As cheering crowds gathered outside the White House and at Ground Zero awaiting President Obama’s announcement that Navy SEALs had succeeded in killing Osama bin Laden, details began emerging about the hushed mission.
Last August, an intelligence lead guided the CIA to Abbottabad, Pakistan, a suburban military community far from the nation’s remote tribal area, just north of the capital, Islamabad.
Al Qaeda’s leader was hiding in plain sight.
When two military helicopters converged on bin Laden’s sheltered fortress late on May 1, an additional chopper hovered nearby, prepared to fight if necessary. In all, 79 commandos and one military dog took part in the mission.
Obama had ordered the risky operation to raid rather than bomb the compound; he had also made the executive decision not to alert Pakistani officials that the mission was under way.
Bin Laden, tucked away in a second-floor bedroom, reportedly “resisted arrest” before being shot dead by U.S. Forces.
“The interruption of over-the-air programs and the announcement that Osama bin Laden’s hideout, some 30 miles from Islamabad, Pakistan, where, incommunicado, the terror leader secluded himself with three wives and a few children, as well as the report of his summary execution by Navy SEALs, came as a surprised to the general public around the world,” said Bridgeport resident and professor Alfred Gerteiny, a terrorism expert and author of “The Terrorist Conjunction — the United States, the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, and al Qa’ida.”
“To terrorism cognoscente, however, the expectation that the leader of al Qaeda’s whereabouts would eventually be pinpointed and that it would quite probably be in Pakistan was a no-brainer,” he added.
The al Qaeda compound had reportedly been built in 2005. After receiving some $20 billion in U.S. dollars over a decade to weed out the criminal mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, were Pakistani officials unaware they were harboring bin Laden?
“It seems to me that at some level there must have been awareness in Pakistan of the raid on bin Laden’s villa a stone’s throw from Pakistan’s military academy,” said Gerteiny.
“In fact, initial investigations reveal that Pakistan Air Force radars detected the movement of some half a dozen planes near the Jalalabad border at 11 p.m., before the U.S. helicopters entered Abbottabad. Furthermore, even with stealth aircraft a round-trip flight of 317 miles between Jalalabad and Abbottabad, the commotion at the villa and the explosion and fire of the hapless helicopter should have awakened even the most somnolent nightshift officer-in-charge at the nearby bases,” Gerteiny said.
“And so what has been termed as possible incompetence by Pakistan’s foreign minister may be related to Pakistan’s concern about internal stability. Congress should therefore be less insensitive in re-evaluating U.S. aid to that important schizophrenic ally.”
Pakistan denies knowing that bin Laden was within its borders or that the U.S. had alerted it to the military operation.
Obama and his national security advisers sat gathered in the White House watching the raid transmitted from helmet-mounted cameras. Obama reported that it was one of the most anxiety-filled 40 minutes of his life — especially when one of the helicopters broke down, stalling over the 18-foot wall of the compound.
The only reported casualties were bin Laden, his 19-year-old son, two male couriers and one woman believed to be a courier’s wife. A wife of bin Laden was shot in the leg while shielding him.
The terrorist mastermind’s three widows are currently in Pakistani custody.
Commandos then scoured the area, retrieving enough material to “fill a small college library,” officials reported. While there was no Internet access inside the facility, off-line computers and thumb-drives were discovered.
Also confiscated was a rough plan to bomb trains in New York and Los Angeles on the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
According to government accounts, the al Qaeda leader was later washed in accordance with Islamic custom, wrapped in a white sheet, placed inside a weighted bag and laid on a board in an aircraft carrier. As a military officer read religious rites translated into Arabic, bin Laden was “eased into” the North Arabian Sea. He had earlier been photographed and the burial at sea was videotaped, although Obama decided not to release the images to the public.
One of bin Laden’s widows identified his body and CIA field tests found a “virtually 100 percent match,” between his DNA and family members. Additionally, Taliban and al Qaeda leaders issued statements confirming the death of bin Laden. Still, some choose to believe conspiracy theories over facts.
Skeptics remain “In the absence of photos, there will always be those who will not believe in bin Laden’s death and assume that he is being secretly held prisoner by the United States,” said Gerteiny. “On the other hand, the decision to withhold photos of a bloody face splattered with fragments from the brain that allegedly conceived the 9/11 tragedy, a gaping hole in lieu of the deceitfully soft left eye that mournfully peered at the desert expanse of Afghanistan, did not only spare us the unnecessary graphic gore, it undoubtedly denied to those who viewed him as divine messenger added fodder to their cultural vengeful inclination. More importantly, the decision testifies to the decent respect a civilized nation holds for the dead, no matter how evil.”
Beginning in March, Obama lead five national security meetings to review plans for the operation. Two days before the mission, the president gave the final order for Navy SEALs and CIA operatives to strike.
Bin Laden was not armed when he was shot twice.
International law “Though revulsed by the enormity of Osama bin Laden’s crimes, I remain concerned about upholding international law and human rights,” said Gerteiny. “I would have found it more consonant with American jurisprudential tradition and with international law had we captured him and exposed his warped mentality and deeds to judgment at the International Criminal Court, like all charged with ideologically-inspired massacres and genocides.
Indeed if we had enough time and personnel to haul away a trove of documents, we certainly could have tranquillized him and carried him back alive to the helicopter in the same way as we did his corpse.
“We might have also seized the opportunity to join the community of civilized nations in recognizing the competency of that august court. I might also add that while the tumultuous popular joy expressed in celebration of his execution is understandable, I felt, as a person who stands against capital punishment, rather uncomfortable,” Gerteiny said.
While some ultimately credit the Bush administration for bin Laden’s death, others point to its record when assigning credit and blame.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, bin Laden had been permitted to escape in Tora Bora after the CIA reported having him in its crosshairs.
In March 2002, President Bush told reporters, “I don’t know where he [bin Laden] is. I really just don’t spend that much time on him, to be honest with you.” In 2005, the CIA unit known as Alec Station, dedicated to hunting bin Laden and his top lieutenants for a decade, was shut down.
Candidate Obama had vowed to find bin Laden, and if actionable intelligence led to Pakistan, he would take out the al Qaeda leader with or without Islamabad’s permission. For issuing that promise, Obama was harshly criticized by opponents.
“I do not find it surprising that, nor is there a need to elaborate, as to why President Obama should have succeeded in less than two years to do what President Bush in eight years failed to accomplish, but use your imagination,” said Gerteiny.
“I believe, as I wrote in my book, that the Bush-Cheney administration erred magisterially in launching aimless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These have not only debilitated us morally, economically and financially, they have to many in Islamdom confirmed the erroneous perception that a new crusade led by Washington and bent on eradicating Islam was afoot, and therefore the call for violent jihad God-ordained.”
Former Bush administration officials have further insisted that “enhanced interrogation” techniques led the CIA to the whereabouts of bin Laden.
“Enhanced interrogation techniques were never used by the Obama administration and had in fact been suspended by the Bush administration toward the latter part of its second term following media and public outrage,” said Gerteiny. “Furthermore, it has been reported by a former CIA operative familiar with the case that the name of the bin Laden courier whose monitoring ultimately led to the Abbottabad compound had absolutely not been divulged as a result of enhanced interrogation.”
Who will step in?
Who might fill the recently vacated shoes of Osama bin Laden?
“Bin Laden was the spiritual leader of al Qaeda, and its inspiration. His death, in my estimation, will not mean the end of the medieval movement he and al Zawahiri, its operational head, have diabolically created,” said Gerteiny.
“Dr. al Zawahiri may very well be the anointed successor of bin Laden, but there are other possible leaders, including the New Mexican-born alleged terror instigator, al Awlaki. It’s got to be assumed that there will for a long time continue to be extremist Islamists in the world who fervently believe in the violent imposition of their warped creed as a divine injunction. These will either act under al Qaeda, a like organization or as lone, fanatic, wayward wolves.”
How do the recent uprisings across the Middle East fit into the big picture?
“The so-called Arab spring is certainly a welcome courageous reaction to widespread, multifaceted corruption and violations of human rights and dignity, but one should not expect it to live up to the wishes of the young people who braved guns and tanks, or for that matter to our expectations,” said Gerteiny.
“Societies with a five hundred years lag cannot overcome democratically archaic traditions and obscurantism in a few decades. Turkey is often referred to as an example for other Muslim countries to follow, but let us not be gullible or ignore that Turkey’s modernization was brutally, dictatorially imposed, and that its democracy continues to leave much to be desired.”
The final chapter of al Qaeda has yet to be written.