Osama Bin Laden’s death is the perfect postmodern event, in that most of the reports detailing how, where and when he died contradict all the other reports. This week I take an in-depth look at the Abbottabad raid of 2011 and the official story of Bin Laden’s death, analyzing some of the myriad contradictions and contrasting claims about what happened. I also dwell on the implications of our inability to find a consistent, coherent account of this critical event in the war on terror.
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The hunt for Bin Laden
The objective of killing or capturing Bin Laden was outlined in the wake of 9/11. Even though the FBI have said they have no hard evidence linking him to the attacks, Bin Laden’s name was being floated within hours of the planes hitting the buildings. One of the propagators was Paul Bremer, who spent that day going around saying the name Bin Laden to anyone who would listen. Bremer would, of course, go on to become the leader of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq and the man who announced the capture of Saddam Hussein.
Indeed, getting Osama Bin Laden was the primary reason given for the invasion of Afghanistan – he was a terrorist leader being sheltered and harboured by the Taliban. The fact that the Taliban offered to hand him over if the US presented evidence of his involvement in 9/11 was largely ignored, and so began the longest war in US history. With the Cold War over, the Western war establishment needed a new bearded enemy image to replace Castro and other leftists. The Islamists, and Osama in particular, arrived at just the right time.
So we invaded Afghanistan and began the hunt for Bin Laden. Ali Mohamed, a triple agent and veteran of the Al Qaeda camps offered to help find him, but was ignored. Aimen Dean, an MI6 double agent and veteran of the Al Qaeda camps was also available, but he was never asked to help. Other informants, agents, and co-operators could also have been deployed as on-the-ground assets, but none of them were.
Despite this, Operation Jawbreaker – the CIA’s first mission into Afghanistan in the wake of the attacks – repeatedly had Bin Laden in their sights, at least according to then CIA officer Gary Berntsen who was running the operation. Towards the end of the Battle of Tora Bora, in December 2001, the CIA knew Bin Laden was among a stream of hundreds of Taliban and Al Qaeda members who were fleeing from the area, mostly into Pakistan. But the Pentagon failed or refused to use conventional forces to block off the escape routes and thus intercept the fleeing fighters, Bin Laden among them. Berntsen has been highly critical of this decision both in interviews and in his book.
One could be forgiven for wondering whether the US were even trying to capture Bin Laden, or whether this was simply a convenient excuse to start a war. One answer to this question came in April 2002, when the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Richard Myers said ‘the goal has never been to get Bin Laden’. Tommy Franks, the commander at CENTCOM and the leader of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, similarly denied that capturing or killing Osama was one of their goals. In January 2005 the outgoing executive director of the CIA Buzzy Krongard said, ‘You can make the argument that we’re better off with him [at large]. Because if something happens to bin Laden, you might find a lot of people vying for his position and demonstrating how macho they are by unleashing a stream of terror.’ Other officials told the Times that ‘it may be better to keep bin Laden pinned down on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan rather than make him a martyr or put him on trial.’
Given these statements – from the highest of high officials, not politicians – you might conclude that they deliberately let Bin Laden go at the end of 2001, safe in the knowledge that without Afghanistan as a base he wouldn’t have much influence any more. Or, if we were being more cynical, to leave him out there as a piece on the chessboard that provided an ongoing excuse for the war on terror. Indeed, a Senate report published in 2009 concluded that Osama could have been caught in late 2001, but poor judgement calls by Rumsfeld and Franks allowed him to escape.
From early 2002 onwards the Al Qaeda organisation in Afghanistan was essentially defunct – the camps were destroyed, their members captured, killed or scattered across the globe – and Osama became of little relevance to the events unfolding on the ground. For nearly 10 years he didn’t do much except issue the occasional video calling for jihad against the infidel invaders. While a number of Al Qaeda franchise groups sprang up during the 2000s the original group largely ceased to exist.
It isn’t at all clear when he settled in Abbottabad, but google earth images confirm that the walled house known as Osama’s ‘compound’ was built sometime between 2001 and 2005. In December 2005 a member of Al Qaeda and the LIFG wrote to Abu Musab Al Zarqawi indicating that Bin Laden and the Al Qaeda leadership were in Waziristan, a region of Pakistan on the border with Afghanistan. Indeed, the compound was known as Waziristan House, even though it wasn’t actually in Waziristan. Other studies and reports placed him elsewhere in North-West Pakistan and in October 2010, about 6 months before the raid, an anonymous NATO official told the Telegraph that he was living comfortably in Pakistan, protected by the Pakistani government.
While all this was going on, various reports said that Bin Laden was dead, though they all contradict one another about when, where and how this happened. Following the raid in May 2011, various people in the conspiracy media used these reports to claim there was a consensus that Bin Laden had died years earlier, and that the raid was a sham. Nafeez Ahmed wrote a pretty devastating rebuttal of these theories, pointing out that all the reports disagree with each other on virtually all the details, and thus aren’t a consensus of any kind.
Given that most of these reports originated with either Taliban or Pakistani government officials, we cannot rule out the possibility that they were information warfare aimed at undermining the ever-expanding war on terror. This is particularly likely after the Obama administration took office and the drone program started dropping bombs on Pakistan with alarming frequency. Likewise, if Bin Laden did have a relationship with the Pakistani government – which has always seen militant Islam as a useful tool – it might have been disinformation designed to throw the US off the scent.
Likewise, there are three completely contradictory accounts of how the CIA found Bin Laden in Abbottabad in 2010. According to John Brennan it was the result of years of following leads and chasing information, which led them to Bin Laden’s courier and right hand man, who led them to the compound. According to Seymour Hersh and NBC, a former ISI official tipped off US intelligence that the Pakistani government had found Bin Laden in 2006 and kept him under house arrest since then, protecting him and using him as an asset. He passed a polygraph, so the CIA took it seriously and started surveillance on the compound. In 2015 a German newspaper reported that the German BND knew Bin Laden was in Pakistan, that they tipped off the CIA who then found the Abbottabad compound via the courier.
Obviously there isn’t enough information to be sure of exactly what happened. One place I looked to try to figure this out was the interview Mike Vickers – from Operation Cyclone – gave to Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow, the makers of Zero Dark Thirty. Vickers was the top civilian intelligence official at the Pentagon while all of this was going on, and he told Boal and Bigelow that they got a ‘intelligence break’ in August 2010 that ‘locates the person at this compound’. This fits with Hersh’s timeline, which says the former ISI official approached the US in August 2010, but later comments by Vickers appear to be referring to the courier. So I don’t know which of these narratives, or which combination of them, is the truth.
Operation Neptune Spear
However they found the Abottabad compound, in May 2011 they sent in the Navy SEALs to kill or capture Bin Laden. Operation Neptune Spear was launched on the night of May 1st, and a couple of dozen SEALs were flown in using stealth helicopters, Blackhawks especially designed to not show up on radar.
Why didn’t they just bomb the place? Two reasons have been given – first, that they couldn’t rule out the house having a bomb cellar or bunker and any bomb powerful enough to make sure of destroying everything would have killed civilians; and second that they wanted definitive proof that Osama was dead, and a large bomb would probably have destroyed the body. I don’t buy these explanations, because the US never shows much concern about civilian casualties and given Bin Laden’s profile it’s unlikely anyone would make a big deal out of these particular civilian casualties. Likewise, they dumped the body at sea and have produced no verifiable evidence that Bin Laden was killed in the raid, so that logic makes no sense either.
Then there are the contradictions in the different accounts of the raid, and in particular the shooting of Osama on the top floor of the house. First we were told that Osama fired on the SEALs and used his wives as human shields. This story quickly fell apart and faded away and a more nuanced account emerged, typified by a report in The New Yorker:
The Americans hurried toward the bedroom door. The first SEAL pushed it open. Two of bin Laden’s wives had placed themselves in front of him. Amal al-Fatah, bin Laden’s fifth wife, was screaming in Arabic. She motioned as if she were going to charge; the SEAL lowered his sights and shot her once, in the calf. Fearing that one or both women were wearing suicide jackets, he stepped forward, wrapped them in a bear hug, and drove them aside. He would almost certainly have been killed had they blown themselves up, but by blanketing them he would have absorbed some of the blast and potentially saved the two SEALs behind him. In the end, neither woman was wearing an explosive vest.
A second SEAL stepped into the room and trained the infrared laser of his M4 on bin Laden’s chest. The Al Qaeda chief, who was wearing a tan shalwar kameez and a prayer cap on his head, froze; he was unarmed. “There was never any question of detaining or capturing him—it wasn’t a split-second decision. No one wanted detainees,” the special-operations officer told me. (The Administration maintains that had bin Laden immediately surrendered he could have been taken alive.) Nine years, seven months, and twenty days after September 11th, an American was a trigger pull from ending bin Laden’s life. The first round, a 5.56-mm. bullet, struck bin Laden in the chest. As he fell backward, the SEAL fired a second round into his head, just above his left eye. On his radio, he reported, “For God and country—Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo.” After a pause, he added, “Geronimo E.K.I.A.”—“enemy killed in action.”
Hearing this at the White House, Obama pursed his lips, and said solemnly, to no one in particular, “We got him.”
So in this version the first SEAL shot one of the wives in the leg and then bear hugged her and it was the second SEAL who killed Bin Laden, shooting him in the chest then above his left eye.
In the third version, told in the book No Easy Day, written by the second SEAL up the stairs onto the third floor of the house, the point man simply spotted Bin Laden as they arrived on the third floor and shot him twice in the right side of his head. When they entered the room where the body had fallen, one of the wives approached the lead SEAL, screaming, so he grabbed her and drove her back into the room, again in case she was wearing a suicide vest. There is no mention of either of the wives being shot in the leg.
The fourth version, told in Zero Dark Thirty, shows the two SEALs reaching the top of the stairs, spot a guy hiding in a doorway, whisper ‘Osama’ and then shoot him when he sticks his head out. It isn’t clear where they shot him, but his face is shown intact when they get the body back to a base in Afghanistan. The incident with the two wives and making sure they didn’t have suicide vests took place on the second floor, where they shot one of Bin Laden’s sons.
The fifth version came a couple of years later, when Robert O’Neill outed himself as the man who shot Bin Laden. He wrote a book and has given numerous TV interviews on what happened.
O’Neill’s account says he was the second man up the stairs to the third floor, whereas ‘Mark Owen’ in No Easy Day says he was the second man, and the shooter was the only man in front of him. O’Neill repeats the version whereby the first SEAL rushed two women in case they were wearing suicide vests, and that he then came face to face with Bin Laden and shot him twice in the head. Except that in other interviews he says he shot him three times in the head.
So, how do we reconcile these different accounts? There should be only two or three people – all highly trained, experienced Special Forces operators – who know the sequence of events on the third floor. And yet the accounts all contradict one another on exactly what happened, in what order. I do know that a lot of people in the military are not happy with O’Neill and see him as a braggard who is talking about things he shouldn’t, and the contradictions between his different interviews make him a fairly unreliable witness.
The problem only gets worse when it comes to the photographs of Bin Laden’s body. While some images leaked out almost immediately, some reproduced by major media as authentic, it rapidly became clear they were fake. One was a splice of a picture of Bin Laden and a frame from a video game. O’Neill has given interviews where he has decried these fake images, and called on the government to release the photos.
However, O’Neill has also said that he shot Bin Laden in the face, either twice or three times, and that ‘His nose was crushed and the skull opened in half. We had to put both pieces together so we could take the pictures.’ But according to ‘Mark Owen’ in No Easy Day, he took some of the pictures of the body and he says nothing about the having to hold the skull together. Likewise, the CIA claimed that they compared the photos from the compound with other known photos of Bin Laden and facematched them with a high degree of certainty.
Interestingly, Obama was asked in an episode of Rock Center with Brian Williams how he responded when he saw the pictures. His response speaks volumes.
Of course, these photos have never been made public. While they were initially the property of the DOD, having been taken by Navy SEALs, they were immediately transferred to the CIA so they could avoid releasing them under FOIA. The CIA can claim exemptions from FOIA that the Pentagon can’t, so this was a strategic move to evade the requests coming in from media outlets. Judicial Watch sued the CIA to try to get them release the photos but the courts repeatedly ruled in favour of the Agency.
One other curious thing about the raid is that both ‘Mark Owen’ and Rob O’Neill spoke of a sense of unreality while they were on the mission. I do know that several of the SEALs were on Ambien to help them sleep, which is known for affecting your sense of reality and ability to remember things. I also know that once they got the body back to Afghanistan, William McRaven himself examined it and initially did not believe it was Bin Laden. He told one of the tallest SEALs to lie down next to the body (Bin Laden was very tall) to get a sense of scale, and then became convinced.
The body was then flown to the USS Carl Vinson, where DNA tests were performed that apparently confirmed the identity, and the body was then wrapped up and disposed of at sea. According to emails released by the Navy, no regular sailors attended the funeral and it seems only a handful of people on ship ever actually saw the body.
According to Seymour Hersh, quoting anonymous sources, that’s because the burial never took place. Instead, the SEALs tore the body to pieces with rifle fire and threw pieces out of the helicopter on the way back to Afghanistan. This led the White House to concoct the ludicrous ‘burial at sea’ story as a cover, which is why no photos or other records of the burial have been made public.
However, this is all based on second hand information and anonymous quotes so while I can only imagine people did tell Hersh these things – I’d be surprised if he just made them up – this account is no more verifiable or reliable than those of O’Neill, ‘Mark Owen’, John Brennan, Barack Obama, or anyone else.
Weird Scenes inside the Obama Administration
Adding to the general weirdness of this event is the fact that in the middle of this highly-classified, extremely risky, mega-profile covert operation the Obama administration decided to do a bit of restaffing. On April 28th, just days before the raid, it was announced that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was retiring and would be replaced by CIA director Leon Panetta. Panetta had overseen the manhunt for Bin Laden, the identification of the Abbottabad compound, the development of the idea that the mystery man inside the compound was Bin Laden, and the preparation for the raid.
And right in the middle of the culmination of years of work, he changed jobs. And not just within the CIA, he moved from head of the CIA to head of the Pentagon, which on paper is quite a different department. In reality, the blurring of military and intelligence work has accelerated in the post-9/11 period and Panetta’s switch is one manifestation of that. As, of course, was having former CIA director Bob Gates become Secretary of Defense in the first place.
Nonetheless it seems like odd timing, to reshuffle the military-intelligence deck in the midst of the most important covert op in living memory. Mike Morrell moved up to acting director of the Agency, but he already knew about the op, but was his deputy let in on the operation?
Then there’s the famous picture of the Situation Room at the White House with all the top officials sitting round watching the raid as it unfolded. Why, in the midst of this highly compartmentalised operation, would they have let in a photographer? It must have been a bit of a practical challenge too, because the room was crammed with people, so fitting in one more, in a position to try to capture most of them sat at the table, would have been difficult. It seems very odd to me that this picture even exists, because what if something had gone wrong in the raid? What if there were details that had to be kept secret? Did that photographer have a clearance for secure compartmentalised information? I seriously doubt it.
Naturally, the conspiracy theorists have claimed the photo is a fake, or that they were pretending to watch a video of the raid or somesuch. But for me the most relevant question is why was there a photographer there in the first place?
It all smacks of a PR operation being run alongside the covert operation, that the White House always intended to make the raid public almost as soon as it was over. According to Hersh they’d made an agreement with Pakistan to pretend the raid hadn’t happened, and to attribute Bin Laden’s death to a drone strike a week or 10 days later. But instead Obama went on TV and told the world information that only a couple of hours earlier was known by only a few dozen people.
Then there’s this:
That’s right, it was none other than The Rock who broke the story. Technically, the raid had already been tweeted about by people in Abbottabad but it’s clear that people in the SEALs had started talking about Osama and The Rock got wind of it. It wasn’t until May 5th that the SEALs were told, formally, not to speak publicly about the operation, though it seems quite a few have since spoken off the record and two of them have published books.
So we are left in a difficult position. This was an extremely covert operation that became very overt, very quickly. Obama’s initial statements about human shields and other details were quickly contradicted by John Brennan, which set up a never-ending torrent of differing accounts. It seems the men who were on the top floor when Bin Laden was shot cannot agree on basic details, so what are we to make of all this?
People have asked me whether I believe this story, and I keep changing my mind. At this point I have to respond ‘which story?’ because there are so many. Do I believe Obama’s version? Brennan’s version? ‘Mark Owen’s? Rob O’Neill’s? Seymour Hersh’s? Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s? None of them are especially coherent or reliable, and all of them have been contradicted by the others. I cannot, logically speaking, believe all of them.
This is what I mean by the death of Osama being the perfect postmodern event – there is no way to reconcile all of this. We could exclude certain accounts and lend more weight to others, but any criteria we use to do so is imperfect because there’s no straightforward reason to choose a Navy SEAL over the president, or put either of them behind a retired official being anonymously quoted by Seymour Hersh.
So what do I believe? I believe there was a raid in Abottabad, and that the people on the raid believe they killed Osama Bin Laden. Whether they are correct in that belief, I simply don’t know. I can believe parts of the Seymour Hersh article, and even he appears to question whether it was Bin Laden. It makes more sense to me that Osama was being protected by Pakistani intelligence, possibly without the CIA knowing, than that he died in any one of a dozen different unverifiable scenarios. But I can’t be sure.
One final aspect to this story that amuses the hell out of me is when the CIA made a data-dump of a load of stuff they found on computers inside the compound. In November 2017 they published 470,000 files, following on from a smaller release in 2015 and 2016. One thing that I found funny is that they had to take the files down after it emerged that they contained spyware, before re-uploading them.
It’s also a little odd, not only that the CIA wouldn’t have checked this before publishing the files, but that the computers would have spyware on them. After all, we were told that the house had no phone line or internet connection, so the CIA/NSA weren’t able to tap anything. Bin Laden never left the compound, and received letters and parcels via a trusted courier or two. Which means all the files on the computers would have had to be hand-delivered, presumably on CD or USB drive.
And yet, the video files listed by the CIA include youtube cat videos and other viral videos, Hollywood movies, internet porn, war footage from Liveleak, beheading videos and so on. Many of them were in Real Media format, which stopped being used around 2006 because RealPlayer was riddled with spyware. So it seems these computers were at some point plugged into the internet, though maybe they hadn’t been for some years.
The whole list of videos is worth reading, because it includes material as varied as films like Antz, Final Fantasy VII, numerous how to crochet videos, episodes of Tom and Jerry and the Pink Panther, National Geographic documentaries and a film called Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?.
So if this was Osama, what we’re actually looking at is a man with a diverse taste in internet culture, living out his days (possibly under protection from the ISI), not really doing anything of any great consequence to anyone. So we have three different factors fuelling the speculation and the theories: (1) The lack of firm information and evidence, (2) The contradictions between qualified first-hand accounts and (3) The sheer mundanity of the idea that the US government killed an ageing former terrorist who wasn’t doing much of anything any more.
I think this is why the death of Bin Laden made so little difference to anything. Despite the PR and the trumpeting and the Hollywood movies, it was in many respects a non-event, a full stop at the end of a story no one was reading any more. It didn’t provide much in the way of emotional closure or a change in war on terror policy or resolution of underlying conflicts. It was just one more death in a never-ending war that serves up death on a daily basis. To my mind, that is the reality and the truth of the death of Osama Bin Laden.