May 6, 2011

Hunt for bin Laden: Lessons learned from the enemy

Ian Shapira, Marc Fisher and Peter Finn, The Washington Post

Finally, after weeks of searching the caves and mountains of Tora Bora for traces of Osama bin Laden, CIA field commander Gary Berntsen believed his men had a good peg on the terrorist. Berntsen called in the big bomb - the BLU-82, a 15,000-pound device the size of a car.

The bomb was pushed out of the back of a C-130 transport plane. It struck with such force that it vaporized men deep inside caves. The devastation spread across an area as big as five football fields, killing numerous al-Qaida fighters - including, Berntsen believed, bin Laden.

It was three months after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and Berntsen thought, "I've got him now."

Six days later, two of Berntsen's men were listening to a radio they had picked up from a dead al-Qaida fighter. They heard bin Laden addressing his troops in Arabic. The hunt went on.

Immediately after al-Qaida's attack on Sept. 11, America went after the world's most notorious terrorist with a quick-action injection of cash, commandos and massive firepower.

Within a few months, that first phase of the search for bin Laden would give way to a decade-long manhunt in which the tedious work of analysis and surveillance would eventually bag the target. To find bin Laden, who had declared holy war on the United States in 1996, the Americans needed to think more like him, to absorb the structures and rhythms of a terrorist network.

The search that ended Sunday with bullets to bin Laden's head and chest was the result of a new approach to finding an elusive target, the product of a few dozen analysts in Langley, Va., who refused to accept that their prey may have vanished forever.

"I want justice. And there's an old poster out West, I recall, that says 'Wanted: Dead or Alive.' "

President Bush,Sept. 17, 2001

Less than a month after the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. bombers began hitting Afghanistan, hoping to bring down the Taliban government for giving al-Qaida sanctuary. On the ground, the hunt for bin Laden was also underway. A few dozen U.S. paramilitary troops, dressed as Afghans in beards and loose robes and accompanied by hired Afghan fighters, took up the chase.

The American presence at first was thin, and expertise was scarce. The CIA had had a team tracking bin Laden from back home at Langley since 1996, but now it scrambled to find officers who knew Afghanistan and could deploy immediately. Only about a dozen agency people were working in the country on Sept. 11, according to a former senior intelligence official who helped set up agency outposts there.

The first job was to identify tribal leaders and meet with them, always bringing gifts. "The message was 'We're your friends,' " said the senior intelligence official. "We're everyone's friends. But whoever hosts us is in line to get American money."

This account of the hunt is based on interviews with more than 20 senior political, military and intelligence officials from the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss operations.

CIA field commander Berntsen, who led a team charged with finding bin Laden, worked out of a Kabul guesthouse, fueling the hunt with several million dollars in cash that he kept stowed in a Rubbermaid tub. From that makeshift bank, he distributed payoffs in the thousands of dollars to informants in tribal villages where bin Laden sightings had been reported.

"I must have gotten eight reports at the time, saying he's in this village here or that village there," said Berntsen, who had investigated al-Qaida's 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. "He was stopping and giving speeches."

(Continued on page 2)

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors

Further Discussion

Here at we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)