It takes a bullet

Jun 10, 2012, 08:13 IST | Waleed Hussain

Author Peter Bergen's recent book on the 10 year-long search for Osama bin Laden knows how to keep you on the edge as it reveals little-known details of his escape to Tora Bora and the mystery around his death

For 10 years, the world’s most wanted man, Osama bin Laden, lived the life of a ghost. He floated through the treacherous mountains of Afghanistan eluding CIA officials hot on his tail, occasionally popping up on television screens across the world, spooking the masses and then disappearing again. He did not carry a mobile phone, avoided the use of electronic devices, spread terror among people with the release of a single video tape, and kept over a thousand CIA, Pentagon officials on their toes for a decade.

Osama bin Laden’s home being demolished in Abbotabad. Pic/AFP Photo

The 6 ft 4 inch-tall “monster” finally met his end at the hands of Navy SEALs in a covert operation that stunned the world. The man termed as the ‘lion of jihad’ was eliminated in a safehouse in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 1, 2011. In his new book, Manhunt, Author Peter Bergen offers an extensive account of the pursuit and killing of bin Laden in Pakistan. The book gives a panoramic view of the Situation Room, where US President Barack Obama considered the options available during the operation to eliminate bin Laden.

The tension, the nail-biting blow by blow account of the action on the ground, the sounds of gunshots on a moonless night, and then the double tap that sealed the operation make Manhunt read like an action thriller. Bergen also steps into the Abbottbad safehouse just days before it was pulled down by Pakistani authorities. A glimpse into the residence of the al- Qaeda chief and his last days of self-imprisonment is also on offer in the book, along with rare images of the man who shook the very foundations of America.

Last words
“Don’t turn on the light,” were the last words uttered by bin Laden to his wife Amal on the night of May 1, 2011. A team of Navy SEALs had surrounded the compound and swiftly entered the building. The first hit was the ‘Kuwaiti’, who was shot twice in the chin and dropped dead. The SEALs then killed the Kuwaiti’s brother Abrar and his wife Bushra. Next was bin Laden’s son Khalid, who was shot near the stairs. All three inhabitants shot inside the house were unarmed.

Activists of Pakistani Jamaat-ud-Dawa offer Muslim funeral prayers for Osama bin Laden on a street in Karachi on May 3, 2011. Pic/AFP Photo

The SEALs then barged into Osama’s bedroom which he shared with his favourite wife Amal. As the first seal moved in, Amal threw herself before her husband to shield him. The seal threw her aside and shot her in the calf, while another shot Osama through the chest and left eye.
“Geronimo EKIA (Enemy Killed in Action),” was the message relayed back to the White House.

Meeting bin Laden
Peter Bergen was among the three-member CNN team that interviewed bin Laden in 1997. The team had to cross the arid and treacherous mountain range in east Afghanistan to reach the hideout of the al Qaeda leader. The team was blindfolded and made to change several vehicles before they finally reached the lair by nightfall. Three successive groups of armed guards searched and checked the team before they were allowed in.

The al-Qaeda took their security arrangements very seriously, and it was evident from the fact that it took the CIA and American forces a decade to finally get their hands on bin Laden. According to the CIA operatives, they had bin Laden in their sight a number of times before 9/11, but on each occasion ordering a hit was impossible as he was rarely ever be present in one hideout for a long time. He was constantly on the move and that hindered any attempt to strike gold.

Audio/video threats
Pinpointing bin Laden’s exact location or even its whereabouts eluded security forces for the longest time. To add to their woes, bin Laden despatched almost 30 tapes post the 9/11 attacks. While some were audio clips, the videos were the most damaging of the communications. The video clips spread a sense of terror among the masses, and became a means of extensive frustration for Pentagon and CIA analysts, who spent many sleepless nights studying the videos for clues to his location.

One the second anniversary of the attacks, a video showing a lean and scrawny Osama walking with the help of a wooden stick in the mountain range surfaced. Analysts assumed that the area was in north-east Afghanistan but the vegetation visible in the footage signalled otherwise.  On October 29, 2004, al-Qaeda released a video where bin Laden addressed the audience with a “Message to the American People”. Bin Laden looked in pristine health and appeared to have recovered from the near-death experience in the battle of Tora Bora. The video appeared five days before the presidential elections in the US, sending a panic wave across the country.

Wives and kids
At the time of his capture, bin Laden had three of his wives with him in his hideout. The wives lived in perfect harmony and peace together. He married his first wife in 1974, when he was 17 and she was 15. Najwa, his beautiful Syrian cousin, bore him 11 children over three decades. She stayed by his side through his campaigns in Sudan, Pakistan and Afghanistan before heading back to Syria on September 9, 2001. In 1985, he married Khairiah, who hailed from a wealthy and distinguished family that claimed descent from the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH).

US President Barack Obama in The Situation Room during the Abbotabad operation that killed Osama bin Laden. Pic/AFP Photo/White House

Bin Laden was 28 and Khairiah was 35 when they got married. After the birth of her son Hamza, Khairiah became known as Umme Hamza. His next wife was Siham bin Abdullah, who belonged to a family that also claimed descent from the Prophet. She was a poet, an intellectual and often edited bin Laden’s writings. She bore him a son named Khalid, who was found at the Abbottabad hideout.
His last and favourite wife was Amal Ahmed al-Sadah in 1999. Bin Laden named his first born Safia. Amal was by his side when he was shot dead.

Don’t turn on the light
At about 2 am local time, 6.30 pm back in Washington, the Chintook landed back at the base in Jalalabad; the operation had taken a little over three hours. The CIA station chief in Afghanistan, a leading bin Laden analyst, and Admiral McRaven inspected bin Laden’s corpse. They stretched the body out to its full length but didn’t have a tape measure to confirm hat the corpse measured six feet four, the height of the al-Qaeda leader, so a SEAL of roughly the same height lay down next to it. The height was a match.

The CIA’s director for science and technology called into the Situation Room, reaching CIA chief of staff Jeremy Bash. “The length of his nose, the distance between his upper eye-lid and his lower eyebrow, the shape of the ear, cartilage — they all match.”  “We’ve gotten the facial analysis, and it matches. We believe it’s bin Laden with ninety-five percent confidence,” Panetta said. Cheers went up in the CIA conference room. Obama’s initial reaction was, “I’m not going to go out to the American public with a chance in twenty of being wrong.”

Obama said, “People can leak all they want. But it’s not news until I say something.” A photo of the dead al-Qaeda leader was passed around the Situation Room, and Obama looked it over carefully. Gerneral Clapper remembers, “The pictures were kind of gruesome, but it was him. I was sure it was him.” A White House official recalls, “There was a hole right around one of his eyes and it took of a chunk of his head, but it looked like Osama bin Laden, except for the fact that the beard was shorter and darker. It seemed like the beard had been dyed black and was a little shorter than the long gray beard in all the famous pictures of him walking around.” Leiter remembers thinking, “I don’t need facial recognition. It’s bin Laden with a hole in his head — immediately recognisable. Holy shit! We just killed Laden!

Excerpted with permission from Manhunt, published by Crown Publishers

Losing his voice

Osama bin Laden hadn’t used a telephone since 1997 and avoided all electronic communication devices, as they could be intercepted  

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