On the eve of the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, a CIA told President Barack Obama they had the best lead in years to find the mastermind and the leader of Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden.
They had tracked a high-level al Qaeda messenger to a house in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and believed he could lead them to bin Laden. It turned out that the most wanted terrorist on Earth lived there.
The former director of the CIA, John Brennan, then Obama’s senior counterterrorism adviser, told the AFP on what he called the “most intense, secret, and best-planned” operation of his career: the high-risk raid of the US Special Forces that on May 1, 2011 that killed Bin Laden.
The CIA warned that it needed to corroborate its intelligence information, but there was excitement at the briefing among top brass about the possibility of finally capturing America’s most wanted fugitive.
“(We aspire) to find the man and give the victims of September 11 the justice they deserve.” Brennan said.
During the following months, CIA agents became more convinced that a tall, bearded man seen walking inside the compound (they called him the “Pacer”) was Bin Laden, although they did not have a clear view of his face. .
By the end of December, Obama was ready to act. In the midst of intense secrecy, White House officials began planning the operation around a scale model of the complex, the size of a table, a replica of the place where the terrorist was hiding.
Option one: a targeted missile strike could leave them without proof that they had killed Bin Laden.
Option two: a helicopter assault on a moonless night, but it carried enormous risks.
American soldiers could be killed in a shootout or caught in a clash with Pakistani forces, that they would not be warned about the attack, defending their territory against the incursion.
As preparations progressed in early 2011, a senior CIA expert on bin Laden was 70 percent sure Pacer was his man, while another team that separately evaluated the operation placed the probability at only 40 percent.
Computer image of the complex in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden lived and was killed.
But there was still no positive identification.
“We certainly weren’t as smart as we would have liked.” Brennan said.
Still, he added, “there was nothing to contradict the view that it was Bin Laden. And that’s what we were looking for, any indication that the Pacer was someone other than Bin Laden.”
On Thursday April 28, 2011, Obama met with senior officials in the White House’s underground Crisis Room.
“Obama wanted to hear everyone’s opinion,” Brennan recalled. Those who opposed the raid included Defense Secretary Robert Gates and then-Vice President Joe Biden., but the majority were in favor, in what they recognized was a difficult decision to make.
The next morning, Obama gave the go-ahead for Special Forces to carry out a raid on Sunday afternoon US time. Meanwhile, Brennan continued to go through the plan step by step.
“You keep thinking over and over again, making sure not only of what you have done to date, but also what was going to happen the next day, to be sure that every possible aspect of this was considered.” Said Brennan.
Then-United States President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House on May 1, 2011.
Senior security and defense officials gathered in the Crisis Room on Sunday to prepare.
When the helicopters left Afghanistan for the 90-minute flight to Abbottabad, the officials headed to a narrow side room where Brigadier General Brad Webb monitored the action on a laptop, communicating in real time with the Chief of Special Operations, Admiral Bill McRaven.
A famous White House photograph shows Obama, Biden, Brennan and the other officials huddled shoulder to shoulder around Webb, nervously watching the video in silence as the raid unfolded.
One of the two helicopters had had a forced landing, and a backup had to fly. There was no video from inside the complex.
After about 20 minutes, “McRaven heard from his men the phrase, ‘Geronimo Geronimo,'” Brennan said. Bin laden was dead.
The main reaction was relief, he recalled. “There was no applause or celebration. It was a feeling of accomplishment. “
Brennan acknowledges that it was a risky operation.
But as the president said, even if the chances were 50-50, it was a much better chance than the one America had had before catching Bin Laden“, he said.
“It was absolutely the right risk to take at the right time.”
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