Nearly a decade after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks made him the most wanted fugitive on the planet, we still hadn’t apprehended Osama Bin Laden. A price had been put on his head and a blank check written by our government to fund his capture. The promise had been made to every citizen of the United States whose lives were forever changed by the deeds of a false prophet masquerading as the messenger of God’s will.
We will get him...became our mantra. Deep in our hearts as Americans, we knew justice would be meted out for these heinous crimes. Sonofabitch was going to pay.
Then somehow, over time, though our national resolve had only slightly wavered, our hunger to bring the bad guy to justice had gone from full-blown fervor to a faded bumper sticker. His name had certainly not been forgotten, least of all by those who still remembered the sick feeling of watching the events of that dark September morning, but somehow the flame had burned dim. Our reason to continue sending troops to Muslim countries that certainly didn’t appear to want us there seemed clouded at best.
We had lost sight of the target. Instead of the constant demonizing one particular Muslim, the absence of Bin Laden from the public eye began to birth a climate in parts of this country where it just seemed natural to demonize all Muslims.
Even those who were natural born, law-abiding American citizens.
The damage to the American psyche caused by the inability to locate Bin Laden was enormous. If the only people with the resources to do the job, couldn’t, then who would protect us, the little people?
It wasn’t for lack of desire on our government’s part that Bin Laden had not been quickly apprehended, but more because Osama Bin Laden had again taken to the wind, a practice he had perfected while fighting the Soviets in the mountains of Afghanistan during the 1980s. One minute he was supposedly in this place or that place, and then the next moment he wasn’t. Osama Bin Laden had become harder to find than Waldo in a candy cane factory.
Sporadic news updates over the last decade placed Bin Laden in the rugged terrain of the mountainous Tora Bora region along the Afghan border. A barely regulated, mostly autonomous zone of impossibly rocky hills and mountains, Tora Bora offered unspeakably bad weather and plenty of opportunities to use up precious resources and human lives searching through a nearly endless labyrinth of caverns. The caves had been utilized since ancestral times to help tribal warriors fight off foreign invaders, but by 2001 were electrified with hydro-electric power harnessed from running streams. For this, Bin Laden had the United States to thank. The entire multi-level cave complex had been fortified in part by the CIA to help the Mujahideen during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Back in mid-December 2001, when the wounds of 9/11 were still quite fresh, U.S. Army forces fighting in Tora Bora came within 2000 meters of Bin Laden, only to see him slip away into Pakistan. There he took an easterly route through snow-covered mountains to the area of Parachinar. Gary Bernsten, a former CIA officer who led the team tasked with finding Bin Laden, later claimed that the al-Qaeda leader could have indeed been captured if the United States Central Command, headed at the time by General Tommy Franks, had given them the troops they had requested to get the job done.
Since then, it has been noted publicly by some of those who had fought at Tora Bora that lack of mission support deserves only partial blame for Osama’s escape. The lion’s share of the credit belongs to those who held the mistaken notion that Pakistan was effectively guarding its own border.
Pakistan, our ally in the War on Terror.
Pakistan, the very same country where seven other major al-Qaeda figures have since been found to be hiding.
March 2002: Saudi national Abu Zubaydah, considered to be a close aid of Bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s Director of Communications and international operations.
September 2002: Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, suspected of attacking the American warship USS Cole in 1998, arrested in the southern coastal city of Karachi.
March 2003: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, arrested near the Pakistani capital of Islamabad.
July 2004: Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, suspected of planning of attacks on the U. S. embassy in Kenya. He was handed over to American authorities after Pakistani forces picked him in the eastern border city of Gujrat.
May 2005: Abu Faraj al-Libi, who at the time was al-Qaida’s top man in Pakistan and allegedly responsible for planning a 2006 plot to detonate liquid explosives carried on board at least 10 airplanes travelling from the United Kingdom.
Increased Predator strikes used in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal region took the lives of two other al-Qaeda leaders. Abu Lais al-Libi in 2008. Mustafa Al Yazid in 2010. Both blown to bits by drones.
Pakistan. Pakistan. Pakistan.
All five of the al-Qaeda leaders who had been arrested were captured in highly populated urban areas.
Karachi is Pakistan’s largest city. Islamabad, the nation’s capitol.
Raise your hand if you see a pattern here.
As far as anyone knew, Bin Laden had slipped into northwest Pakistan and had been reduced to living in caves to evade capture. By late 2005, U.S. Intelligence intercepted a letter from Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, a senior member of al-Qaeda, to Abu Musab al-Zarquawi, a Jordani militant Islamist known to run a paramilitary training camp in Afghanistan for terrorist recruits. The message instructed Zarqawi to, "Send messengers from your end to Waziristan so that they meet with the brothers of the leadership... I am now on a visit to them and I am writing you this letter as I am with them...”
If Bin Laden was indeed in Waziristan, and there was little reason to believe he wasn’t, finding him on Pakistani soil in a lawless mountain region lorded over by tribal leaders and Taliban fighters sympathetic to al-Qaeda anti-Western sentiments would be more difficult than ever.
In early 2009, satellite-aided geographical analysis pointed to three compounds in Parachinar as the most-likely locations where Bin Laden was hiding. However, within the span of just a few months, the hunt for Bin Laden moved north to the Chitral District, Pakistan’s most northerly region. Captured al-Qaeda leaders had given up confirmation that this was where the al-Qaeda chief was holed up. The manhunt continued. Patrols sent out in constant search turned up nothing.
Then in December, a Taliban detainee in Pakistan claimed Bin Laden had slipped back into Afghanistan. Days later, frustrated U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, publicly stated the joint military forces had no reliable information on the whereabouts of their elusive target. The ghost continued to stay steps ahead of his pursuers even as the War on Terror raged on.
By this time, rumors had been circulating for years that Bin Laden’s health had been fading, his kidneys failing, and some, including Pakistani leaders, even boldly claimed the al-Qaeda leader had gone to his final reward. Speculation over Bin Laden’s death was bolstered by how his sporadic videotaped warnings to America in which he begun to look haggard and almost frail, had given way to audiotapes released by his minions featuring a voice possibly not even belonging to the al-Qaeda leader.
For all we knew, he had gone up a mountain and vanished into thin air.
But in the end, Osama Bin Laden, mastermind behind 9/11 and the August 7, 1998, bombings of the United States Embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, among other acts of murder against innocent civilians, was not only alive, but living well. Contrary to popular belief, he was not cowering in a primitive cave like an animal, but instead hiding in an affluent suburb of Pakistan, inside a million dollar mansion built behind 18-foot high concrete walls topped with barbed wire.
The world’s most wanted fugitive had eluded capture by hiding almost in plain sight.