TARGET: Bin Laden – The Death and Life of Public Enemy Number One


Analysts arrived at two conclusions: First, the courier was harboring a high-value target (HVT) in Abbottabad Compound One, or "AC1." Second, there was a strong probability that the HVT was Osama bin Laden, code name "Cakebread."

But the case was completely circumstantial.

Could the HVT have been al Qaeda's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, or Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Omar? Could the compound have been shielding members of bin Laden's family, but not bin Laden himself? Could al-Kuwaiti have been harboring just some drug syndicate crime boss hiding from the law?

There was no history of al-Kuwaiti and his brother working for anyone else. But officials from the CIA, still nursing wounds from intelligence failures surrounding both 9/11 and the lack of weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq, wanted to be sure that their analysis was as clean and intellectually rigorous as possible. They ordered a "red team" analysis, essentially giving the case to a group of analysts who knew nothing about it and asking them to poke holes in it.

In early March, Donilon and others on the National Security staff pushed the intelligence officials even further. They needed more information about why they were becoming so convinced bin Laden was in the compound, more paper on the links between al-Kuwaiti and bin Laden.

On March 14, the national security team arrived at essentially two basic courses of action to present to President Obama.

The first option would have two B-2 stealth bombers dropping a few dozen 2,000-pound GPS-guided bombs on the compound.

The second option was a Special Forces-led helicopter assault on the compound. There were a few other options and variations of these two plans.

President Obama aggressively challenged the plans. What were the advantages of the B-2 strike?

The B-2 strike provided the strongest guarantee that bin Laden would not escape, and that there wouldn't be any U.S. casualties. The B-2s would be launched by the 509th Bombing Wing from Whiteman Air Base, located seventy miles outside of Kansas City, Missouri.

What were the disadvantages?

To make sure bin Laden wasn't able to walk away from the attack, so much ordnance -- tens of thousands of pounds -- would be dropped on the compound, reducing it to rubble. So not only would all twenty-two individuals in the compound be killed -- including the women and children -- but it was likely the blast effects would hit surrounding houses, killing innocent Pakistanis who had no idea bin Laden was there.

What about the heliborne assault by Special Forces?

This was an even riskier option, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates was perhaps its leading skeptic. Sending U.S. troops into Pakistan was a big risk, and doing so on helicopters wasn't a reassuring prospect. He made it clear he had serious reservations about any long-range helicopter insertion.

Looming large in the secretary of defense's mind was Operation Eagle Claw, the ill-fated April 1980 mission to rescue fifty-three U.S. hostages in Iran, during which a U.S. helicopter collided with a transport plane, killing eight crewmen. And, of course, he also thought of Operation Gothic Serpent, the 1993 mission to capture Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid in Mogadishu. That mission resulted in two U.S. helicopters being shot down and eighteen U.S. troops being killed, now unfortunately better known for its failure: "Black Hawk Down."

No one disagreed that sending Special Forces in by helicopter was clearly a riskier option for the U.S. The helicopters could be detected coming in. Bin Laden might be warned a few minutes out, and he could go into a hole, escape, set off a suicide vest, set a booby-trap bomb, prepare for a firefight.

To many at the meeting that day, President Obama seemed to be favoring the B-2 strike. He told his team they need to prepare, to act "with urgency" and "with haste." He wasn't going to make a decision at this meeting, but a decision was coming soon.

There remained another big decision for the president to make: whether the U.S. should conduct the raid bilaterally with the Pakistanis.

This would be a gamble. The relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan was not built on trust. For years the CIA had been conducting attacks on targets in Pakistan using unmanned predator drones, with the agreement that the U.S. would give the Pakistani government prior notice. After too many incidents where the targets had been tipped off, probably by components of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the U.S. government changed the policy to notification "concurrent with" the drone attack.

How could U.S. officials trust the Pakistanis with prior information about an attack on a much higher value target -- the highest value -- if they couldn't even trust them with information about some mid-level thug?

On the other hand, this was an operation that would be conducted far within the borders of a sovereign nation. And the U.S. and Pakistanis have conducted successful joint operations before, most notably the March 28, 2002, capture of Abu Zubaydah in Faisalabad, Pakistan, and the March 1, 2003, capture of the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.

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