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Mission accomplished

12 May 2012

10:00 AM

12 May 2012

10:00 AM

Manhunt: From 9/11 to Abbottabad: The Ten-year Search for Osma bin Laden Peter Bergen

Bodley Head, pp.359, 20

Two shots killed Osama bin Laden, one in his chest and one in his left eye. ‘Two taps’ is standard practice for close-quarter shootings — firing twice takes virtually no longer than firing once and you increase (without quite doubling) your chance of an instant kill.

He was in his top-floor bedroom, in the dark, and his killers wore night-vision goggles. He died 15 minutes after the first sounds of attack — the roaring of helicopters, the crash-landing of one outside the compound, the blowing of a steel door in the wall. During those fateful 15 minutes he waited with one of his wives in the pitch black of that small room, paralysed perhaps by fear or indecision and hampered by the design of his house. Block-like, it was built in segregated compartments with few small windows, intended to frustrate observation.  But these very defensive measures also made it difficult for the inhabitants to see or hear what was going on. For five years bin Laden had been confined to the bedroom, another room he used as an office, a covered balcony and a covered outside walkway where he paced up and down (he was known to his observers in Washington, who never saw his face, as the Pacer). The loos were holes in the floor.

He must have heard his attackers blast their way through the massive metal gate that blocked access to the upper two floors, and might have heard the subsequent muffled shots that killed his 23-year-old son, Khalid, on the stairs. On his bedroom shelf he had an AK47 and a Makarov machine pistol, but he didn’t reach for them. Instead, he left his room and unlocked the final metal gate on the stairs in order to peer down to see what was happening, before quickly withdrawing his head and retreating into his room. Too late: his assailants had seen him and bounded up the stairs through the gate he had neglected to lock. If he’d come out at that moment with his hands up and pleading surrender, they’d probably — reluctantly — have accepted it and led him away.

But he stood, cornered, in his lair, seemingly deprived of fight or power of decision.  His wife, Amal, rushed screaming at the first man through the door, who shoved her aside.  His colleague shot her in the calf and she collapsed unconscious. One of them then shot bin Laden as he stood watching. The second bullet, the one through his left eye, took off part of his head and splattered his brain over the wall. When they dragged his body downstairs, presumably by the feet, his head must have bumped from step to step, as it left a bloody smear. It was watched by his 12-year-old daughter, Safia.

And so it ended, with that final, telling, squalid detail, on 2 May 2011. The long manhunt — it began under Clinton, well before 9/11 — and the billions spent, the multi-agency confusions, the missed opportunities — they could have had him before if they’d put more boots on the ground when he fled the caves of Tora Bora — the massive, needless distraction of Iraq and the final years of painstaking concentrated effort, all led to that bloody head bumping down the stairs. ‘Small men on the wrong side of history,’ was Obama’s verdict on al-Qua’eda.

So, what does this book tell us? It shows, firstly, that when the Americans really put their minds to do something, they really do it. After several false starts and blurred focus, they got the right people together and honed their methods. It shows, too, the importance of analysis and assessment in the intelligence process. Even when Obama courageously gave the order to go, they weren’t absolutely sure that bin Laden was in the compound; but they did know they’d done all they could to establish the high probability and they’d red-teamed it — tried alternative explanations — in a way they never did with WMD in Iraq.

It shows, too, the uncomfortable truth that torture may be useful, if not justifiable. What led ultimately to bin Laden was identifying his courier, known as the Kuwaiti, and the first indications of this man’s possible importance came from the enhanced interrogations — in plain words, torture — of the 20th 9/11 hijacker and of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, its mastermind. They might have got there without either — or got the same information without torture — but that’s what happened. This account also catalogues the deadly success of controversial drone strikes on reducing the al-Qae’da leadership, increased from one every 40 days under Bush to one every four under Nobel Peace Prize winner, Obama.

Finally, it shows how bin Laden and his crew were — are — motivated as much by religious zealotry as by lust for power, political aggrandisement, aggressive self-assertion, personal resentment or perceptions of ‘deprivation’. There has been a tendency, in the British bureaucracy at least, to play down the religious and to play up everything else. This is partly because a secular culture finds it difficult to comprehend true religious enthusiasm and partly because, if you do admit it, you can see no end to it — there’s nothing to negotiate. Osama bin Laden was everything we want to say about him — and devoutly religious. He led his household in prayer every day and named Safia after a contemporary of the Prophet who had killed a Jew, hoping — he explained — that she would grow up to do the same.

This is a very good, well-sourced account, as good on the White House, the military and the CIA as on what happened in Abbottabad, and as good as we’re likely to get short of an official version.  Bin Laden’s last words were to his wife: ‘Don’t turn on the light.’ They were a waste, like so much else in his embittered life: the Americans had ensured (doubtless through a well-placed agent) that power to that part of Abbottabad was cut off. He died in darkness, as he had lived.

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