On September 10, 2010, on the eve of the 9th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, the CIA informed President Barack Obama that it had a promising lead to find the main architect, Osama bin Laden.
U.S. intelligence services followed an al-Qaeda courier to a residential complex in Abbottabad, Pakistan, believing it could lead them to Bin Laden. They do not yet know that they have just discovered the residence of the elusive terrorist, all traces of which had been lost for years.
Former CIA Director John Brennan, then the President’s Counterterrorism Chief, recounted how the “most intense, secret and best organized” operation of his career unfolded : the raid of the American special forces which killed Bin Laden on the night of May 1 to 2, 2011.
We wanted to find it and give the victims of 9/11 the justice they deserved
In September 2010, therefore, the CIA warns that its information remains to be verified, but the excitement is palpable in the White House. “We wanted to find it and give the victims of 9/11 the justice they deserved,” recalls John Brennan.
In the months that followed, CIA analysts convinced themselves that it was Osama bin Laden himself who lived in the high-security Abbottabad complex. They observed a tall, thin, bearded man who regularly walks between the high walls of the complex, and nicknamed him “the walker”. Although they cannot see his face, everything suggests that it could be Bin Laden. At the end of December, Barack Obama is ready to act. In great secrecy, the White House begins to prepare an operation, using a model of the Abbottabad complex.
A missile strike is being considered, but it would make the formal identification of the leader of al-Qaeda difficult. The other option is the helicopter raid on a moonless night, but it is risky, not least because Pakistani forces could fire on intruders.
In early 2011, a CIA expert concluded that there is a 70% chance that “the walker” is bin Laden. “We didn’t have as much information as we would have liked, that’s for sure,” said Obama’s ex-adviser. “But nothing contradicted the idea that it could be Bin Laden. And that’s what we were looking for: any sign that it could be someone other than Bin Laden ”.
Biden opposed to the raid
On April 28, the American president found the experts in the “situation room”, the hyper-secure crisis room in the basement of the White House. “Obama wanted everyone’s opinion,” recalls John Brennan. Some are opposed to the raid, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and then Vice President Joe Biden. Most are in favor, but “people recognized that it was a difficult decision,” he adds.
The next morning, Barack Obama gives the green light to a special forces raid Sunday afternoon Washington time as John Brennan reviews the plan. “You keep thinking about it, not just what has already been done, but what will happen the next day,” he says. “We want to make sure that everything has been considered”.
On Sunday, US officials meet in the White House crisis room. When the helicopters leave Afghanistan for a 90-minute flight to Abbottabad, they crowd into the adjacent small room where General Brad Webb follows the operation in real time on a laptop, in constant communication with the chief of the Special Operations Admiral Bill McRaven.
It was undoubtedly the risk that had to be taken, when it was necessary to take it
The White House will release a now famous photo showing Obama, Biden and Brennan petrified by the tension at the time of the assault. On the spot, one of the two helicopters crashes on landing, but without causing any victim. Reinforcements are dispatched to recover the team on board. There is no video image from inside the complex.
At the end of 20 minutes, “McRaven receives from the commando the message” Geronimo, Geronimo “”, recalls the ex-chief of the CIA. Osama Bin Laden is dead. At the White House, it’s relief. “There was no applause or celebration,” he says. “It was a feeling of achievement.”
John Brennan now recognizes that the operation was risky. But “it was undoubtedly the risk that had to be taken, when it was necessary to take it”.
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