Why did it take so long to get Osama?

More than once, U.S. officials had bin Laden in their crosshairs

Why did it take so long?

Darren McCollester/New York Times/Getty Images

In the end, Osama bin Laden was hardly the righteous martyr he claimed to be. The same terrorist mastermind who murdered thousands of people in a single morning—and urged his followers to “kill Americans wherever they are found,” even if that meant their own demise—was not exactly toughing out the jihad in a dusty cave or secluded mud hut. He was holed up in a Pakistani mansion, in a third-floor bedroom with a king-size mattress, red-and-yellow curtains, and a closet.

John Brennan, the White House’s counterterrorism adviser, summed it up best: “Here is Osama, living in a million-dollar compound,” he told reporters. “It speaks to just how false his narrative has been over the years.”

Snippets continue to emerge about the top-secret mission that finally claimed al-Qaeda’s elusive leader, 10 long years after the 9/11 attacks. The tips from Guantánamo Bay. Months and months of tedious surveillance. The dangerous midnight raid, carried out by an elite unit of Navy Seals—and relayed, blow by blow, to nervous officials back in the White House situation room, including President Barack Obama.

But of all the details disclosed over the past week, nothing says more about Osama bin Laden than his final, heavily fortified hideout—an oasis of relative comfort and self-preservation. Clearly, as committed as he was to waging holy war against the West, the world’s most wanted man was even more committed to dying of old age, far away from the battlefields and prison cells that have claimed so many of his loyal subordinates.

That he managed to survive for so long was part savvy, part serendipity. More than once—including numerous times before 9/11—U.S. officials had bin Laden in their crosshairs but were hesitant to pull the trigger, fearful the intelligence wasn’t strong enough or the “collateral damage” too risky. On most occasions, though, he was simply too slippery. Bin Laden was so elusive—and so determined to outrun his enemies, rather than face them—that some spies nicknamed him “Elvis”: spotted but never quite seen.

Over the years (and depending on the source), the fugitive terrorist was falcon hunting in Iran, killed in the 2005 Pakistan earthquake, or living a clean-shaven life somewhere in Indonesia. Or Utah. Not even a $25-million bounty was enough to convince a single confidant to turn him in. Until last Sunday, when word of his assassination spread across the globe, the search for bin Laden had become more ghost hunt than manhunt.

And now it’s finally over, with a bullet to the head and a burial at sea. “They took care of business,” said a relieved John Cartier, who lost his younger brother in the twin towers on 9/11. “He will never be able to perpetrate an attack on anybody ever again. It’s a good moment in American history.”

The son of a billionaire construction magnate (his father was the official contractor of the Saudi royal family), bin Laden cut his teeth during the Afghan-Soviet conflict, establishing guest houses for Arab fighters bound for the front lines, and laying down the roots of what would become his al-Qaeda network. When the Soviets retreated, he shifted his focus to another enemy: the United States. To bin Laden, the U.S. was the bane of the Muslim world, propping up repressive regimes and “occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places.” In August 1996—a full five years before 9/11—the charismatic fanatic issued his first fatwa against U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia, declaring it the “legitimate right” of Muslims to strike “the infidels.”

The CIA was listening. That same year, the agency quietly created a special unit to collect and analyze intelligence on the up-and-coming radical, who certainly wasn’t shy about broadcasting his beliefs. In 1997, bin Laden invited a CNN crew to visit him in Afghanistan. “[The U.S.] wants to occupy our countries, steal our resources, impose agents on us to rule us and then wants us to agree to all this,” he told the interviewer. “If we refuse to do so, it says we are terrorists.”

By the end of 1997, the CIA was concerned enough to concoct its first scheme to capture bin Laden, who at the time was living near the Kandahar Airport under the protection of the Taliban. The plan was for Afghan tribesmen working for the U.S. to raid his compound, then hand him over to the Americans at a secret rendezvous point. The concept was meticulously rehearsed three times, and “Mike,” a CIA agent stationed in the region, considered it “the perfect operation.”

But the plan never materialized. George Tenet, then the CIA director, was concerned about “collateral damage” and did not even present the option to President Bill Clinton. As the 9/11 commission later concluded, it was a fateful but reasonable decision made “from the vantage point of the driver looking through a muddy windshield moving forward, not through a clean rear-view mirror.”

Just three months after the kidnap op was shelved, a series of coordinated truck bombs exploded outside the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224 people. The dual attack had all the hallmarks of al-Qaeda, and on August 20, 1998, Clinton retaliated with Tomahawk cruise missiles, targeting bin Laden bases in Afghanistan and Sudan. “Our mission was clear,” the president said that night. “To strike at the network of radical groups affiliated with and funded by Osama bin Laden, perhaps the pre-eminent organizer and financier of international terrorism in the world today.” Bin Laden survived.

Later that winter, CIA officers reported another positive sighting, this time at the governor’s residence in Kandahar. “Hit him tonight—we may not get another chance,” wrote Gary Schroen, the Islamabad station chief. But again, officials in Washington feared collateral damage, and nixed the request. As Schroen later wrote: “We may well come to regret the decision not to go ahead.”

In May 1999, the U.S. had “perhaps the last, and most likely the best, opportunity” to kill bin Laden before the Sept. 11 attacks. According to numerous assets on the ground, the al-Qaeda chief was seen over a five-day period in and around Kandahar. “This was our strike zone,” a senior military officer would later recall. “It was a fat pitch, a home run.” Concerns about collateral damage once again thwarted an attack. As the 9/11 commission wrote in its final report: “From May 1999 until September 2001, policy-makers did not again actively consider a missile strike” against bin Laden.

He was free to plan his own strike.

That all changed, of course, on Sept. 11, 2001. Bin Laden had dedicated his life to crippling the U.S., but until that Tuesday morning, most Americans had never heard of him. Suddenly, he was public enemy number one, taunting Americans in videotaped rants and promising further bloodshed.

“Do you want bin Laden dead?” a reporter asked president George W. Bush, just days after the attacks.

“I want justice,” he answered. “And there’s an old poster out west, as I recall, that said: ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive.’ ”

By December 2001, bin Laden’s demise appeared imminent. Amid heavy fighting in Afghanistan, the al-Qaeda leader fled to the Tora Bora mountains, where he was soon surrounded by U.S. special forces and levelled with a punishing onslaught of laser-guided bombs. Yet somehow, he once again managed to slither his way to freedom.

Exactly what went wrong on that mountain range has been the subject of much debate. A former Delta Force commander, who wrote a tell-all book under a pseudonym, says bin Laden escaped because the U.S. relied too heavily on Afghan troops, and naively believed that Pakistani soldiers were guarding the border a few kilometres away. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a notorious Afghan warlord, has since admitted that he helped bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, escape the Tora Bora ambush. “We helped them get out of the caves and led them to a safe place,” he said. A videotape, later obtained by the CIA, shows bin Laden walking on a trail toward Pakistan in December 2001.

By 2006—five years after the debacle at Tora Bora—the hunt for bin Laden was, in the words of one intelligence official, “stone cold.” One rumour had him dead, the victim of typhoid fever. Another report said he succumbed to kidney failure and was buried in Iran. In 2007, Richard A. Clarke, Bill Clinton’s former counterterrorism chief, speculated that bin Laden was wearing a “phony looking beard” and hiding somewhere in southeast Asia.

Adding to the frustration of every dead-end lead was the gnawing suspicion that sympathetic Pakistani officials were harbouring bin Laden. Last May, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said as much during an interview with CBS. “I’m not saying that they’re at the highest levels, but I believe that somewhere in this government are people who know where Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda are.” Pakistan has repeatedly denied such accusations—even after bin Laden was found in the suburb of Abbottabad, just a short drive from a military base. But the obvious question lingers: how could Pakistani officials have no idea that the planet’s most infamous man was hiding in plain sight, perhaps for years?

What we do know, according to the U.S. administration, is that the historic assassination was the culmination of dogged detective work, a careful examination of meticulously gleaned intelligence, a touch of luck—and zero input from Pakistan.

It dates back as far as 2007, when numerous prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, dropped the code name of one of bin Laden’s trusted couriers. According to the New York Times, interrogators ran the pseudonym past two high-level detainees—Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the chief planner of 9/11, and Abu Faraj al-Libi, al-Qaeda’s operational chief—but both men insisted they had never heard of him. Their denials raised immediate suspicion, and CIA officers spent the next two years scrambling to figure out the courier’s real name.

They caught a massive break last summer, when Pakistanis working for the CIA spotted the courier driving near Peshawar. They jotted down his licence plate, and from that moment on he was under constant surveillance. One day, agents followed him to the Abbottabad compound—a suspicious, three-storey home surrounded by towering concrete walls topped with barbed wire. Said one official: “It was a ‘holy cow’ moment.”

In August, Obama was briefed about “a possible lead to bin Laden,” but it would take many more months of eavesdropping to confirm (or at least reasonably assume) that the al-Qaeda chief was hiding inside. U.S. officials pored over satellite photos, but other clues were hard to come by. The compound did not have a phone or Internet connection, and the people inside burned their garbage rather than toss it on the curb.

By March, the Pentagon had reportedly crafted three possible missions: a special forces helicopter assault, a B-2 bomber strike, and a joint raid with Pakistani operatives. White House officials settled on option one, concerned that an all-out bombing would likely kill civilians and leave no trace of bin Laden. On Friday, April 29, just before leaving Washington to tour the tornado damage in Alabama, Obama issued his order. “It’s a go,” he told his aides.

That Sunday afternoon, after nine holes of golf, the President joined senior staff in the situation room, where, via closed-circuit television, CIA director Leon Panetta was passing along real-time updates from the troops on the ground. “It was probably one of the most anxiety-filled periods of time, I think, in the lives of the people who were assembled,” Brennan, the counterterrorism adviser, told reporters. “The minutes passed like days, a lot of people holding their breath.” Vice President Joe Biden reportedly held a rosary in his hand.

The choppers touched down just past midnight, Pakistan time, and Navy Seals flooded the compound, triggering a brief but intense firefight. Two men—later identified as the trusted courier and his brother—were killed in the battle. An unidentified woman caught in the crossfire also perished.

The commandos cornered bin Laden and his wife (one of four) upstairs. She charged the soldiers and was shot in the leg, but survived. Her husband, unarmed, took at least one bullet to the head, just above his left eye, although reports suggest he may have been shot two more times. Facial recognition software later confirmed, with 95 per cent certainty, that the corpse was bin Laden. Further DNA tests reported a 99.9 per cent match.

Back in the situation room, word of his death was met with silence and relief. After so many years, so many missed opportunities, Obama uttered the three words that his country longed to hear: “We got him.”

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