertisement.
After Khalid Shailkh Mohammed was captured in March 2002, the United States and its allies intensified searches for Osama bin Laden in the border region of Pakistan and Afghanistan based on information provided by Mohammed. They concentrated on an area in southwestern Baluchistan province of Pakistan between Quetta and the Iranian border and the Northwest Frontier Province near Balikot, 190 kilometers northwest of Islamabad. Mohammed may have met with Osama bin Laden in Rawalpindi a month before he captured. As of April 2003, 38 U.S. Special Forces members had died and 137 were wounded in the effort to catch Osama bin Laden.
The CIA didn’t have much success setting operations in the tribal areas. A former CIA operative told Atlantic Monthly, “The CIA probably doesn’t have a single truly qualified Arabic-speaking officer of Middle Eastern background who can play a believable Muslim fundamentalist who would volunteer to spend yeas of his life with shitty food and no women in the mountains of Afghanistan.”
Lack of Help from Pakistan Hunting for Osama bin Laden
Finding Osama bin Laden in Pakistan was difficult in part because Pakistani intelligence and security forces were not as cooperative as they could have been. One Pakistani general who insisted that bin Laden was probably not even in Pakistan, told Reuters: Osama bin “requires his own protection and the kind of security apparatus he is supposed to have around would give us a very big signature. There is not an niche of South Wazristan agency or the tribal area which we have not swept time and again and if he was here, I assure you he could not have escaped my ears and eyes.”
It has been suggested that ISI knows where Osama bin Laden is but does not want to disclose the information because if it did the United States could close up shop and pull its money out of Pakistan as it did after the Soviets left Afghanistan. When asked about efforts by ISI officials to find bin Laden, Shaheen Sehbai, a Pakistani journalist who used to edit the News, the largest English-language newspaper in Pakistan, told The New Yorker: “I question how hard they’re trying. I think they’re not looking very hard, because he’ll always remain a bargaining chip.” [Source: Jane Mayer, The New Yorker, July 28, 2003]
Shaheen Sehbai, a Pakistani journalist who went to in Peshawar and speaks Pashto, told The New Yorker: “I know that area like the back of my hand.” He rejects the prevailing argument in Islamabad that the Pakistani government could do more because the region is beyond the reach of its laws. “Every tribal chief is in the pocket of the government in Pakistan,” he said. “The tribal areas are divided into agencies, and each has an administrator, who is part of the Pakistani civil service.” Tribal leaders rarely defy these federal administrators, he said. He has seen suspected murderers and high-profile kidnappers flee into the tribal areas, only to be turned over by the chiefs to local authorities within days. “There would be more resistance in bin Laden’s case, because of ideological sympathy,” Sehbai acknowledged. “But if the government seriously wanted him they’d know where he is, and under whose protection. In the past, the Army has laid siege to villages and burned them to the ground. I’ve heard of no such operations with bin Laden.” [Source: Jane Mayer, The New Yorker July 28, 2003]
On Pakistan’s effort to catch bin Laden Yossef Bodansky told The New Yorker, “Bin Laden is their Get Out of Jail Free card. Every time we complain about the heroin production, they say, ‘Look, we’re helping you with bin Laden,’ and we backpedal. When we complain about Pakistan sponsoring terrorism in Kashmir, they invoke bin Laden, and we backpedal. ‘We’re on your side,’ they say. But I think there’s strong evidence that Pakistan is shielding him.” Bodansky also charged that the Pakistanis have produced major Al Qaeda members only when it served their own political purposes. [Ibid]
In the meantime the Pakistani government said it was doing all it could do to catch bin Laden. During a visit to the U.S. In 2003 Musharraf insisted that for the first time since the nation’s founding, in 1947, Pakistan has begun deploying thousands of soldiers in the tribal areas. Jane Mayer wrote in The New Yorker: “The United States recently donated five Huey-2 helicopters and three fixed-wing Cessna surveillance aircraft to help the Pakistani government monitor the province—officially, to further efforts to control poppy production there.” [Ibid]
Taliban expert Ahmed Rashid wasn’t impressed. On his visit to the border region he was struck by the weakness of the Pakistani military effort. He told The New Yorker: “The troops are just sitting there at the border—they’re not doing sweeps,” adding that the security situation in the borderlands was getting worse. “The Taliban’s really reasserted itself. Hundreds of Taliban fighters have been crossing the borders and attacking American troops. Al Qaeda commanders are helping the Taliban in the background, supplying funds and logistical support. Al Qaeda’s also providing reward money for captured or killed American soldiers.” The sums offered, he said, ranged up to a hundred thousand dollars. “All the Americans are complaining about the lack of support from the Pakistani military,” Rashid said. “The soldiers on the ground think the Pakistanis are allowing the Taliban to operate.” [Ibid]
American Forces That Hunted Osama bin Laden
Newsweek reported: “The American effort to chase bin Laden into this forbidding realm was hobbled and clumsy from the start. While the terrain required deep local knowledge and small units, career officers in the U.S. military have long been wary of the Special Operations Forces best suited to the task. In the view of the regular military, such "snake eaters" have tended to be troublesome, resistant to spit-and-polish discipline and rulebooks. Rather than send the snake eaters to poke around mountain caves and mud-walled compounds, the U.S. military wanted to fight on a grander stage, where it could show off its mobility and firepower. To the civilian bosses at the Pentagon and the eager-to-please top brass, Iraq was a much better target. By invading Iraq, the United States would give the Islamists—and the wider world—an unforgettable lesson in American power. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was on Rumsfeld's Defense Policy Board and, at the time, a close confidant of the SecDef. In November 2001, Gingrich told a NEWSWEEK reporter, "There's a feeling we've got to do something that counts—and bombing caves is not something that counts." [Source: Newsweek, Reported by Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border; Zahid Hussain in Islamabad; Rod Nordland in Tora Bora; Mark Hosenball, Michael Hirsh, Michael Isikoff, John Barry, Dan Ephron and Eve Conant in Washington; Christopher Dickey in Paris, and Roya Wolverson in New York. Written by Evan Thomas. September 3, 2007]
“When Franks refused to send Army Rangers into the mountains at Tora Bora, he was already in the early stages of planning for the next war. By early 2002, new Predators—aerial drones that might have helped the search for bin Laden—were instead being diverted off the assembly line for possible use in Iraq. The military's most elite commando unit, Delta Force, was transferred from Afghanistan to prep for the invasion of Iraq. The Fifth Special Forces Group, including the best Arabic speakers, was sent home to retool for Iraq, replaced by the Seventh Special Forces Group—Spanish speakers with mostly Latin American experience. The most knowledgeable CIA case officers, the ones with tribal contacts, were rotated out. Replacing a fluent Arabic speaker and intellectual, the new CIA station chief in Kabul was a stickler for starting meetings on time (his own watch was always seven minutes fast) but allowed that he had read only one book on Afghanistan. One slightly bitter spook, speaking anonymously to NEWSWEEK to protect his identity, likened the station chief to Captain Queeg in "The Caine Mutiny." (CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano insists "station chiefs go through a rigorous, multistep selection process, designed to get leaders with the right skills in the right places.") [Ibid]
The frustrations of the snake eaters are well illustrated by the recollections of Adam Rice, the operations sergeant of a Special Forces A-Team working out of a safe house near Kandahar in 2002. With his close-cropped orange hair and beard, wearing a yellow Hawaiian shirt around the safe house, Rice was not the sort to shine at inspections at boot camp. But he had lived in Kabul as a child (his father had been a USAID worker) and he had been a Special Forces operator for more than two decades. In July 2002, a CIA case officer told Rice that a figure believed to be Mullah Omar, the one-eyed chief of the Taliban, had been tracked by aerial drone to a location in the Shahikot Valley, a short flight to the north. The Taliban chief and his entourage would be vulnerable to a helicopter assault, but the Americans had to move quickly.
Rice was not optimistic about getting timely permission. Whenever he and his men moved within five kilometers of the safe house, he says, they had to file a request form known as a 5-W, spelling out the who, what, when, where and why of the mission. Permission from headquarters took hours, and if shooting might be involved, it was often denied. To go beyond five kilometers required a CONOP (for "concept of operations") that was much more elaborate and required approval from two layers in the field, and finally the Joint Special Operations Task Force at Baghram air base near Kabul. To get into a fire fight, the permission of a three-star general was necessary. "That process could take days," Rice recalled to NEWSWEEK. He often typed forms while sitting on a 55-gallon drum his men had cut in half to make a toilet seat. "We'd be typing in 130-degree heat while we're crapping away with bacillary dysentery and sometimes the brass at Kandahar or Baghram would kick back and tell you the spelling was incorrect, that you weren't using the tab to delimit the form correctly."
But Rice made his request anyway. Days passed with no word. The window closed; the target—whether Mullah Omar or not—moved on. Rice blames risk aversion in career officers, whose promotions require spotless ("zero defect") records—no mistakes, no bad luck, no "flaps." The cautious mind-set changed for a time after 9/11, but quickly settled back in. High-tech communication serves to clog, rather than speed the process. With worldwide satellite communications, high-level commanders back at the base or in Washington can second-guess even minor decisions.
Near Miss in Baluchistan in 2003
After the capture of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in Rawalpindi, Pakistan in March 2003, authorities in Pakistan obtained Mohammed’s laptop computer and satellite phone. Jane Mayer wrote in The New Yorker: “This breakthrough, they hoped, would help them track down the organization’s leader, Osama bin Laden. Analysts in Washington speculated that news of Mohammed’s capture might even prompt bin Laden into fleeing his current hideout. According to an F.B.I. official, in the weeks before his arrest Mohammed had been moving from one place to another in Baluchistan, a lawless province that borders Afghanistan and Iran. Bin Laden, it was thought, was probably in the same area.” [Source: Jane Mayer, The New Yorker July 28, 2003]
“Days later, American intelligence satellites traced a telephone call made to Baluchistan by Saad bin Laden, one of Osama’s sons, who was thought to be hiding in Iran. Intelligence officials knew that bin Laden no longer dared to answer the phone, but they believed the call might have been placed to one of his aides. An unmanned spy plane dispatched to the region spotted a suspicious convoy moving at night. It consisted of about a hundred people on horseback and on foot, and was advancing along an ancient smugglers’ route, in a rocky desert area. Bin Laden, the officials hoped, might be travelling with this group.” [Ibid]
“A team made up of C.I.A. paramilitary operatives, Delta Force soldiers, and Pakistani officials descended upon the convoy. Meanwhile, in Washington, the C.I.A. had orders to launch a Hellfire missile from an unmanned Predator intelligence aircraft if the presence of bin Laden could be confirmed. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, President Bush signed a top-secret Memorandum of Notification, calling for bin Laden to be either captured or killed on sight. [Ibid]
“The C.I.A. was very confident—they thought they had him there in Baluchistan, across from the Iranian border,” Vincent Cannistraro, a former chief of operations for the C.I.A.’s Counter-Terrorism Center, told The New Yorker. “They had a fixed location on him. They mounted a moderate-sized operation.” The convoy was intercepted, Cannistraro said. Each traveller was examined. “Lo and behold, bin Laden wasn’t there,” he said. The convoy was merely a group of refugees. [Ibid]
“Instead of firing a Hellfire missile,: Mayer wrote, “American aircraft dropped flyers that featured an image of bin Laden’s face behind bars. The flyers also publicized a twenty-five-million-dollar reward that would be given to anyone who could hand bin Laden over to the authorities. Iranian officials issued a statement denying that bin Laden’s son was in their country. (Iran has maintained this position, despite numerous reports to the contrary.) American officials declined to acknowledge the incident at all. Cofer Black, a veteran of the C.I.A. whom President Bush appointed as the State Department’s coördinator for counter-terrorism. If bin Laden was killed, Black continued, the world would demand proof. “You’d need some DNA,” he said. “There’s a good way to do it. Take a machete, and whack off his head, and you’ll get a bucketful of DNA, so you can see it and test it. It beats lugging the whole body back!” [Ibid]
American Soldiers Almost Stumble on Osama bin Laden in 2004
In 2007 Newsweek reported: “The Americans were getting close. It was early in the winter of 2004–05, and Osama bin Laden and his entourage were holed up in a mountain hideaway along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Suddenly, a sentry, posted several kilometers away, spotted a patrol of U.S. soldiers who seemed to be heading straight for bin Laden's redoubt. The sentry radioed an alert, and word quickly passed among the Qaeda leader's 40-odd bodyguards to prepare to remove "the Sheik," as bin Laden is known to his followers, to a fallback position. [Source: Newsweek, Reported by Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border; Zahid Hussain in Islamabad; Rod Nordland in Tora Bora; Mark Hosenball, Michael Hirsh, Michael Isikoff, John Barry, Dan Ephron and Eve Conant in Washington; Christopher Dickey in Paris, and Roya Wolverson in New York. Written by Evan Thomas. September 3, 2007]
As Sheik Said, a senior Egyptian Qaeda operative, later told the story, the anxiety level was so high that the bodyguards were close to using the code word to kill bin Laden and commit suicide. According to Said, bin Laden had decreed that he would never be captured. "If there's a 99 percent risk of the Sheik's being captured, he told his men that they should all die and martyr him as well," Said told Omar Farooqi, a Taliban liaison officer to Al Qaeda who spoke to a Newsweek reporter. [Ibid]
The secret word was never given. As the Qaeda sentry watched the U.S. troops, the patrol started moving in a different direction. Bin Laden's men later concluded that the soldiers had nearly stumbled on their hideout by accident. (One former U.S. intelligence officer told NEWSWEEK that he was aware of official reporting on this incident.) [Ibid]
American intelligence officials interviewed by Newsweek ruefully agree that the hunt to find bin Laden has been more a game of chance than good or "actionable" intelligence. Since bin Laden slipped away from Tora Bora in December 2001, U.S. intelligence has never had better than a 50-50 certainty about his whereabouts. "There hasn't been a serious lead on Osama bin Laden since early 2002," says Bruce Riedel in 2007, a South Asia expert at the CIA. "What we're doing now is shooting in the dark in outer space. The chances of hitting anything are zero." [Ibid]
Aborted Mission to Catch Osama bin Laden Pakistan in 2005
A secret 2005 mission to capture senior al-Qaeda members in Pakistan's tribal areas was aborted at the last moment when Bush administration officials decided it was too risky and could jeopardize relations with Pakistan, The New York Times reported. Citing intelligence and military officials, including a former senior intelligence official involved in the planning, the Times said in a story posted on its Web site that the target was a meeting of al Qaeda leaders. That conference was thought by intelligence officials to have included Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden's top deputy, who was believed to run the group's operations, it said. [Source: Reuters, July 7, 2007]
The classified mission was scotched even as Navy Seals in parachute gear had boarded C-130 cargo planes in Afghanistan after then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld rejected a last-minute appeal by then-CIA director Porter Goss, the Times said, citing the officials and the former intelligence official, all of whom requested anonymity. Rumsfeld felt the mission, which grew from a small number of personnel to several hundred, would risk too many U.S. lives, and was also concerned about possible repercussions on U.S.-Pakistan relations, the Times said.
But that decision also frustrated some top intelligence officials and members of the military's secret Special Operations units. Some said the United States missed a significant opportunity to possibly nab senior al Qaeda members, the newspaper reported. Another concern was his determination that the United States could not carry out the mission without Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf's permission, which was unlikely given its size and scope, the officials said. The former intelligence official involved in the mission's planning said it grew to the point where "the whole thing turned into the invasion of Pakistan," which he nonetheless felt was still worth the risk."We wanted to take a shot," the official added. Several former officials said it was not the only time since the September 11 attacks that plans were developed for a large U.S. military force in Pakistan, the Times said. The newspaper said it was not clear whether President George W. Bush was informed about the planned operation.
It turned out that Osama bin Laden was in the Pakistani hill station town of Abbottabad. The compound was five kilometers from Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point and 60 kilometers north of Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. AP reported: “Like many Pakistani towns where the army has a strong presence, Abbottabad is well-manicured, and has solid infrastructure. Street signs tell residents to "Love Pakistan." The city also is known for its good schools, including some that were originally established by Christian missionaries.”
Steve Coll wrote in The New Yorker: Abbottabad is essentially a military-cantonment city in Pakistan, in the hills to the north of the capital of Islamabad, in an area where much of the land is controlled or owned by the Pakistani Army and retired Army officers. Although the city is technically in what used to be called the Northwest Frontier Province, it lies on the far eastern side of the province and is as close to Pakistani-held Kashmir as it is to the border city of Peshawar. The city is most notable for housing the Pakistan Military Academy, the Pakistani Army’s premier training college, equivalent to West Point. Looking at maps and satellite photos on the Web last night, I saw the wide expanse of the Academy not far from where the million-dollar, heavily secured mansion where bin Laden lived was constructed in 2005. The maps I looked at had sections of land nearby marked off as “restricted areas,” indicating that they were under military control. It stretches credulity to think that a mansion of that scale could have been built and occupied by bin Laden for six years without its coming to the attention of anyone in the Pakistani Army. [Source: Steve Coll, The New Yorker May 2, 2011]
Abbottabad is also a transit point for militants moving between Kashmir and the tribal areas. The region is the prime recruitment base of militant groups such as Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen, whose training camps and other facilities still exist nearby in Mansehra. At least two other top al-Qaida leaders were sheltered in Abbottabad. Al-Qaida's No. 3, Abu Faraj al-Libi, lived in the town before his arrest in 2005 elsewhere in northwest Pakistan, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials. Earlier this year, Indonesian terror suspect Umar Patek was nabbed at a house in the town following the arrest of an al-Qaida courier who worked at the post office. It is not clear whether Patek had any links with bin Laden. [Source: Carlotta Gall, Pir Zubair Shah and Eric Schmitt, New York Times, June 23, 2011]
Why Did Osama bin Laden Choose Abbottabad?
Nahal Toosi and Zarar Khan of Associated Press wrote: “Also unclear was why bin Laden chose Abbottabad.... The bustling streets are dotted with buildings left over from British colonial days. These days it attracts some tourists, but is known mostly as a garrison town wealthier than many others in Pakistan. Bin Laden found it safe enough to stay for up to six years, according to U.S. officials, a stunning length of time to remain in one place right under the noses of a U.S.-funded army that had ostensibly been trying to track him down. Most intelligence assessments believed him to be along the Afghan-Pakistan border, perhaps in a cave. [Source: Nahal Toosi and Zarar Khan, Associated Press, May 3, 2011]
Greg Miller wrote in the Washington Post: U.S. government officials “outlined emerging theories as to why bin Laden apparently selected the Pakistani military garrison city of Abbottabad as the place that afforded him the greatest chance to stay alive. The city, about two hours north of Islamabad by car, offered a number of advantages for the al-Qaeda leader, officials said. Chief among them is that Abbottabad, deep inside Pakistan’s borders, is a safe distance from the tribal regions that are patrolled by armed U.S. drones. [Source: Greg Miller, Washington Post , May 17, 2011]
U.S. officials said they are convinced that bin Laden, who had long immersed himself among the Pashtun tribes along the border with Afghanistan, was driven from that part of the country by the escalating drone campaign. “Even five years ago things were dropping from the sky” in Pakistan’s tribal region, a U.S. official said. “He probably felt that if he could conceal his presence [in Abbottabad] it would be an unlikely area for the United States to pursue him.”
Strikes by conventional U.S. aircraft would have carried enormous risks, both because Pakistan has invested heavily in air detection and defense systems — to counter any threat posed by India — and because of the perils of an errant strike. “All it has to be is about 1,000 yards off and it hits the Pakistan Military Academy,” said a CIA veteran of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The city is also home to two regimental compounds, and suburbs occupied by military families.
U.S. officials said there were also disadvantages for bin Laden in residing in Abbottabad, including the fact that the area is relatively welcoming to outsiders, including Pakistanis on vacation, military families being transferred to bases there and even U.S. soldiers who have at times been sent to Abbottabad to train Pakistani troops. “Abbottabad is not a place where Islamic extremists went, because it wasn’t a stronghold,” said the former U.S. intelligence official involved in the bin Laden pursuit. “They preferred places like Peshawar, Quetta or Karachi.” When analysts would consider likely locations for the al-Qaeda chief, the official said, “Abbottabad wouldn’t be on that list.”
Skepticism that Pakistan Didn’t Know Osama bin Laden was in Abbottabad
Abbottabad, Reuters reported, is home to three Pakistan army regiments and thousands of military personnel and is dotted with military buildings. The discovery that bin Laden was living in an army town in Pakistan raises pointed questions about how he managed to evade capture and even whether Pakistan's military and intelligence leadership knew of his whereabouts and sheltered him. [Source: Reuters, MSNBC.com, May 2, 2011]
“The Pakistani government also pushed back at suggestions that security forces were sheltering bin Laden or failed to spot suspicious signs. "It needs to be appreciated that many houses (in the northwest) have high boundary walls, in line with their culture of privacy and security," the government said. "Houses with such layout and structural details are not a rarity." Questions persisted about how authorities could not have known who was living in the compound, especially since it was close to a prestigious military academy. As in other Pakistani towns, hotels in Abbottabad are supposed to report the presence of foreigners to the police, as are estate agents. Abbottabad police chief Mohammed Naeem said the police followed the procedures but "human error cannot be avoided." [Ibid]
AP reported: The Pakistani government has denied suggestions that its security forces knew anything about bin Laden's hideout or failed to spot suspicious signs. CIA director Leon Panetta, among those not convinced, said, "Pakistan was involved or incompetent.” Panetta told "60 Minutes" that he remains convinced that someone in the Pakistani government must have had an idea that a person of interest was in the compound. "I personally have always felt that somebody must have had some sense of what ... what was happening at this compound. Don't forget, this compound had 18-foot walls ... It was the largest compound in the area. So you would have thought that somebody would have asked the question, 'What the hell's going on there?'" Panetta told the show. [Source: AP, January 28, 2012]
Steve Coll wrote in The New Yorker: “The initial circumstantial evidence suggests...that bin Laden was effectively being housed under Pakistani state control. Pakistan will deny this, it seems safe to predict, and perhaps no convincing evidence will ever surface to prove the case. If I were a prosecutor at the United States Department of Justice, however, I would be tempted to call a grand jury. Who owned the land on which the house was constructed? How was the land acquired, and from whom? Who designed the house, which seems to have been purpose-built to secure bin Laden? Who was the general contractor? Who installed the security systems? Who worked there? Are there witnesses who will now testify as to who visited the house, how often, and for what purpose? [Source: Steve Coll, The New Yorker May 2, 2011]
Of course, Mullah Omar and Al Qaeda’s No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, probably also enjoy refuge in Pakistan. The location of Mullah Omar, in particular, is believed by American officials to be well known to some Pakistani military and intelligence officers; Omar, too, they believe, is effectively under Pakistani state control. Perhaps the circumstantial evidence in the bin Laden case is misleading; only a transparent, thorough investigation by Pakistani authorities into how such a fugitive could have lived so long under the military’s nose without detection would establish otherwise. That sort of transparent investigation is unlikely to take place.
The U.S. has not found evidence indicating senior Pakistani officials knew of bin Laden's whereabouts, but said he must have had some form of "support network." The trove of documents seized from the compound after the raid does not point to any contact between bin Laden and members of the Pakistani military or intelligence services. Even so U.S. President Barack Obama pressed Pakistan to probe how bin Laden managed to live for years under the noses of its military, saying he must have had some kind of support network. "We think that there had to be some sort of support network for bin Laden inside of Pakistan," Obama told the CBS television show "60 Minutes." "But we don't know who or what that support network was. We don't know whether there might have been some people inside of government, people outside of government, and that's something that we have to investigate and, more importantly, the Pakistani government has to investigate." [Source: AFP, May 9, 2011]
Seized Phone Offers Clues to Bin Laden’s Pakistani Links
bounty leaflet In June 2011, the New York Times reported: “The cellphone of Osama bin Laden’s trusted courier, which was recovered in the raid that killed both men in Pakistan last month, contained contacts to a militant group that is a longtime asset of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, senior American officials said. The discovery indicates that Bin Laden used the group, Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen, as part of his support network inside the country, the officials and others said. But it also raised tantalizing questions about whether the group and others like it helped shelter and support Bin Laden on behalf of Pakistan’s spy agency, given that it had mentored Harakat and allowed it to operate in Pakistan for at least 20 years, the officials and analysts said. [Source: Carlotta Gall, Pir Zubair Shah and Eric Schmitt, New York Times, June 23, 2011]
In tracing the calls on the cellphone, American analysts have determined that Harakat commanders had called Pakistani intelligence officials, the senior American officials said. One said they had met. The officials added that the contacts were not necessarily about Bin Laden and his protection and that there was no “smoking gun” showing that Pakistan’s spy agency had protected Bin Laden. But the cellphone numbers provide one of the most intriguing leads yet in the hunt for the answer to an urgent and vexing question for Washington: How was it that Bin Laden was able to live comfortably for years in Abbottabad. “It’s a serious lead,” said one American official, who has been briefed in broad terms on the cellphone analysis. “It’s an avenue we’re investigating.” The revelation also provides a potentially critical piece of the puzzle about Bin Laden’s secret odyssey after he slipped away from American forces in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan nearly 10 years ago. It may help answer how and why Bin Laden or his protectors chose Abbottabad.
Harakat has especially deep roots in the area around Abbottabad, and the network provided by the group would have enhanced Bin Laden’s ability to live and function in Pakistan, analysts familiar with the group said. Its leaders have strong ties with both Al Qaeda and Pakistani intelligence, and they can roam widely because they are Pakistanis, something the foreigners who make up Al Qaeda’s ranks cannot do. Even today, the group’s leader, Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil, long one of Bin Laden’s closest Pakistani associates, lives unbothered by Pakistani authorities on the outskirts of Islamabad.
The senior American officials did not name the commanders whose numbers were in the courier’s cellphone but said that the militants were in South Waziristan, where Al Qaeda and other groups had been based for years. Harakat’s network would have allowed Bin Laden to pass on instructions to Qaeda members there and in other parts of Pakistan’s tribal areas, to deliver messages and money or even to take care of personnel matters, analysts and officials said.
Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen, Pakistani Intelligence and Osama bin Laden
Carlotta Gall, Pir Zubair Shah and Eric Schmitt wrote in the New York Times: Harakat is one of a host of militant groups set up in the 1980s and early ’90s with the approval and assistance of Pakistan’s premier spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, to fight as proxies in Afghanistan, initially against the Soviets, or against India in the disputed territory of Kashmir. Like many groups, it has splintered and renamed itself over the years, and because of their overlapping nature, other groups could have been involved in supporting Bin Laden, too, officials and analysts said. But Harakat, they said, has been a favored tool of the ISI. [Source: Carlotta Gall, Pir Zubair Shah and Eric Schmitt, New York Times, June 23, 2011]
Harakat “is one of the oldest and closest allies of Al Qaeda, and they are very, very close to the ISI,” said Bruce O. Riedel, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer and the author of “Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America, and the Future of the Global Jihad.” “The question of ISI and Pakistani Army complicity in Bin Laden’s hide-out now hangs like a dark cloud over the entire relationship” between Pakistan and the United States, Mr. Riedel added. Indeed, suspicions abound that the ISI or parts of it sought to hide Bin Laden, perhaps to keep him as an eventual bargaining chip, or to ensure that billions of dollars in American military aid would flow to Pakistan as long as Bin Laden was alive.
Bin Laden himself had a long history with the ISI, dating to the mujahedeen insurgency that the Americans and Pakistanis supported against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s.Two former militant commanders and one senior fighter who have received support from the ISI for years said they were convinced that the ISI played a part in sheltering Bin Laden. Because of their covert existence, they spoke on the condition that their names not be used. One of the commanders belonged to Harakat. The other said he had fought as a guerrilla and trained others for 15 years while on the payroll of the Pakistani military, until he quit a few years ago. He said that he had met Bin Laden twice.
He and the other commander, who spent 10 years with Harakat, offered no proof of their belief that Bin Laden was under Pakistani military protection. But their views were informed by their years of work with the ISI and their knowledge of how the spy agency routinely handled militant leaders it considered assets — placing them under protective custody in cities, often close to military installations. The treatment amounts to a kind of house arrest, to ensure both the security of the asset and his low profile to avoid embarrassment to his protectors.
Art Keller, a former C.I.A. officer who worked in Pakistan in 2006, said he had heard rumors after he left Pakistan in 2007 that Harakat was providing “background” assistance with logistics in moving and maintaining the Qaeda leader in Pakistan. That did not necessarily mean that members of the group were aware of the role they played or knew of Bin Laden’s whereabouts, another American intelligence official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the nature of his work.
Another Pakistani militant leader closely connected to Bin Laden is Qari Saifullah Akhtar, the leader of Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami. Mr. Akhtar stopped in South Waziristan on the way to Afghanistan just months ago, a militant interviewed by phone said. The presence in Waziristan of Mr. Akhtar — who is wanted in connection with the attack that killed Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister, in 2007 — demonstrated that he could still move freely without ISI interference. A report by the Pakistani Interior Ministry said that Mr. Akhtar had visited Bin Laden in August 2009 near the border with Afghanistan to discuss jihadist operations against Pakistan, according to an account that was published in the Pakistani newspaper The Daily Times in 2010. It is the only recorded episode showing that Bin Laden’s presence inside Pakistan was known to Pakistani intelligence, until the American raid that killed him.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated July 2012