The final stage of the elimination of Osama bin Laden was planned intensively for several months, but preparing the whole operation took years. It was one of the biggest operations that the US intelligence and security agencies (CIA, NSA) undertook in the last ten years.
One of the blockbusters that filled the box office last year was Zero Dark Thirty, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, which unravels the Operation Neptune Spear during which the US special forces eliminated Osama bin Laden on the May 1st 2011. May interesting details have surfaced thanks to the book and the film, but many episodes of this spectacular operation have remained untold. How did the US security agencies find their most dangerous enemy and how was the task done? How long did the preparations take and what did they include? The inside view on the top secret operation gives unknown details on the ways and methods of security agencies in top priority operations.
The Intelligence from Gitmo
The final stage of the elimination of Osama bin Laden was planned intensively for several months, but preparing the whole operation took years. It was one of the biggest operations that the US intelligence and security agencies (CIA, NSA) undertook in the last ten years. In the CIA headquarters in Langley, analysts and computer experts have been running names along the piles of different information from all corners of the globe, operating huge databases, and following the clues in search for the “solid” evidence on the possible location of the Al Qaeda leader.
While the Langley guys were busy with their analyses and research, the CIA operatives collected new intelligence in the field and the war-zones around the world. At the same time, the interrogation officers were using their skills to extract information from Al Qaeda detainees in Guantanamo and other detention camps. One name started popping up more than the others – the one of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. A courier who was a confidant in Bin Laden’s inner circle, who attended the meetings, delivered messages and acted as a sort of personal secretary of the Al Qaeda leader.
The first man who pointed to Al-Kuwaiti was Mohammed al-Qahtani, a Guantanamo detainee, the twentieth member of the 9/11 terrorist group. Using the “step-by-step” method, the CIA started putting together all known details on the courier Al Kuwaiti, including his psychological profile. The next step was to find out his location, which sparked an investigation which gave good results. In 2010, Al Kuwaiti used a phone to contact a known Al Qaeda member, who had also been “watched” by the CIA. It was the courier’s big mistake as at that point he was registered and never let out of sight. In July 2010, two Pakistani citizens who worked for the CIA spotted Al Kuwaiti driving through streets of Peshawar, Pakistan in a white SUV. They followed him the next few weeks and waited. They noted everything down – where he lived, where he went, with whom he met. In the end, the courier led them right to Bin Laden’s doorstep.
The courier leads to the target
A month later, Al Kuwaiti drove himself to a large compound in Abbottabad, a city about 60 km north of Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, the home of the Military Academy. The two-floor building in one of the neighborhoods which the courier used to frequent was big, surrounded by a high wall, and with a spacey courtyard, covered by security cameras. That detail was enough for the heads of the US security agencies to conclude that they hit something big. The Pakistanis who worked for the CIA, who immediately arrived on the spot and started their covert work, noticed bars and thick curtains on windows on one of the floors. The house had no land lines or internet connection. The walls were 3.6 meters high, with barbed wire on the top. Whoever lived there didn’t take out their garbage, like the neighbors, but burned it in the courtyard instead. Like they didn’t want anyone to go through its content. The children didn’t go to the local school, a private teacher coming now an then. All these details pointed out that someone important was hiding inside.
After the initial checks and observations, a huge operation was unleashed, which will eventually lead to elimination of the America’s most wanted. The first step was relentless data gathering, which included all available resources: human agents (HUMINT), electronic devices, satellites and high technology (SIGINT), and UAVs. This data was used to make analyses, which ultimately brought to the plan of the attack and the terminal action. The whole endeavor in locating and eliminating Bin Laden had several phases.
During the first phase, satellites were used which kept the house in Abbottabad under 24h surveillance. Besides visual spy satellites, they also used SIGINT satellites for tapping phone calls. The analysts from NSA and NGA (National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency) worked together with the CIA on tiniest details on the satellite footage. From time to time, they showed a tall man, who didn’t have to do the house chores as the other residents. However, they couldn’t positively identify him as Bin Laden.
The eye in the sky
After several week of surveillance, President Obama was told that there is a strong possibility that Osama bin Laden is hiding in a house in Abbottabad. The president wanted the CIA and USSOCOM (United States Special Operations Command) to immediately start working together and definitely determine who is really hiding in the house in Abbottabad. In order to gather more data, the CIA had to get even closer to the target. That was the beginning of the second phase – drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), entered the fray. Known for their nickname “eye in the sky”, drones fire guided missiles but also transmit real time imaging from the spot. There were rumors that RQ-170 Sentinel, known as Beast from Kandahar, was used in hunting Bin Laden, because like B2 stealth bomber it also has reduced radar visibility. Sentinel sent more images from Abbottabad, but in the CIA still no one could guarantee that it was Bin Laden. They had to get even closer.
The third phase of the operation was realized through ground-based surveillance, by installing several CIA agents in disguise in the neighborhood of the house. With that goal in mind, the CIA rented a house nearby, which was used as the base for day and night surveillance and observation. In covert operations like this one, the key factor is for the agents to blend in the local community, and not draw attention at the same time. That is why they usually recruit agents from the same area, as was the case in this action.
The agency in “the hood”
From their watch post house, the CIA operatives used high powered zoom cameras and night vision devices. For eavesdropping on the people inside, they used laser beam devices, which record vibrations off the window pane on which the beam is directed. The complex software then converts those vibration patterns into sound. This allowed the operatives to overhear all the discussions inside, with no need for planting microphones, which in this case was impossible altogether. The CIA surveillance team spotted a tall man who used to walk in the courtyard of the suspicious house in Abbottabad, and tagged him “Walker”. They also determined that the residents included women, children and serving staff, which matched the profile of Bin Laden’s family. An important piece of evidence was provided by Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani doctor recruited by the CIA. He ran a fake vaccination program, which included the (Bin Laden’s) children from the mysterious house. During the vaccination, Dr. Shakil collected DNA samples from the children and in that way helped identify the US most wanted terrorist.
The CIA director Leon Panetta with and his team immediately started planning a special operation. First, he called Vice admiral William McRaven, the chief of JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) in Pentagon. From that point, McRaven and his associates worked with the CIA for weeks and came with the Operation Neptune Spear. The President of the United States Barrack Obama, hesitated for a long time, even postponed the order for start three times – in January, February and March 2011. Finally, he gave in at the end of April, taking pressure from State Secretary Hillary Clinton, the CIA Director Leon Panetta and his Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett.
Three options for the attack
In March 2011, the President was briefed with three options. The first was a joint operation with a team of ISI, the Pakistani intelligence, but it was quickly rejected. In that endeavor the key to success was the secrecy, and by including Pakistanis in the game, the information would leek, as it had happened before.
The second option was an air raid by B2 Spirit stealth bombers, which would drop laser guided bombs on the house in Abbottabad. This option was also promptly overruled, as the potential risk of killing innocent civilians and possibly missing the target was too high. Besides, if the house was leveled with the ground, all the DNA material and every proof that Bin Laden was really killed would be destroyed. And that was always the worst scenario for the US Army and security agencies officials.
The third option was an attack by a Special Forces team supported by helicopters. This option was also considered risky, the painful memories of the failed “Operation Eagle Talon” in Iran in 1980 and “Restore Hope” in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993 being still fresh. In spite of this, the third plan has shown as the most probable. Soon enough, General McRaven is given an order to start preparations for a possible Special Forces action. They made a 1:1 version of Bin Laden’s compound in Nevada, which they used to drill every phase of the attack repeatedly, with the stress on timing and coordination of strike teams. Afterwards, they included the helicopter crews.
President Obama assembled his National Security team on April 28th 2011 in the White House Situation Room. Finally, he has to make a decision whether to approve the action or not. The President took everything into account, he listened everyone present, and asked their opinion one by one. The meeting took two hours. However, there was disagreement as the advisors estimated that there is 60% probability that Bin Laden is in the Abbottabad house. At the end, the President informed the closest advisors that he will make the final decision in the morning.
In the morning, they assembled again and Obama looked at them and said, “Let’s do this.” Then he gave the order – start with the attack on Saturday, April 30th. However, because of bad weather the mission was delayed to the following day – May 1st. After midnight, the helicopters from 160. SOAR (Special Operations Aviation Regiment) with Navy SEALS from the elite Red Squadron of DEVGRU (the ex-SEAL Team 6) took off from the Forward Operating Base Fenty near Jalalabad, Afghanistan under the cover of darkness.
To Be Continued…