Authors: Bowden, Mark
Also by Mark Bowden
Bringing the Heat
Black Hawk Down
Guests of the Ayatollah
The Best Game Ever
The Killing ofOsama bin Laden
Atlantic Monthly Press
NewYorkCopyright © 2012 by Mark BowdenAll rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means,including information storage and retrieval systems,without permission in writing from the publisher,except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages ina review. Scanning, uploading, and electronic distribution of this book or the facilitation of such without the permission of the publisher is prohibited. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated. Any member of educational institutions wishing to photocopy part or all of the work for classroom use, or anthology, should send inquiries to Grove/Atlantic, Inc.,841 Broadway, New York, NY 10003 or[email protected].Published simultaneously in CanadaPrinted in the United States of AmericaISBN-13: 978-0-8021-9410-7Atlantic Monthly Pressan imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.841 BroadwayNew York, NY 10003Distributed by Publishers Group Westwww.groveatlantic.com
For Clara and Audrey
Human groupings have one main purpose: to assert everyone’s right to be different, to be special, to think, to feel and live in his or her own way. People join together in order to win or defend this right. But this is where a terrible, fateful error is born: the belief that these groupings in the name of a race, a God, a party, or a state are the very purpose of life and not simply a means to an end. No! The only true and lasting meaning of the struggle for life lies in the individual, in his modest peculiarities and in his right to these peculiarities.
—Vasily Grossman,Life and Fate
The properties of a movement are spontaneity, impulsiveness, dynamic expansiveness—and a short life. The properties of a structure are inertia, resilience, and an amazing, almost instinctive, ability to survive.
—Ryszard Kapus´cin´ski,Shah of Shahs
1: A Definition of Evil
2: The Path of Jihad
3: Taking Up Arms
4: The Targeting Engine
5: “Please Make Sure to Keep the Children andAll of the Families Away from the AreasThat Are Being Photographed and Bombed”
6: Disguised Uncertainty
7: “Adhering to These Precautions”
8: The Finish
Acknowledgments and Notes
One fall night in western Iraq, as a unit from the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) was executing one of its nightly raids on suspected al Qaeda terrorists, this one a suspected regional commander who called himself “Muthanna,” the raiders inadvertently discovered the mother lode.
In another war in a different time, the “mother lode” might have been a huge cache of valuable weapons or a collection of battlefield maps showing enemy troop movements and positions. In the twenty-first century, the raiders of JSOC had discovered something of equivalent value: a Rolodex.
Muthanna was killed in the raid. It was clear from material seized at his residence that he was responsible for coordinating the movement of foreign al Qaeda fighters and potential suicide bombers across the nearby border with Syria and into Iraq, where American and Iraqi forces, and Iraqi civilians, were enduring a mounting campaign of mass slaughter. What they found was not an actual Rolodex; it was something better: a collection of names and numbers that referenced computer files containing names, photos, travel documents, expense reports for phone cards, clothing, vehicles, fuel, money transfers, and many other detailed documents for about five hundred current al Qaeda recruits—just about everymujahidinwho had made the trek in recent years through Syria and into Iraq.
For centuries, the basic tactics of infantry warfare were “fire and maneuver.” A skilled officer could defeat a larger force by mastering the art of moving his men and effectively focusing their firepower. Those kinds of skills are still essential on a conventional battlefield, but the battles being fought today rarely boil down to armies maneuvering on the ground. “Information and intelligence is the fire and maneuver of the twenty-first century,” says Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who now heads the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency.
What does he mean?
The mother lode of documents seized in what became known as the Sinjar raid illustrates the point nicely. It played a big part in decapitating al Qaeda in Iraq. In the six years after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. military and intelligence communities, representing a wide variety of agencies large and small, those notorious and those secret, had been collaborating on an unprecedented capability for crushing furtive terrorist networks. In addition to the skills of JSOC’s talented special operators, the effort used supercomputers and custom software, the forward deployment of skilled analysts, and the ability to turn just about every kind of intel into searchable data, whether tips or documents from old-fashioned human spy networks, transcripts of detainee interrogations, logs of electronic surveillance monitoring communications between cell phones and computers, or the images and sensory readings gathered by drones hovering high and silent over potential targets for days, weeks, months, and even years. With an enormous database consisting of these fragments, few of them clearly related, computers are capable of finding links that would previously remain hidden—a bank account shared by a Hezbollah official and an al Qaeda recruit, a street address in Najaf visited by two known suicide bombers on two separate occasions, a snapshot from the wallet of a slain American soldier on the hard drive of a suspected terrorist paymaster. The computer instantly draws bloody threads between data points that would otherwise remain random and disconnected. Webs are drawn from these bloody threads, illuminating secret networks. Once such connections are made, the special operators know where and whom to hit next.
In the case of the Sinjar haul, JSOC Commander Stanley McChrystal took the surprising step of declassifying all of the material and turning it over to West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, so that analysts from a variety of disciplines could take a crack at it. And what did they uncover? For one thing, the data exploded the propaganda claim that al Qaeda in Iraq was a homegrown resistance movement. The recruits in the Sinjar data came from Libya, Morocco, Syria, Algeria, Oman, Yemen, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Belgium, France, and the UK. American Treasury agents mapping the data’s financial transactions were able to identify the entire Syrian-based leadership of al Qaeda in Iraq’s foreign-support network, all of it under the direction of a man who called himself Abu Ghadiya. His real name was Badran Turki Hashim al-Mazidih.
Just over one year after the Sinjar raid, the entire senior leadership of this Syrian-based support network for al Qaeda had been destroyed. A single October 2008 raid inside Syria killed Abu Ghadiya, one of his brothers, and two cousins, all members of the top leadership. The database would also provide a road map for JSOC operations throughout Iraq, tracking down and capturing or killing those foreign recruits who had not already sacrificed themselves in suicide attacks.
By the end of 2008, the overall level of violence in Iraq had declined by 80 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. This sharp trend has continued through the withdrawal of U.S. forces from that country in 2011, and remains lower today than at any time since before the American invasion in 2003.
There are multiple reasons for this striking turnabout. The Sunni Awakening in 2008 turned many Iraqi insurgents against al Qaeda—abetted at least to some extent by the Sinjar data analysis, reported in the summer of 2008, which revealed the foreign-born nature of the organization. The dramatic shift in strategy orchestrated by Gen. David Petraeus toward counterinsurgency tactics during the same period deserves much of the credit. But a large part of Petraeus’s own approach included ramping up the pressure on “irreconcilable” elements. As he put it, “I like to go to bed every night with more friends and with fewer enemies.”
JSOC provided the “fewer enemies,” and McChrystal has cited the Sinjar raid as one of his unit’s most important breakthroughs.
Prevailing in war often demands new tactics, methods, and tools. The attacks on America on September 11, 2001, challenged a long-standing premise of its national defense. Osama bin Laden and his extremist movement, al Qaeda, posed a new kind of threat, a global network of well-funded, clever, suicidal killers with no fixed address. The nation’s vast arsenal, its nuclear stockpiles, its incomparable air force, its army and navy, even its bureaucratic structure for global surveillance, spying, and intel analysis, was designed primarily todeterattack. Who would dare when the response would be swift, fatal, and unstoppable?
But what if attacks came from nowhere? What then?
This was the problem posed by 9/11. The answer was information. Finding the enemy has long been one of the most basic challenges of war. All al Qaeda did was up the level of difficulty. They lived and worked scattered all over the world, using global telecommunications to stay linked. Given the complexity and international nature of those links, the use of pseudonyms and all the tricks of spy craft, how was this new enemy ever to be found?
The seizure of the Sinjar Rolodex and the subsequent takedown shows how. Six years after the 9/11 attacks, deep into two wars, still haunted by the defiant image of a free Osama bin Laden, the United States of America had one strong consolation.
It had figured out exactly how to fight back.
1A Definition of Evil
September 11, 2001
Just before eight o’clock on a brilliant sunny Chicago morning, Barack Obama was driving up Lake Shore Drive when the music on his radio was interrupted by a news bulletin. A plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers in New York City. He thought little of it. He assumed it meant some poor Cessna pilot had screwed up badly.
The Loop was a familiar fifteen-minute commute from Illinois State Senator Obama’s house in Hyde Park. To his right stretched the flat expanse of Lake Michigan and ahead, on his left, was the soaring skyline, anchored by the black monolith of the Sears Tower, spiked with antennae. Surrounded by so much lake and Illinois sky, the drive can feel like free falling into a world of blue.
Obama was bound for the Thompson Center, the city’s seventeen-story government building, a monumental shiny structure of curved reflective glass that looks like a grounded spaceship. The setting was remarkable but the business he had there was strictly routine, a hearing of the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules. Today’s agenda promised hours of bureaucratic minutiae—rules changes for thirty-nine separate boards, programs, commissions, and departments.
Obama represented District 13 at the northern edge of the South Side. He had two other jobs, one practicing law for a prominent Chicago firm and another as a senior lecturer in constitutional law at Chicago University’s Law School. He was a moderately prominent man in his adoptive city, seen locally as a young man of great promise, but for all that his career seemed stalled. He had been soundly beaten in a run for Congress two years earlier—a rebuke, really. He had lost by a margin of two-to-one. His intellect was obvious, maybe too obvious, given his Harvard Law degree and his tenure as the first African-American president of that school’s prestigious Law Review. Ivy credentials play well in big city politics only when they come with a smothering dose ofstreet,which Obama did not have. He looked and sounded like a law professor. What hedidhave was “cool,” a word people applied to him in both a good and a bad way. He was cool in that he had style andpresence; he was tall and lean, poised and charming. But he was cool in the other way, too. He often seemed distant, aloof, even superior. He had turned forty a month before, too old to be considered a prodigy. His black Jeep Cherokee was the car of a family man. He and his wife, Michelle, had two daughters: infant Sasha, and Malia, who was three.
He parked, ascended in one of the exposed shafts inside the center’s vast atrium, and was in his chair listening to a witness read a prepared statement when digital phones began chirping and dinging from every corner of the room. Obama looked down to see messages stacking up on his BlackBerry. Murmuring quickly overtook the testimony. The witness plowed on but soon no one was paying attention to him. The news from lower Manhattan flowed in from a thousand points at once. The second tower had been hit. Both planes were commercial airliners. The towers were on fire. This was no accident. This was a coordinated attack.
At that point the Thompson Center was evacuated and Obama left with everyone else. On the sidewalk outside with the thousands of other Chicagoans evacuated from tall buildings in the Loop, his eyes moved involuntarily up to the Sears Tower. Suddenly the city’s landmark skyscraper appeared in a different light. It was no longer just a symbol of the lakeside city’s identity. It loomed now like a giant target.
In Sarasota, Michael Morell wondered if a plane was bearing down onhim. He was President George W. Bush’s CIA briefer and was part of the president’s entourage that morning. The visit was big news in the west Florida city. Anyone targeting Bush would know right where to find him, and a commercial airliner would do the job nicely.
Morell had been in the backseat of a van in the president’s motorcade when the first plane hit. They were racing down Gulf of Mexico Drive on Longboat Key when Ari Fleischer, Bush’s press secretary, took a call and then turned to him.
“Michael, do you know anything about a plane hitting the World Trade Center?”
As the in-house intelligence officer, Morell was the man they looked to for the scoop when something startling happened. The plane had hit while they were en route, so he had heard nothing. He was thinking it was probably a small plane that had gotten disoriented in bad weather, something like that, but he called headquarters in Langley, Virginia. The CIA operations center told him that a crash had occurred, the building was the North Tower, and that it wasn’t a small plane but a commercial jet.
The veteran CIA analyst had been up before dawn that day, as he usually was, and had spent some time alone in his hotel room prepping for his regular morning session with the president. Each day at eight o’clock, Morell delivered the President’s Daily Briefing (PDB), a summary of the most current intelligence reports from around the world. He had flown south on Air Force One the previous afternoon, the start of a weeklong cross-country trip to promote Bush’s education initiatives. They had stopped first in Jacksonville, for a round-table discussion, and then driven down to Sarasota, where they had spent the night at the Colony Beach and Tennis Resort, on the barrier island that parallels the city shoreline.
Morell’s presence had nothing to do with the week’s education theme. Like the military officer who carried the president’s “football”—the coding device needed to authorize a nuclear attack—the CIA briefer went wherever Bush went. America had not been directly attacked in any significant way since Pearl Harbor, so the morning briefing usually concerned things more abstract: “national security concerns” was more like it. There were always terror threats, but there had been nothing in the brief that morning about anything specific or imminent.
Bush was not given to poring over written reports. He preferred for Morell to “tee up” highlights in the morning briefing, and would then read the most pertinent parts and ask questions. For Morell this made the morning half hour something of a daily command performance. The president enjoyed it. He would later call it “one of the most fascinating parts of my day.” It was a heady role, albeit a virtually invisible one. Morell is a slight, precise man with glasses and neatly combed sandy brown hair, a man who seems ordinary by design. His suit is often rumpled and he moves in a distinctly civilian, loose-limbed slouch; he is the kind of man who tends to fold up on a chair, all knees and elbows. That and his indoor pallor made him look almost frail alongside the president’s robust security detail and phalanx of ruddy military advisers. In conversation, Morell was intense. He spoke with a crisp Ohio accent, and bore down on ideas bodily, frowning, chin first. For most of his career at the spy agency he had been an Asian specialist.
By the time the president saw him that morning, Bush had already taken a few minutes to read from his Bible, had jogged in the darkness around the Colony golf course, and had dressed and eaten his breakfast. That day’s briefing had mostly concerned China. The briefing is still classified, but months earlier a U.S. Navy EP-3, a propeller-driven intelligence-gathering aircraft, had collided with a Chinese jet fighter off the island of Hainan, killing the fighter pilot and triggering a small international crisis, the first of the Bush presidency. Morell also had fresh intel from Russia, again still classified, but fallout there from the then recent Robert Hanssen spy scandal had prompted both countries to expel some of each other’s diplomats. Morell then presented new information about the ongoing Palestinian uprising, an increasingly violent affair at the center of the world’s news. One item on the agenda prompted the president to call his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, who had stayed behind at the White House, but in later years no one would remember what the call was about. In light of what was coming—all four of the doomed commercial airliners were already in the air—the items on that day’s agenda would soon seem small.
When the briefing was done, Bush left for his scheduled visit to Emma E. Booker Elementary School, where at nine a.m. he was supposed to visit a second grade classroom before an array of television cameras and reporters. They were at the school when news of the second plane came. Morell was waiting with the rest of the president’s staff in a classroom next door. It had a TV set, which was soon showing video of the crash into the South Tower. Both towers were now aflame.
Andrew Card, Bush’s chief of staff, went next door to whisper the news to the president, who was seated in a chair before the classroom, listening to the students read a book about a pet goat.
“A second plane hit the second tower,” said Card. “America is under attack.”
Cameras caught the stunned look on the president’s face. Some would later ridicule him for it, but what is the correct facial expression for news like that? Bush resolved to stay calm. He remained before the class until the story was finished, but his demeanor had dramatically changed. He had been cheerful, enjoying the children’s performance. Now he was grim, his mind clearly elsewhere. When the story was done he complimented the class and then walked briskly into the adjacent classroom. On the TV was video of United Airlines Flight 175 plowing straight into the South Tower in slow motion and erupting into a fireball. Fleischer consulted with the president, who hastily scribbled remarks in longhand before walking back into the crowded classroom to face the cameras and reporters again.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is a difficult moment for America,” he began.
Planes were falling from the sky, suicide hijackers guiding them into the nation’s iconic public buildings, incinerating themselves and the planes’ passengers and killing thousands. And no one knew how many airplanes there were.
Morell thought they ought to move Bush immediately. He started toward a Secret Service agent, but saw that the protection detail was ahead of him. They pointed him out of the building toward the motorcade. When the president’s short statement was finished they were off at once to the airport.
Bad news kept on coming. A third plane, American Airlines Flight 77, hit the Pentagon while they were still speeding north on Route 41. Suddenly every tall building, every monument, every American landmark seemed in jeopardy. Where would the next one hit? There was nothing fanciful about the breadth of alarm in those first hours. But along with the fear, the attacks provoked something primal and self-protective. Just seventy-one minutes after the North Tower was hit, hundreds of miles west of New York City and high over Pennsylvania, the passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93 hastily organized and attacked the men who had hijacked their plane. It crashed in a field just east of Pittsburgh, in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
The reaction was sudden and national. The military scrambled fighters and secured its bases. Airports were closed, streets blocked, buildings vacated.
In Chicago, when Obama realized that no one was going back into the Thompson Center anytime soon he walked to his car and made the short drive to his law office. The firm of Davis, Miner, Barnhill, and Galland was housed in a brick town house. They had a small conference room in the basement with a TV where the office staff gathered to watch the unfolding tragedy. Along with millions around the world, they saw men and women stranded on the upper floors of the Twin Towers, still alive, crowding at windowsills with flames behind them, waving desperately for help that could not reach them, trying to figure out what to do, some of them jumping to their deaths. Obama watched with the others as the towers fell, imagining the thousands trapped inside. They saw the smoke and flames rising from a demolished wall of the Pentagon.
In San Diego, Bill McRaven watched from a hospital bed in his home, where it was still very early in the morning. Even flat on his back, the Navy SEAL captain had a distinct military bearing. His tall body was lean and muscular. His buzz cut drew defiant attention to his jug ears, and the upper and lower halves of his face were slightly askew, which set his long jaw at a slight jutting angle that asserted resolve. Lately, Captain McRaven hadn’t been doing much of anything beyond easing himself from hospital bed to wheelchair and back again. It was a humbling debility for someone so physical. He had been a track star at his high school in San Antonio, Texas, and had then joined the military. Like anyone in an elite special ops unit, he had spent his life pushing himself mentally and physically . . . which catches up to most people. Two months earlier he’d had a terrifying parachute accident, free-falling 10,000 feet before colliding with the opened chute of another jumper. Violently spinning and only half-conscious, he had managed to pull his rip cord, saving his life, but with one leg tangled in the chute’s cords and the other in its risers, the force of the opening chute had nearly torn him in two, cracking his pelvis, breaking his back, and tearing away muscle from his stomach wall. There weren’t going to be any daring missions in his near future, and even if he managed to rehab out of the chair he would always be held together by plates and pins.
He’d escaped the hospital by having his bed moved to his home, so that’s where he watched the attacks unfold that morning. He wasn’t bitter. McRaven accepted the rough sorting of his profession. He figured that if he’d actually been good enough to free-fall with a SEAL team into combat, he would never have had the accident. He had been dealt out. He wasn’t concerned about losing the chance to advance in rank. If he had been ambitious for rank, he would never have joined a SEAL team. It was the same in the army; special ops were a path to small-team action, not command, which traditionally involved assuming responsibility for more and more men. The regular force saw the “irregulars,” the special ops teams, as . . . well, irregular. You went that direction to jump out of airplanes and blow things up and maybe get to test yourself on a real mission even when the nation wasn’t officially at war. He was forty-five years old and had served most recently as commodore of the Naval Special Warfare Group in Coronado, which he figured was the best job he would ever have. What he was going to miss was the action.
McRaven had fought in the Persian Gulf War, and had trained for daring missions his entire adult life. There was no way to know exactly how the United States would respond to these attacks, but it was clear that the country was at war and the war was going to pass him by.
Whoever did this, it was not likely to be a nation-state. It was probably a small group of dedicated fanatics working out of a variety of places that were hard to find and hard to reach. War always poses new challenges. A nation, stirred to action by a novel threat, has to feel its way in, has to invent the strategy and tactics that will prevail. It would take time—in this case most of a decade—but McRaven was uniquely positioned to see where it would end. He had made a study of Special Operations. He was already convinced—the first inklings were beginning to appear on TV—that this had been the work of a small terrorist group that called itself al Qaeda.Men like McRaven had heard a lot more about al Qaedathan most of the country. If not that group, then one like it. How would you fight a stealthy, stateless organization that plotted sneak attacks? You fought it with intelligence and with highly trained special units like his SEALs, men who could strike with speed and precision anywhere in the world. He could see it clearly. His squadron would be going to war without him.
But better than most, he also knew this war was going to take time. With time he would heal. With time there might just be a way for him to work himself back into it.
In Washington, Michèle Flournoy saw the smoke rising from the Pentagon across the Potomac River. She had a lot of friends who worked there.
A Harvard- and Oxford-educated scholar, she was, at forty, an influential thinker in defense circles, and one of the few women in Washington who had made national security her career. Everyone who knew her knew that it was only a matter of time before she would assume another top-level position at the Pentagon, but for now, as with many who owed their government jobs to the ascendance of one political party or the other, her background as a senior Pentagon planner during the Clinton administration meant that she was one of many policy experts who were effectively in exile during the first White House term of a Republican administration.
Flournoy was known for advocating an internationalist approach to national defense, one based more on partnerships and pragmatism than ideology. President Bush had filled many of the defense-related posts in his administration with those more inclined to use American military power unilaterally, to seek international partners but not to be bound by them. With the nation at peace, these philosophical differences were primarily of interest to subject matter experts and played out in forums related to military planning and development. Earlier that morning Flournoy had been interviewed on National Public Radio about some of the initiatives planned by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. She was working for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a bipartisan think tank, and was a professor at the National Defense University, helping the Pentagon prepare its Quadrennial Defense Review, a broad strategic plan for the massive department that afforded the most practical outline for national defense priorities. When the planes started to hit, she was attending a defense forecasts international briefing in a building across the street from the White House.
All of the buildings in the vicinity were evacuated. As she stood on Pennsylvania Avenue eyeing the ominous smoke column from across the river, she knew whatever they had been discussing at that briefing was suddenly moot, as if someone had taken an eraser to the whole board. America’s defense priorities were being radically and violently reset.
She walked a few blocks to the CSIS’s offices, called home to check on her children, and then began trying to get through to friends at the Pentagon on the phone, without success. So she took some calls from colleagues and from reporters, including the reporter from NPR she had just spoken with hours earlier. She shared the growing suspicion that the attacks were the work of al Qaeda, but at that point it was just a hypothesis.
Another Democrat in exile, Thomas Donilon, was also in downtown D.C., undergoing his annual physical in a suite on M Street. He was forty-six, an age when years of long hours sitting behind a desk begin to take their toll, especially for a big man like him. A lawyer with a long background in government, he was known for doing the work of three and had the slackening frame to show for it. In a world capital of the work-addicted, he was considered exceptional. Donilon had been the youngest aide on the staff of President Jimmy Carter in 1977 and had served as chief of staff for the State Department during the Clinton administration. He had joined the Clinton campaign in 1992 as a stand-in for President G. H. W. Bush and for Ross Perot in debate preparation. Hours of prep armed him with telling facts and examples. He was tenacious: unfailingly pleasant but tough. He had a way of displaying his teeth as he spoke, top and bottom, so that the words seemed chewed. Clinton liked to spar with him verbally before a big match. Now, less than a year into the new Republican administration, he was getting used to life as an outlier, putting his law degree and experience inside government to work as a lobbyist for Fannie Mae.
When his doctor was finished with him, he drove his car from the garage under the building and into gridlock. Office buildings throughout the District had emptied. It seemed as if the entire government workforce was making its way home. Donilon tried to call his wife, but cell phone service was so overwhelmed that his call could not go through. He turned on the radio and listened in horror as he inched his way northeast toward home. The drive took a long time. When he got there he found that his wife had also come home from work, after picking up their daughter early from her Bethesda preschool. They turned on the TV and watched with the rest of the country.
Michael Vickers was just a few blocks away at his own small think tank offices, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. He had founded it after leaving intelligence and military work. Twenty years earlier, as a brainy CIA officer, he had put together the clandestine U.S. mission to help a loosely connected group of tribal leaders and Islamist extremists fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, an effort that was considered the largest covert mission in the intelligence agency’s history. The former army special forces officer was legendary in his own world. He was an expert in the Near East, had extensive contacts in that region, and with a career that had straddled intelligence and special ops would prove to be uniquely credentialed for this new war. The next day he would be back at work at the Pentagon as a consultant, summoned by Rumsfeld to help figure out how the United States should respond.
In Bosnia, Brigadier General David Petraeus was at a Nordic-Polish brigade headquarters in the early evening when the news came. A small and wiry man who walked with a slight stoop from his own jump accident years earlier, he sat with a group of international officers watching as the towers collapsed and realized that his mission, and that of every American soldier, was about to change. His suspicions immediately fell to al Qaeda and its founder, a man named Osama bin Laden.
This was no wild guess. Petraeus had been executive officer for the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon from 1997–1999, during the period when the Clinton administration frequently debated whether and how to go after the radical Islamist leader. The decisions then had been to launch cruise missiles at al Qaeda targets in the Sudan and Afghanistan, a noisy gesture that hadn’t accomplished much. Bin Laden was slippery. The response now would be a lot bigger—world changing. One of Petraeus’s jobs in Bosnia was commanding a clandestine joint task force, one made up of elite representatives from all the service branches, that had been finding and targeting fugitive Serbian and Croatian war criminals, gathering intelligence, and then swooping in on targets swiftly, often from helicopters at night.
Before he left to fly back to his own headquarters, Petraeus was already thinking about adapting his mission.
In New York, graduate student Ben Rhodes saw the tragedy unfold from Brooklyn. He was working toward a master’s degree in creative writing at NYU but he also dabbled in hometown politics and, that day, had been pressed into service handing out flyers for City Council candidate Diana Reyna—it was an election day in New York. Rhodes had been pushed into political work after confronting borderline socialists at his upper west side prep school and then Texas-style Republicans at Rice University. He feared doing nothing would concede the field to dogmatism. So now he was on the Brooklyn Heights waterfront handing out flyers.
The flames and smoke rising from the North Tower were shocking enough. Rhodes assumed there had been a bad accident. Seventeen minutes later, across the East River he saw a bright flash high on the South Tower, and then both were aflame high up, sending two great black plumes across the Manhattan skyline. He couldn’t believe his eyes. The radio of a cop standing near him squawked with a call forall handsto respond, and the air erupted with sirens. Rhodes turned to see the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway below him filled with flashing ambulances and police cars racing north toward the Brooklyn Bridge and across to Manhattan.
The flames and the smoke trails did not diminish. The magnitude of the event was hard to comprehend. He was still watching when the South Tower fell. No sound reached him across the river. No rumble or crash. The skyscraper just abruptly pancaked down, folding in on itself as if it were something it had been designed to do, vanishing into a great white billowing cloud of debris.
He started walking. It seemed clear that the North Tower was also doomed, and he was not eager to see it. The towers had been landmarks of his childhood in New York. There was nothing in his twenty-three-year-old worldview to accommodate what he had just seen. Rhodes admired Ernest Hemingway—he had carried a paperback copy ofThe Sun Also Risesin his back pocket for years as an undergrad. At his core, Hemingway believed in facing hard truths head on. Rhodes the would-be novelist walked away from fiction that day, too. Whatever this was he had just seen, it was a thing that needed to be met head on. Like many Americans who witnessed those events, his life would never be the same.
President Bush was airborne when the towers fell. He and his inner circle watched from the staff room at the front of Air Force One, where they could pick up local TV feeds from below. The signals faded in and out. It alarmed Bush that the plane had no satellite TV feed—something he would correct. One commentator said that responsibility for the attacks had been claimed by the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
This made no sense to Morell. That organization was an old splinter group of the Palestine Liberation Organization and all but defunct.
“What do you know about this group?” Bush asked him.
“They don’t have the capacity to carry out an attack like this,” Morell answered.
Within minutes the report was retracted.
The transition to war footing was striking. When the motorcade had reached the tarmac at Sarasota Bradenton International Airport, Air Force One had been ringed with Secret Service armed with automatic rifles. No one had seen an attack like this before, so no one knew what to expect next, who was behind it, or how extensive it would prove to be. Everything and everyone was under suspicion. Agents checked every bag before the president’s traveling party climbed the stairs to the plane, including Card’s and Morell’s, including even those of the military officer carrying the nuclear codes.
As the CIA man stepped on the plane, he had asked one of the agents, “Where are we going?”
“We’re just going to be flying around,” he said.
With the sky raining planes, perhaps the safest place for the president would just be . . . up.
They flew to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, to refuel and take on supplies. The taxiway was lined with bombers. Reports of further attacks kept coming in: bombs, more aircraft-turned-missiles, a threat on Air Force One, a report of an attack aimed at Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas. All would prove false, but in light of how audacious and terrible the known attacks were, every new alarm sounded plausible.
When the president got off the plane to tape a message to the American people, Morell stayed in his seat with most of the staff. The plane’s crew hastily loaded water and food; no one was certain how long the president would continue flying around. When a military aide came down the aisle with a flight manifest, selectively ordering people off, the CIA man asked what was going on.
“We’re having a bunch of people deplane here,” he said.
“What about me?” Morell inquired.
“Andy Card says you stay.”
They took off with the load lightened, bound for a Strategic Air Command base in Omaha, Nebraska. When they were back in the air, Morell was summoned once more to Bush’s cabin.
“Who do you think did this?” the president asked him.
Morell had been on the phone to Langley, but so far no one had been able to give him a definite answer.
“There are two terror states capable, Iran and Iraq,” Morell told the president, “but both have everything to lose and nothing to gain. If I had to guess I’d put a lot of money on the table that it was al Qaeda.”
“So, when will we know?” Bush asked.
Morell couldn’t say. He explained how long it had taken the agency to affix blame with certainty in earlier attacks—the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996 in Saudi Arabia, the U.S. embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, the bombing of the USSColein waters off Yemen in 2000. In the first case it had taken ten days; in the latter ones, a few months.
“We could know it soon, or it could take a while,” he said.
In fact, the news came fast. An analyst at Langley had checked the flight manifests of the doomed aircrafts and linked some of the hijackers directly to al Qaeda. The information had been known for about an hour, but it had not been passed to Morell. Instead, Bush got the news by videophone from CIA Director George Tenet after they had landed in Omaha. The president at that point overruled his own security team, directing them to fly him back to Washington. He was going to address the nation that night, and he wanted to do it from the White House.
On the way back to Washington, Morell briefed Bush again, this time on a foreign intelligence report that there were sleeper cells in the United States prepared to launch a second wave of attacks. One of Morell’s briefings had warned Bush in August about al Qaeda’s desire to attack, but it had been very low key. No special sense of urgency was felt or had been conveyed, despite the alarming title of the actual report: “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the U.S.” Certainly nothing on the scale of what had just happened. With much of the workforce vacationing, Morell had often scrambled for material to present to the president in August. He called them “summer doldrums pieces.” They tended to be broadly strategic, discussions of potential threats with more of a shelf life than most items on the morning agenda, looming problems about which the agency was concerned, but with few details. Bin Laden had been talking about doing something big in the United States, something he said that his followers would “rejoice about,” but this was from a man who had been making such threats for years. The report had noted that the FBI had “seventy full field investigations” under way on bin Laden–related threats. The thrust of the report was that al Qaeda was planning something and that the U.S. government had no idea what, but was nevertheless doing all it could to prevent it.
Air Force One descended to Andrews Air Force Base at dusk. Many of the people aboard were dozing, having worked a long and difficult day already and knowing that there was a long night ahead. Morell roused himself to look out the window. Two F-16s had maneuvered to escort them down, flying in precise formation off each wingtip so close that on his side he could see the pilot’s face inside the cockpit. In the distance he could see smoke still rising from the Pentagon.
He was at home later that night to watch the president address the nation on TV. Before Morell went to bed, he checked in on his children, sleeping in piles of stuffed animals. He thought:The world they live in has completely changed, and they have no idea.
That night, President Bush spoke from the Oval Office.
“Today our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom, came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts,” he said. He described the events of the day in detail and lauded those who had responded, at great peril, to the emergencies. He vowed “to find those responsible and bring them to justice.”
The man ultimately responsible, Osama bin Laden, had not been well known outside national security circles prior to that day, but he would soon be the most famous terrorist in the world. In the coming weeks and months he would acknowledge responsibility for the attacks, praise the murderous hijackers as martyrs to his cause, and be caught on videotape chuckling with delight and praising Allah for their success.
“There is America, hit by God in one of its softest spots,” he would say in a videotape released a few weeks later, wearing a camouflage coat, seated alongside the AK-47 he still carried from his days of jihad against the Soviet Union, his long beard showing streaks of gray. “Its great buildings were destroyed, thank God for that. There is America, full of fear from its north to its south, from its west to its east. Thank God for that. What America tastes now is something insignificant compared to what we have tasted for scores of years. Our Nation [he meant Muslims everywhere] has tasted this humiliation and this degradation for more than eighty years [since the demise of the Ottoman Empire during World War I].”
From 9/11 onward, every day that bin Laden eluded America’s grasp was a victory for him. It would be hard to overstate the significance of that. No matter what else the country did to avenge 9/11, no matter how many regimes it overturned, no matter how much it hammered and crippled al Qaeda, every day that man remained at large was an affront. It meant he had done this and gotten away with it, and might well do something like it again.
The two men who would lead the United States in the next decade of warfare had markedly different immediate responses to the attacks. Bush would record his feelings in his bookDecision Points. Obama would describe his in speeches and writings in coming years, and he spoke to me about it in the Oval Office.
Bush felt outrage and an urgent desire for revenge. “Someone had dared attack America,” he wrote. “They were going to pay.”
When they had landed at Barksdale Air Force Base that day, the row upon row of parked bombers had reminded Bush of the frightening power at his command. Another man witnessing this display might have reflected on the pointlessness of a Cold War–era arsenal against a stateless enemy with no fixed address, but Bush would later write, “I knew it was only a matter of time before I put that power to use against whoever ordered this attack.”
In his remarks on the night of the attacks he expanded the range of this anticipated retribution: “We will make no distinction between those who committed these acts and those who harbor them.” The president’s eagerness to hit back would continue to pick up speed. It would result in the mobilization of vast armies, the invasion and occupation of two nations, and the launching of smaller military and intelligence missions all over the globe. These missions would consume the next seven and a half years of Bush’s presidency, kill and maim untold thousands, and do more than anything else to shape America’s first decade of the twenty-first century. The war in Afghanistan, the first country attacked, would prove to be the longest in American history. In Iraq, an even bloodier and costlier war would be launched in the mistaken belief that dictator Saddam Hussein bore some tangential responsibility for the attacks and was harboring weapons that could do worse. However misguided much of this would prove to be, Bush’s response accurately reflected the public mood, and satisfied, to some extent, the nation’s need to flex its muscles and lash back at its enemies.
If Bush’s response on 9/11 was to start looking for somebody to bomb, Barack Obama sounded ready to launch some kind of global antipoverty campaign.
Few people were all that interested in the thoughts of the Illinois state senator, but in the days after the attacks his local newspaper, theHyde Park Herald,solicited his reaction along with that of other local representatives. Obama gave an answer you might expect from a former community organizer with a distinctly international background—his father was Kenyan, and Obama had spent the early years of his childhood living with his mother in Indonesia (he could still speak some Bahasa Indonesia, a language he learned as a child). At Columbia University, living in uptown Manhattan, he had devoted much of his studies to international relations, and he had traveled widely. Certainly more so than any previous president, Obama had grown up globally, a fact that, along with his mixed race and African name, would fuel stubborn suspicions that he was notauthenticallyAmerican. He had firsthand experience with the resentment and anger directed at the United States by many of those living in less fortunate parts of the world, as well as by many blacks growing up in this country. Anti-Americanism was not just an abstraction for him. He had consciously wrestled throughout his life with his own multicultural, multiracial identity, a process he had described movingly in his 1995 memoir,Dreams from My Father. In his response for theHyde Park Herald,he called for an examination of the root causes of terrorism. “It grows from a climate of poverty and ignorance, helplessness and despair,” he said. He called for America “to devote far more attention to the monumental task of raising the hopes and prospects of embittered children across the globe—children not just in the Middle East, but also in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and within our own shores.” It read like left-wing boilerplate and, right or wrong, was clearly out of step with the nation’s anger.
In fairness, the might of America’s armed forces was not yet his to command, and he was not yet responsible for protecting the nation. Nor were his political instincts that good. Obama had a hard time fitting in politically anywhere. In that run for Congress, he was trounced by former sixties activist Bobby Rush, who had cofounded the Black Panther party in Chicago and had once served six months in prison on a firearms charge. Rush’s First Congressional District was one of the few in America where a résumé like his would lead to Congress. It was home to Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam. Obama’s mixed race and international background, along with his Harvard credentials, had worked against him. In the coming years, his message would broaden with his horizons. He had already begun aggressively laying the foundation for his next campaign, a successful effort to unseat Republican Senator Peter Fitzgerald in 2005. But for the moment his response to 9/11 was strictly mundane.
It was from a template that went back to Vietnam. Most liberal Democrats, and many black Americans, had never gotten over that conflict. A quarter century later they still tended to be antiwar and even antimilitary—another of Rush’s curious countercredentials was that he had gone AWOL from the army. But the broad political pattern set in the 1960s and early 1970s—hawkish Republicans vs. dovish Democrats—had begun to show cracks. The old hawk vs. dove dynamic had grown a lot more complex, with liberals pushing for humanitarian interventions in Somalia, Bosnia, and elsewhere over the objections of conservatives, who inveighed against the folly of “nation building,” and “becoming the world’s policeman,” and cooperating with the UN.
Obama is a cautious man, and in the days after the attacks his caution showed. He seemed moreinterestedthan provoked. He said he hoped America would “draw some measure of wisdom from this tragedy.” He sounded more inclined tostudythe attack than to avenge it. Here was a man whose blood had a higher boiling point than most. He saw himself as someone skilled at navigating between implacable extremes, be they cultural or, as with his work with theHarvard Law Review, intellectual. But in this instance, the forces he imagined had shaped the 9/11 attackers, ignorance and poverty, did not apply. The suicidal killers would turn out to be neither embittered sons of poverty nor especially hopeless or ignorant. Most were well-to-do young Saudis whose families had shipped them overseas for expensive college educations. They were religious fanatics, led by a man who had inherited a fortune. Their grievances were not economic—they were political and religious.
Obama did call for some martial response, but even in that he was careful. “We must be resolute in identifying the perpetrators of these heinous acts and dismantling their organizations of destruction,” he said. Not “find them and arrest or kill them,” butdismantle their organizations.If Bush’s response to the attacks started big and would keep getting bigger, his eventual successor’s response was at the opposite end of the spectrum. Any thoughts about war for Obama were deeply couched in restraint. He would eventually wage war fiercely, but the restraint would remain. He was not a pacifist. He saw violence as a necessary resort, albeit a last one. But as long as he was not bearing the responsibility of defending the nation, he could afford to let the shocking events of the day sink in more slowly.
The events were unprecedented. America has had its share of bloodshed, invasion, and surprise attack. Pearl Harbor was a living memory for millions. But because of television, nothing in American history compared with the impact of 9/11. Pearl Harbor was over two thousand miles from the mainland, at a time when the Hawaiian islands were just an American territory. Reports of the Japanese attack arrived via radio and newspaper stories. The attacks on 9/11 happened on live TV and were broadcast worldwide, the key moments replayed in slow motion and in a constant loop. There was nothing indirect about this. Here was heedless slaughter of fellow citizens right before our eyes.
The debates over conflicts in Obama’s lifetime—Panama, El Salvador, Kuwait, Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, etc.—had all involved abstract questions about the use of American power. What was the country’s moral obligation? How broadly should “national interest” be defined? What were the costs of intervention? Would it make things better or worse? How would the rest of the world perceive the decision? There was nothing abstract about 9/11.
Some persistent critics of the United States would argue that the country had brought this on itself. They would blame, among other things, self-serving Middle East policies, attitudes of cultural supremacy, and a steadfast disregard for growing global disparities in wealth and opportunity. Obama’s own statements hinted at this. But it was apparent to most that the attacks were rooted in something darker. Washington’s global strategies, intrigues, and alliances stirred anger in many parts of the world, particularly the Middle East. Anti-Americanism was real and dangerous. But this . . . this went to some deep well of hatred. The death of innocents has always been a tragic consequence of war, but this was random murder asstrategy.It was something new, or, perhaps, something very old.
Obama sat up late on the night of 9/11 watching TV while he cared for infant Sasha, changing her and then giving her a bottle. By then the links with al Qaeda were being widely reported, and screens flashed pictures of bin Laden, a tall, thin, lordly man with a prophet’s beard and flowing robes. His picture conjured up wrathful images of the fanatical abolitionist John Brown, or even Jehovah. Obama already knew more about this Saudi Arabian renegade and his extremist movement than did most Americans. The explosions at U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 had killed 223 people, mostly Africans. Thousands more had been wounded. Obama had family in Kenya. He had visited that Nairobi embassy. His tendency to search for answers through mutual understanding would be sorely tested here.
It would end up mattering a great deal how the events of this day affected Barack Obama. Few of us are asked to make life and death decisions, or to order someone killed. It is doubtful that Obama, on that night, imagined that he ever would. His personal and intellectual inclination was to bridge the gaps between people, to empathize. He tended to see conflict as something that arose exclusively out of injustice and misunderstanding. He was the son of a Luo tribesman from Kenya and a white girl from Kansas. He was different wherever he went, as a boy making the transition to life and school in Jakarta, as a young interracial man with black skin in a primarily white world. Even internally, negotiating differences was his life story. As he would tell biographer David Maraniss years later, “The only way my life makes sense is if, regardless of culture, race, religion, tribe, there is this commonality, precepts that are universal. And that we can reach out beyond our differences. If that is not the case, then it is pretty hard for me to make sense of my life. So that’s the core of who I am.” Empathy was his milieu. It’s a generous worldview, and often the correct one.
But on September 11 he confronted something that challenged that hopeful insight. Search as he might for some logic to justify or mitigate these attacks, no reach of empathy or reason got him there. Bin Laden’s hateful beliefs could not be reconciled. Despite the soft tone of his remarks to the Hyde Park newspaper, Obama also spoke of “a fundamental absence of empathy on the part of the attackers: an inability to imagine, or connect with, the humanity and suffering of others.”
There is little evidence that George W. Bush was given to this sort of reflection, at least not openly, about himself or his responsibility. He had been born into a family that wielded power as if it were part of its birthright, and when the attacks came he was more than ready to play his role. Obama came from an opposite place. His roots were among the powerless. But even in his wide experience there was no way to comprehend Osama bin Laden.
Four years after the attacks, after his election to the U.S. Senate sparked a wave of electoral enthusiasm that would eventually carry him to the White House, Obama wrote a new prologue to his memoir. In it, he returned briefly to 9/11: “It’s beyond my skill as a writer to capture that day and the days that would follow. The planes like specters vanishing into steel and glass, the slow-motion cascade of towers crumbling into themselves. The ash-covered figures wandering the streets. The anguish and fear. Nor do I pretend to understand the stark nihilism that drove terrorists that day and drives their brethren still. My powers of empathy, my ability to reach into another’s heart cannot penetrate the blank stares of those who would murder innocents with abstract, serene satisfaction.”
He noted that the murderous swath of al Qaeda in the previous decade hewed oddly close to his own life path—Nairobi, Bali, Manhattan. He spoke more harshly of the attackers than he had years earlier. He condemned anyone “who would seek under whatever flag or slogan or sacred text, a certainty and simplification that justifies cruelty toward those not like us.”
Obama had spent a lifetime, no matter where he looked, beingnot like others.The attacks had crystallized something for him.
When Sasha emptied her bottle that night in 2001 he lifted her to his shoulder and patted her back gently. The terrible images of the day replayed before him on the screen. He wondered what the future would hold for her and her older sister Malia. He felt the attacks personally, as a civilized man, as an American, and as a father. He was working his way toward a personal definition of evil.
2The Path of Jihad
In hiding, his hair and beard had grown white. The Sheik, as he liked to be called, was just fifty-three years old, but the long white whiskers made him look like an old man. In a sense, he had been playing an elder his entire adult life, having been severe and serenely self-important since he was old enough to sprout a beard. Wealthy, well connected, and male in a culture that excessively prized those things, he had known deference and esteem from those closest to him all his life.
Despite the hammering his movement had taken in recent years, bin Laden kept an upbeat tone in his letters. His faith did not allow for doubt, or even questions. His perambulations around the Middle and Near East aside, bin Laden’s world was exceedingly narrow. If the man in the White House, Barack Obama, the man charged with defending the United States of America, was a surprising confluence of race and nationality, a man of international upbringing and broad liberal education, bin Laden was his opposite. The Sheik had walked a relatively narrow path in life. He had found the truth at a young age and ever since had labored to resist any challenge or contradiction. Even before he became the world’s most wanted fugitive, his daily habits and those he imposed on his family were calculated to reduce traffic with those outside his small circle of belief. The rituals he observed—the fasting, the avoidance of women other than his wives, the extra sessions of daily prayer—all of it was designed to stave off outside influence. It was designed to strengthen his devotion to the cause and his faith in ultimate victory.
He saw hopeful signs everywhere.
“Anyone who looks at the enemies in NATO, especially America, will know that they are in big trouble,” he wrote. “This year has been the worst for them in Afghanistan since they invaded it. The number of their dead has never been this high, according to their own reports. Their financial crisis continues. Britain has lowered its defense budget and America is reducing the budget at the Pentagon. Anyone who knows the world and who understands politics realizes that it is impossible for them to continue with the war. There is no difference between them and the Soviet Union before it withdrew from Afghanistan.”
At heart, the Sheik was a fantasist, and here was the nub of his fantasy. He had left home at age twenty-two to join a seemingly hopeless cause, a pan-Muslim jihad to drive the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. Themujahidinwho took up this fight were little more than an untrained, poorly armed rabble going up against one of the richest, best-trained and -equipped, and most powerful military forces in the world. In later years bin Laden would be described as a murderous nihilist, someone who believed in nothing. He was murderous all right, but the opposite of a nihilist. He was a true believer. He had a complete vision of the world as he wanted it to be—indeed, as he was convinced it would be, as he was convinced God Almighty intended it to be. He believed in miracles and signs. He collected them throughout his life as proof of God’s favor. His determination to join the jihad in Afghanistan was an act of faith, and the defeat of the Soviets vindicated his commitment. It was the first great miracle on this path, the one that convinced him more than anything else that he was right.
As a boy, growing up one of fifty-four children of a Saudi billionaire construction magnate, bin Laden had gone mostly to Islamist schools, and in religion he found an antidote to the worldliness of his family. He was one of the few bin Laden children who received all of his education in Saudi Arabia. The schools he had attended as a boy included religious studies, but also taught mathematics, science, history, geography, and English. He learned as a boy to speak passable English. Growing up in the 1960s he was among the best educated of his Saudi generation. He had also worked for his father, first as a simple laborer. The bin Laden company was renowned for building roads and parts of the mosques in Mecca and Medina. Young Osama worked his way up to foreman of a labor gang, and finally headed up construction projects himself. One of his specialties was tunneling. This kind of work put him shoulder to shoulder with Muslim workers from all over the region and the world: Egyptians, Yemenis, Moroccans, and even Malaysians. So his ideas about the Muslim world expanded well beyond those of most sheltered young Saudis, who viewed their own Wahhabi brand of the faith as superior to all others. At the same time, bin Laden became exceedingly devout, shunning all contact with women other than his wives (the first of whom, Najwa, he had married at age seventeen). He renounced the affluent lifestyles of his vast family and discovered the work of Egyptian scholar Sayyid Qutb, a small, mean, sickly man with a Hitler mustache who had been hanged by authorities in Egypt in 1966. In death, Qutb’s angry words gained fiery eloquence for those who thought as he did.
Qutb had railed against the rapid Westernization of traditional Arab societies. He championed divine revelation in a fallen modern world, penning biting critiques of both capitalist democracy and communism. A fervent Jew hater, he saw secret Zionist plots behind most of what he disliked, embracing every cockeyed forgery and myth in the canon of anti-Semitism. The Koran, he argued, was the one true path. All the wisdom mankind needed was in that book, which he spent a lifetime interpreting and explaining to suit his own vision. Muslims held the truth, the only truth, and had a duty to confront unbelievers, violently if necessary. Regimes and states that stood in the way of religious rule werejahiliyya—ignorant pre-Islamic societies—and as such were legitimate targets for violence. The forces of God must combat the forces of Satan, beginning with the secular regimes of modern Arab states. Qutb urged the faithful to carve out one country in which to base a pure society founded on shariah, Islamist law, a foothold for the faithful in a fallen world, and from that base radiate righteousness outward, by the sword if necessary. The new caliphate thus created would bend all of civilization to God’s will. At a time when well-to-do Arabs were becoming increasingly secular and Western, sending their children to Europe and the United States for advanced degrees and adopting lifestyles antithetical to Arab tradition, Qutb urged them to go in the opposite direction.
He had lived for a time in the United States—briefly in Colorado and in California—and seemingly everything he saw clarified his hatred not just for America, but also for the humanism that formed the intellectual undergirding of the Western world. A fastidious man who never married and seemed repelled by sex, Qutb denounced the licentiousness, materialism, and personal freedom of capitalist democracy. He saw clearly that for all its so-called respect for religion, Western society had become primarily secular, that faith, which for him was the dynamic principle of life, had been reduced in capitalist societies to something more akin to a commodity, as though there were differentflavorsof divine truth arrayed like items on a supermarket shelf for shoppers to pick through. What could it possibly matter to God what sort of truth a man preferred? There was only one truth, and man’s job was to accept it reverently and try to live in accordance with it. The very idea of tolerance, of respect for a variety of beliefs, was anathema. One either embraced the truth or was lost. As for Marxism, the Western world’s great rival notion, he saw it as simple idolatry, elevating human reason—“Rational Idealism”—above revelation. Lurking behind both Marxism and capitalism, he argued, was world Jewry.
“Islam is a system given by God and it aims to establish a fundamental principle of God’s sovereignty and people’s servitude to Him alone,” Qutb wrote. “As such, Islam has the right to remove all obstacles from its way and address people freely without any impediments such as a political system or social customs and traditions . . . it is the right of Islam to take the initiative. It is not the creed of a particular people or the system of a particular country. It is a system given by God for the entire world. As such, it has the right to take action to remove all obstacles that fetter man’s freedom of choice. It is a faith that does not force itself on any individual, it only attacks situations and regimes in order to free individuals from deviant influences that corrupt human nature and restrict man’s freedom.”
Young Osama bin Laden was not the first youth to be swept up by a pure, simple ideology that promised to create freedom of choice by abolishing everything that disagreed with it. The Koran stood like a rock in the shifting waters of human history. Progress for human beings meant one thing: living more closely to the teachings of the book.
“The Islamic concept of Divinity is utterly distinct from man’s . . . and therefore it does not need to develop or change,” Qutb wrote. “The One who established this concept can envision without limits of time or space. His knowledge is immune to the obstacles of ignorance and deficiency; and He chooses without being influenced by passion or emotion. Therefore, He has established for the entirety of humanity, in all places and at all times, a firm principle within the framework of which human life freely advances and develops.”
Accused of participating in a Muslim Brotherhood plot to assassinate Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser, Qutb went to the gallows with his beliefs unshaken. “The Muslim Brotherhood is not a party of preachers and missionaries but rather of divine enforcers,” he wrote. “Its mission is to blot out, by force if necessary, oppression, moral anarchy, social disorder, and exploitation so as to finish the so-called divine role of self-styled gods and replace evil with good. ‘Fight them,’ the Koran says, ‘until there is no more oppression, and all submission is made to God alone.’”
Bin Laden became a “divine enforcer.” As a young man, he was not a scholar or much of a thinker, and he lacked Qutb’s eloquence. Those who knew him found him tongue-tied and unimpressive. But he was ambitious, and rich. His billionaire father was killed in a plane crash in 1967, leaving behind enough of a fortune to make all of his offspring at least multimillionaires. Bin Laden’s inheritance at age ten was estimated in the tens of millions. He had no interest in using his wealth to build a fine home or adopt a luxurious lifestyle, though, as many of his siblings did. His inclinations ran the opposite way. He had been educated in a private secular school, but by the time he attended King Abdulazzi University, where he studied economics and business management, he was already preaching simplicity and seemed primarily interested in religion and charitable work. He continued to pursue these interests until the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and launched him on the path toward his life’s work.
Huthaifa Azzam was just fourteen years old when he answered a bell on the gate outside his father’s house in Jordan. He found a very tall, very thin, swarthy and bearded young man wearing Arab robes and a simple white turban, not the typical red-and-white-checked headdress, orshemagh,worn by most Saudi men. The visitor asked, shyly, “Is this the house of Dr. Abdullah Azzam?”
Azzam was a prominent Palestinian Islamist and scholar whose fatwa, “Defense of the Muslim Lands: The First Obligation After Faith,” had caused a stir in the Arab world, summoning the faithful to Afghanistan to resist the infidel Soviets. Azzam had done more than preach. He had relocated to Pakistan to take part in the holy war himself. Based in Peshawar, close to the Afghan border, he had established what he called the “Services Office,” to recruit and train young Arab volunteers to join the fight. Magazines, photos, and videos prepared by the office spread news of the heroic religious resistance throughout the Arab world . . . and had found their way to young bin Laden. Azzam was taking a short holiday break with his family in Jordan when the young Saudi made the four-hour trip to ring his bell. This volunteer was different from most, of course, because of his fortune. Azzam must have been delighted. The two men spoke for hours that day, and by evening bin Laden was a recruit. He pledged himself to the cause. He was still enough of a loyal Saudi subject, however, that he delayed traveling back with Azzam in order to seek permission from King Fahd. He arrived in Peshawar several weeks later.
At that point, bin Laden’s money was more valuable to the cause than his leadership or even his life, and so during those first years with Azzam he stayed safely behind the lines, working at the Services Office and helping to attract other young fighters to the cause. This was not destined to last. Bin Laden was a romantic, and a zealot, and he had not made his jihad to live safely behind the lines. He grew apart from Azzam, increasingly falling in with Ayman al-Zawahiri, the radical Egyptian physician who had left his home country after serving three years in prison. Zawahiri worked at a Red Crescent hospital in Peshawar. Although only six years older than bin Laden, he was a man of wider experience and education, and had been deeply embittered by the torture he had undergone at the hands of Egyptian police. His angry radicalism stirred bin Laden to play a more active role in the holy war—to become a full-fledgedmujahidhimself.
Bin Laden’s growing extremism began to trouble his Palestinian mentor. Azzam, a college professor, balked at bin Laden’s refusal to send his children to school. The younger man wanted Arab recruits to form separate, religiously pure fighting units, while Azzam believed the Arabs would be better employed if mixed with the savvier, more experienced Afghan militia. He also resisted his protégé’s growing carelessness about human life. Bin Laden had embraced a broad definition of “infidel.” Until that point, the enemy had been understood to be Russian soldiers and Afghans who fought with them. They were at war, after all. Bin Laden had expanded the definition. It now applied to any Russian, even any non-Muslim. He was fighting a bigger war than the one being promoted by Azzam. The older man’s wife, Samira, remembers her husband arguing with bin Laden about the younger man’s plan to place a bomb on a bus full of Russians visiting Pakistan.
“You entered Pakistan on a visa,” Azzam reminded him. “The visa is a contract. You signed when you obtained the visa that you would not be a troublemaker nor break the laws. A Muslim should not break a contract.”
“Pakistan is a Muslim country,” bin Laden told him, by which he meant that non-Muslims had no business coming there.
It was one thing, Azzam argued, to kill Russians who invaded Afghanistan and held it by force, quite another to target innocent civilians on a holiday to a country that welcomed them.
“So what will happen if Russia loses a bus full of people?” bin Laden said dismissively. “It is not going to matter.”
He had moved beyond the conflict in Afghanistan. His faith empowered him. God had touched him. This gave him the right to decide, to kill.
Bin Laden also felt that jihad demanded that he actually fight as well, not just take part in recruiting, training, and paying others to do so. The older man argued with him for months, no doubt convinced that a multimillionaire Saudi was worth more to the cause alive than dead. But bin Laden had made up his mind. He was going to cross the border and join the battle. In 1987, he split with Azzam. He recruited his own band of about two dozen Arab fighters, creating the kind of fighting unit he preferred—a pure, all-Arab force of men who fought for religious reasons alone, not just for the principle of Afghan nationalism. Equipped with weapons and bulldozers, they drove ten miles or so into Afghanistan, joined up with some like-minded Afghan fighters, and set about building a mountain outpost near the village of Jaji. Bin Laden fortified a series of ridges and began building roads and other structures—he said a school and a hospital—that advertised their presence. It was in easternmost Afghanistan, in rugged country, and was not a strategically important spot, at least not in any conventional sense. Bin Laden called it al-Masada, the Lion’s Den. It was near a much larger Soviet garrison and its primary purpose was to provoke an attack. To a practical man like Azzam (who would be assassinated two years later) this probably appeared foolhardy, but bin Laden lived in a world of romantic fantasy, and in that realm, al-Masada made perfect sense. The battle was not just for Afghanistan, but for the whole world. It was the beginning of a new caliphate, the dawn of a new Muslim age. He was a holy warrior, and warriors did not win battles by writing checks and making videos and leading from the rear. In his view, the idea wasn’t to defeat the Soviets in battle, or even to survive, but to display such heroism and resolve that it would inflame the fighting spirit of the greater Muslim Nation.
“God willing, we want the Lion’s Den to be the first thing that the enemy faces,” bin Laden told a Syrian journalist. “Its place as the first camp visible to the enemy means that they will focus their bombardments on us in an extreme manner.”
And the Soviets obliged, dropping napalm and so many tons of conventional explosives that the outpost and the area around it were denuded of trees and vegetation. Then they attacked directly, encircling the outpost. The siege lasted for twenty-two days, with a heavy toll on both sides. Some of bin Laden’s men were more skilled fighters than he was. Abu Hafs (Mohammed Atef, an Egyptian policeman who would be killed in 2001) and Abu Ubaidah (Ali Amin al-Rashidi, also a former Egyptian policeman, killed in 1996) led punishing counterattacks. The Soviets eventually gave up and retreated, handing the Arab fighters an inspirational victory. It had unfolded for bin Laden miraculously, a clear sign from heaven.
He would later tell the Syrian journalist, “At seven on the twenty-seventh morning of Ramadan 1407 [April of 1987], most of the people were sleeping in the camp because it was Ramadan. Then I saw things that, by God, I have never seen before. A Soviet airplane, a MIG, I believe, passed by in front of us, when a group of our Afghanmujahidinbrothers grouped together [and attacked]. The plane then broke into pieces and fell right in front of our eyes. This battle is what gave me the strong will to continue with this war.”
By all accounts bin Laden fought bravely, exposing himself to danger and the extremes of deprivation and cold like everyone else in the camp. He was injured during the fighting and, at one point, he later told an interviewer, he lay unconscious and bleeding in a trench, surrounded by his dead comrades. He was ultimately rescued, but only after losing a lot of blood, an incident that he would later say had given him chronically low blood pressure. Bin Laden’s willingness to place himself at risk greatly enlarged his reputation. It mattered little in the end that the battle had been meaningless in practical terms. The Battle of Jaji was proclaimed a great victory, and bin Laden, having conceived it, was its hero. Reporters trekked out to al-Masada to meet this Saudi multimillionaire who fought with suicidal conviction. One of them, Ahmad Zaidan, a Pakistani newspaper reporter working for a group of Arab newspapers, found an extraordinarily pious young man in complete command, who had supplanted the role once played by the far more famous Azzam, and who was surrounded by devoted followers. Bin Laden had transformed himself from a rich-kid backer on the sidelines into a frontlinemujahidinleader.
It brought him more than new recruits. It affirmed his sense of destiny. By then he had become the Sheik. He was thirty years old, tall and thin, with long full features and a long dark beard that further elongated his face. He preferred traditional Arab robes and cultivated a lofty, saintly mien, affecting abject humility. He was theatrically holy. From time to time he would receive audiences of reporters, and after each question he would sit silently for a few moments, mouthing prayers, as if waiting for the Almighty to formulate the response for him, and only then would he speak, in a voice so soft that everyone had to lean close to hear him. He fasted once or twice a week and rejected the simple comforts and conveniences of modern life that he could easily afford. He shunned electricity, doing without air-conditioning and refrigeration in even the warmest climates, as when he and his family lived in the Sudan. All the better to harden himself and his family for the privation of war, for life as a fugitive. Followers were now drawn to his renown, to his sincerity, to his daring and his conviction, but also to his money. His fortune was still key. For those who had experienced the heady days of jihad in Afghanistan and preferred to make a career of it, bin Laden could provide the means, and possessed the reckless vision. For most Arabs the caliphate was ancient history, but to the Sheik it was destiny. God had chosen him. Surviving the bitter Russian siege at Jaji reinforced those beliefs. Qutb had called for a pure Muslim state, a base from which to spread the cause. Afghanistan seemed to be the place. It had been called Khorasan when it was converted to Islam in the seventh century and had stood as one of the great pillars of the caliphate for centuries. Defeating the Soviets there would have deep resonance among believers. It was, perhaps, the right place. And in bin Laden’s mind, it had started at al-Masada, where the pure of heart, outnumbered and outgunned, had righteously defied Soviet MIGs and bombs and weeks of determined assault.
Then the impossible happened. Just as they had backed away from al-Masada,in 1989 Russian armies retreated in frustration from Afghanistan. Within three years, the Soviet empire itself collapsed, closely followed by the regime it had left behind in Kabul. Bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia with an outsized reputation as author of this titanic accomplishment, and he gained even more disciples. He and the men who had fought with him at Jaji saw themselves as the fulcrum of this triumph and named themselves “the Base,” or al Qaeda. They were the soul of what bin Laden saw as the emerging caliphate, a true Muslim Nation.
It was, of course, absurd. If anything, the source of themujahidin’s triumph had been the billions of dollars of U.S. aid and arms that Michael Vickers had helped steer to Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion. But bin Laden was less interested in the truth than in appearances, and in the latter, he and his followers excelled. Their style spoke volumes. Their long beards and hair and prayer caps and robes made them seem like men from an ancient, holier time. They adopted bin Laden’s asceticism. They embraced struggle and death, bragging that their desire for martyrdom trumped their attachment to life itself. They pitted themselves against power. They were natural men, real men. Their very shabbiness advertised their authenticity. They were pious. They believed that happiness and justice were not things civilization was evolving toward, but things that had been lost.
The fall of the Soviet Union had many causes, of course, and the drawn-out humiliation in Afghanistan was certainly among them, but for the devout there was only one cause: the hand of God had once more moved clearly in human history, just as it had in the legends of old. No serious scholar would credit bin Laden with a critical role in the effort, much less a role in the collapse of the Soviet state, but in the Sheik’s mind that was how it had gone. It made for a great story, the powerless but pure of heart overcoming impossible odds. The Sheik loved stories like these. He was a poet himself, a fantastical one, given to cosmic sweep and romantic cliché. He celebrated violence and death in the struggle to defend the faith, with centuries-old imagery of swords and steeds, soaring mountains, and fearless warriors.He hunches forth,
He used his poems to explain, excite, and recruit in parts of the world where traditions were still tribal and oral, but the poems were also an expression of how he saw himself, how he believed the world to be. As a younger man he had composed and recited his poems at weddings and other occasions. He was stitching his own life and his modern struggle into images of a glorious past. The Sheik often enclosed verses in his letters, and instructed that they be read on important occasions—published or broadcast. The Afghanistan victory brought the ages of heroes and mighty deeds to life in modern times. In his poetry, he was arguing that we, too, live in an age of miracles.
After the collapse of the Soviet state, even the wildest reach of his ambition seemed possible. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, the Sheik, then living in his home country, wrote a series of letters to King Fahd demanding that American forces not be allowed to enter Saudi Arabia and offering to put together a force ofmujahidinto expel the Iraqi forces himself. His pleas were ignored. Huthaifa Azzam, who had remained friends with bin Laden for years after the Afghan conflict, remembers this as the only time he ever saw the studiously mild-mannered Sheik ever lose his temper. Bin Laden’s outrage and sense of betrayal were complete. He was considered dangerous enough in his home country that he was placed under house arrest.
After the kingdom’s refusal to adopt his plan for a renewed holy war, instead opting for the more practical option of inviting the United States and other apostate countries to assemble military forces to confront Saddam, bin Laden’s brothers used their influence to get his passport back, and he left Saudi Arabia permanently, first traveling to Pakistan, then to Afghanistan, then the Sudan, and then back to Afghanistan.
The younger Azzam was attending a conference in the Sudan in 1995 when he dropped in to see bin Laden. During his visit, he recalls, he met Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who had brought his notorious nephew, Ramzi Yousef, a Sunni extremist who was at that time a fugitive sought by the United States for the first attack on the World Trade Center, two years earlier. Azzam described Yousef as a scrawny man whose bearded face had been scarred in a bomb-making accident. Both he and his uncle would later be characterized in The 9/11 Commission Report as “rootless but experienced operatives.” Yousef would be captured in Pakistan later that year. According to Azzam, the Sheik listened as Yousef outlined a plan to attack targets in the United States again, including the World Trade Center towers, this time by hijacking commercial airliners and flying them into buildings. He wanted al Qaeda to help with recruiting martyrs and raise money for them to travel to the United States for flight training. As Azzam recalls it, the Sheik said, “We have nothing to do with the United States, why should we attack them?”
This may have been for Azzam’s benefit, since bin Laden had been preaching a duty to attack America for years. Ever since he had broken with Azzam’s father, the Sheik had steered a far more radical course. Huthaifa Azzam was not the radical bin Laden had become, and would have been seen as suspect, perhaps even as a spy. It might explain why bin Laden would have made a show of rejecting Yousef’s idea in this meeting. Already al Qaeda had been implicated in attacks and plots on Americans, including sending military advisers to Somalia in 1993 to help tribal militiamen target American helicopters, and a car bomb explosion in Saudi Arabia that killed five American and two Indian soldiers. If the account is true, the meeting Azzam described is significant because it would be the first known mention of what became the 9/11 plot to bin Laden. The idea for the attacks is customarily attributed to Khalid Sheik Mohammed, but Yousef’s fixation on the towers is well documented. He later confessed that he had hopes that the 1993 bombing would collapse the towers and kill 250,000 people. Whatever bin Laden said at this session, al Qaeda would endorse the plan soon enough.
Bin Laden left the Sudan when terrorists linked to al Qaeda and the Egyptian group Islamic Jihad were linked to an attempted assassination of the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Pressure mounted on the Sudanese government after that, and the Sheik was expelled. He had other reasons to go. There had been one known attempt on his life there, and Saudi authorities had cut off payments to the al Qaeda leader from his family inheritance. With funding for his ambitious projects in the Sudan dried up, he left for Afghanistan in May 1996.
Three months later, back in the dusty, rugged homeland of the first great miracle, the Sheik held a press conference to declare war on “the head of the snake.” He cited a list of grievances against America and demanded that its forces be withdrawn from “the land of the two Holy Places”—Saudi Arabia. It was time for the next great struggle, he preached, which would topple the world’s other superpower, the United States. That would mean the end of Israel, America’s client state, and the dawn of a new Islamist age. There was nothing stealthy about his plan, just as there had been no disguising his intentions when he built al-Masada near the Soviet garrison at Jaji. The whole idea was to confront the enemy openly, to make a show of inspired defiance. Indeed, making the show was more important than succeeding. Audacity was the point.
In 1998, he told ABC News correspondent John Miller, to whom he gave an interview in order to directly reach American audiences: “I’m declaring war on the United States. I am going to attack your country.”
Few Americans took the threat seriously. Some crackpot Arab in the middle of nowhere had declared war on the United States. The country had more important things on its mind . . . like sex. Former White House intern Monica Lewinsky said it had transpired between her and President Clinton, and he was still denying it. Hillary Clinton was conjuring up “a vast right-wing conspiracy.” House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was then secretly carrying on his own extramarital affair with a staffer twenty-three years his junior, was leading the charge to impeach the president. Basketball star Michael Jordan clinched the Chicago Bulls’ sixth NBA title with a fade-away jumper in the final seconds of his last game with the team. Bin Laden was of interest to those whose job it was to protect the United States from foreign threats but, as we have seen, even in those circles he did not merit urgent concern.
But the Sheik had big plans, and the means to carry them out. The bombings of American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998 and the attack on the USS Cole two years later, got America’s attention, but al Qaeda was still considered by most in the intelligence and military communities to be a nuisance—a deadly and growing nuisance, perhaps, but a nuisance. Bin Laden’s own life grew more difficult, as the Clinton administration devoted more effort to finding and killing him. Two of bin Laden’s wives left him during this period, choosing to abandon the path of jihad. But the Sheik persevered through the next decade, training recruits, plotting, and laying the groundwork for the next miracle.
The fall of the World Trade Center towers was his vindication. What greater proof of God’s purpose could the world wish to see? Bin Laden placed great stock in signs. He had long sought to deliver a decapitating strike, hitting the American centers of finance, government, and military. It had seemed an impossible goal. One had to be crazy, or inspired, to think he could pull it off.
The collapse of the World Trade Center had been the second great miracle in his life. The fall of the iconic towers in Manhattan, symbols of the wealth and power of the world’s remaining infidel superpower, seemed to presage the imminent collapse of America, too. It was further proof that the path he followed was divinely inspired.
In his wildest hopes he had not imagined that the planes might bring down the towers completely. God’s hand had surely been in it. The physical force of the colliding planes, the exploding fuel, and the resulting infernos were themselves, he believed, inadequate to explain it. On a video found by American soldiers in Kandahar weeks after the attacks, bin Laden is seen conversing happily with a group of sympathetic Saudi visitors, alternately praising God and celebrating the remarkable outcome, painting the attacks in magical terms. It was a practice familiar in religious communities. You decorated the truth with dreams and portents, weaving magic into the facts, coloring them with divine favor.
In the footage, bin Laden knelt on a large pillow, wearing his military-style camouflage jacket, his head wrapped in a white turban, speaking so softly that his words were barely audible. When he spoke, the others in the room would fall silent. Bin Laden seemed stiff, perhaps because he knew he was being videotaped, and he elevated his long slender left hand and two fingers like Christ or a saint in an old icon. In older photographs, before he became so notorious, he appears more relaxed and human, even graceful, his long, thin features animated with a frequent smile. Now he was important. He assumed the pose of the important. He said he had received notice about the precise day of the attacks the week before, so he had been ready for the news. In Jalalabad it had been early evening. He described how he and his fellowmujahidinhad gathered around a radio to listen to the BBC’s Arabic-language radio broadcast.
“We calculated in advance the number of casualties from the enemy who would be killed based on the position of the tower,” he explained. “We calculated that the floors that would be hit would [be at most] three or four floors. I was the most optimistic of them all due to my experience in this field [construction]. I was thinking that the fire from the gas in the plane would melt the iron structure of the building and collapse the area where the plane hit and all the floors above it only. This was all that we had hoped for.”
When the others began celebrating after the first plane hit, bin Laden said he told them, “Be patient.” There was more news to come. The difference between the first and second plane hitting the towers was twenty minutes, and the difference between the first plane and the plane that hit the Pentagon was one hour.
As much as the first miracle, this one seemed to mark a profound milestone in his struggle. But he was cautious at first about claiming credit.
He sought out Hamid Mir, a well-known Pakistani journalist who had met and interviewed him years earlier. As Mir explained it, he was in his Islamabad office when the 9/11 attacks occurred. Within hours a messenger came to him with a written statement from the Sheik. Mir recognized the messenger. He had seen him when he had first met with bin Laden years earlier in Kandahar. The statement read, “I praise all those who conducted that operation. But I am not directly involved.”
Mir told the messenger: “You contacted me immediately after the attacks and you reached my office within a few hours and that means that you were not in Afghanistan at that time. That means that bin Laden gave you this statement before the attacks. And that means that you people were aware of the attacks.”
The messenger pleaded ignorance.
“The Sheik just gave me this letter. He said, ‘You will contact Mr. Mir at six o’clock and you will reach his office at seven o’clock and then you will come back.’ So that was my job and I have done my job, okay? Bye.”
The messenger left.
Mir’s own reporting reputation in Pakistan is controversial. He has often angered the government there, and he has been accused of being sympathetic to extremists, but his reports have been recognized worldwide as credible and often extraordinary. His many run-ins with Pakistani officialdom had burnished his reputation for independence among Western reporters, so in the days immediately after the attacks he was interviewed by many who were searching for some insight into al Qaeda. After he appeared on Larry King’s interview program on CNN, Mir was again contacted by one of bin Laden’s messengers, who said the Sheik wanted to talk to him. So Mir traveled to Jalalabad in November of 2001 in search of the scoop of a lifetime. Bin Laden was now the most wanted fugitive in the world.
He said that when he arrived in Jalalabad he waited a full day before being contacted by a group of low-level al Qaeda figures, who said they knew nothing of bin Laden’s summons.
“We are not aware of why you are here or who wanted you here,” one said. “We are not aware, just wait.”
More hours passed. Eventually, Mir was contacted and instructed to travel to Kabul. He spent several days in the Afghan capital, being shuttled first to one safe house, then another. It was now weeks into the American invasion, and just days before the Taliban fell. The capital was braced for tumultuous change. He could hear bombs falling on the city day and night, explosions that shook the earth. The Islamist kingdom under construction was coming apart all around him. Mir feared he would never get out alive. If an American bomb didn’t kill him, these al Qaeda fighters would. On the morning of November 8, six days before the Taliban fled the city, he was escorted into the presence of bin Laden and al-Zawahiri. Both men said they had come to Kabul to attend funeral services for a comrade.
Bin Laden seemed serenely untroubled by the unfolding disaster around him, and in high spirits. Sitting with the two most wanted men in the world, surrounded by other members of their group, Mir began nervously. He asked, “Are you responsible for 9/11?”
Bin Laden reached over with one long finger and shut off Mir’s tape recorder.
He asked, “Can you ask this question to George W. Bush: Are you responsible for the killing of many Muslims in Palestine and Iraq?”
“No, I cannot ask him this question because I’ll not get any chance to interview him,” said Mir.
“Okay, but if you do get a chance and if you ask this question, will he answer?”
“No,” said Mir.
“Then why are you asking this question of me?”
“Because he is a politician and you are a fighter,” said Mir, thinking fast, and then, falling back on any journalist’s most trusted tactic, he resorted to flattery. “You said that you are amujahid, so there must be a difference between a politician and amujahid.Mujahidalways speak the truth. You have to answer my question.”
“Off the record, yes,” said bin Laden. Then he turned the recorder back on. “I cannot answer your question because my answer will create problems for the Taliban.”
Clearly the Taliban had problems enough. Bombs were exploding outside so close that the journalist was shaken. His fright amused bin Laden.
“Oh, Mr. Mir, maybe today you will be killed with me at this place,” he said, lightly mocking him. “You are here to interview me and maybe you will not be able to report that interview back to your newspaper. What will happen with you?”
Bin Laden and the others laughed. They spoke for hours. Mir worked through a list of questions he had prepared. They discussed the various attempts that had been made on bin Laden’s life, and after shutting off Mir’s recorder again the Sheik spoke at length about his disdain for Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, neither of whom had joined the struggle against the Soviet Union years before. Mir asked him about widespread reports that he suffered a kidney disease and needed dialysis treatments. Again, the Sheik laughed. He promised to address the question in more detail when they had finished the interview. So when Mir finished asking his questions, breakfast was brought in for them—olives, cheese, bread and butter, beef. Bin Laden began eating vigorously.
“A kidney patient cannot eat a lot,” he told Mir. “You see this is beef? I am eating beef. You see this is cheese? I am eating cheese.”
Mir looked to al-Zawahiri, who agreed. “Yes, I am a doctor, I can confirm, kidney patients cannot eat a lot.”
“I can ride my horse seventy kilometers without any stop,” said bin Laden.
He kept Mir far longer than the reporter had expected, or desired. The Pakistani, having asked his questions, was eager to leave and get out of the city. He knew that bin Laden might well be a target for the Americans. After this exchange about the Sheik’s health, Mir asked, “Can I leave now?”
“No,” said his host. “You spend some more time with us and have some tea and you can ask some other questions, off the record questions.”
Bin Laden told Mir that the day after the attacks in America, his youngest wife had given birth to a daughter, whom he named Safiyah.
“Why Safiyah?” Mir asked.
Bin Laden explained that Safiyah had been an aunt of the Prophet and an early convert to Islam. She had given up all her possessions to join the faith, and had taken part in battles and slain unbelievers in defense of the faith.
“Are you now planning to involve the females of your family in your fight against the Americans?” Mir asked, mindful of the Sheik’s strictly traditional views on the role of women. Bin Laden laughed.
“Maybe Safiyah will follow the footsteps of her father,” he said, and resisted when Mir seemed to be taking the comment too seriously.
“Just forget, forget,” he said.
“No, no, it’s very important for me.”
“Okay, rest assured Safiyah will not become amujahid,don’t worry,” bin Laden said, and laughed again. And at last he said, “Okay, now you can go back.”
Despite the relentless American attacks and the imminent defeat of the Taliban, the Sheik was filled with confidence from the impact of 9/11. All was unfolding as he foretold.
He did not see any of his attacks as wanton terror, as his horrified enemies did. They were retribution. They were not simply just, but divinely inspired. They were his duty.
“We kill civilian infidels in exchange for those of our children they kill,” he told an interviewer from Al Jazeera five months after the 9/11 attacks, citing an estimate he often used, that a “million children” had died in Iraq owing to UN–imposed sanctions on that country, a number most serious analysts considered absurdly inflated. Asked about the children killed who had been attending a school inside the World Trade Center, he reasoned: “[Retribution] is permissible in law and intellectually. The men that God helped [on September 11] did not intend to kill babies, they intended to destroy the strongest military power in the world, to attack the Pentagon that houses more than 64,000 employees, a military center that houses military intelligence. The twin towers are an economic power and not a children’s school.”
It is worth noting here, and for most it goes without saying, that Osama bin Laden’s ideas were neither new nor compelling outside his relatively small circle of followers. They belonged to an ugly cul-de-sac of history, an era where witches and heretics were burned in town squares. They were adolescent ideas, in that they remained willfully ignorant of all that had come before. There are many who choose to believe that certain ancient texts are literally the word of one God or the other, but not many who would go so far as to regard as a sacred duty the slaughter of those who disagree with them, or to kill in order to advance their aims. This was a philosophy that would never appeal to more than a few dedicated fanatics. But one of the peculiarities of the modern world is that, because of telecommunications, small groups of like-minded people, even if widely scattered, can form a community of belief. They can feed off of each other, and can come to wield influence far beyond their actual numbers or appeal. Bin Laden’s was the first to use these tools to build his network into a deadly force. The idea of turning fully fueled commercial airliners into guided bombs effectively gave al Qaeda the destructive power of a small air force or small arsenal of missiles. The suicide attackers who pulled it off had been recruited and trained internationally, financed by global money transfers, and steered by telephone and e-mail. The attacks themselves were designed to create a horrible spectacle for the entire world, television providing the audience, complete with replays and analyses for those who came late. It was a backward-looking movement with forward-looking tactics.
3Taking Up Arms
Late Summer 2010
“Mr. President, Leon and the guys at Langley think they may have come up with something.”
Tom Donilon brought this up at the end of President Obama’s morning briefing one day in August. Instead of being briefed on sensitive national security issues by a CIA analyst, as President Bush had been, Obama preferred to be briefed by Donilon, his deputy national security adviser. Donilon would continue this practice even after he stepped into the top National Security Council job a few months later. It was that time of year when not much was going on in Washington. Heat and humidity drove everyone from the capital except the most determined tourists and those who had to stay.
“Something related to bin Laden,” Donilon said. “We don’t know yet what this is, but I think you need to have them in here for a briefing.”
Donilon had been with Obama ever since the final stages of the 2008 campaign, when he was summoned to reprise a role he had played for President Clinton, coaching the candidate for a series of formal debates with his Republican rival. The Bush years had been a long break from government service for Donilon, who had continued with his work as a lobbyist for Fannie Mae for several years and had then moved on to become a partner in the D.C. law firm O’Melveny & Myers. But his heart was still in politics and governance, and when he was invited to help prep Obama for his face-off against Republican candidate Senator John McCain he leapt at it. He believed in the importance of presidential debates. They not only gave the public a better sense of the candidates, but they forced those running to examine the weaknesses in their own thinking and policy prescriptions, and to confront them, before an audience of millions. One of the first recommendations he made to Obama, which was adopted, was that he debate McCain on foreign policy issues first, precisely because it was an arena in which the veteran senator and war hero was thought to have a strong advantage. McCain’s storied military service in Vietnam, where he was held prisoner for five years after his A-4E Skyhawk was shot down over Hanoi, and his twenty-six years in Congress, weighed impressively against Obama, who, twenty-five years younger than McCain, had never served in the military and had yet to complete his first Senate term. On paper, McCain had stronger qualifications for the job. But presidents were not hired, they were elected, and even the most distinguished résumé counted for little next to the impression the candidates made on the public. Donilon felt that if Obama could be seen on national television holding his own in a national security debate with McCain, voters could better begin to imagine him as their president. And better for that to happen sooner than later. He believed this is what Obama accomplished.
His role in prepping the candidate meant confronting him with the cracks in his thinkingbeforehe stepped onstage. In that sense, Donilon was one of the only people around Obama whose job it was to kick him, so to speak—to ruffle the candidate’s famous cool. He worked at tripping Obama, poking holes in his reasoning, challenging his facts, pushing him beyond his stump-tested applause lines and polished talking points.
“All right, that’s what you say on the campaign trail,” he would say, “but if you are pressed on it, what do you really mean?”
Or, “I’ve heard you say that, but are you willing to live with it as president?”
Or, sniffing disagreeably at one of the candidate’s typically long-winded responses, “And how do you explainthatin ninety seconds?”
The candidate must have liked this sort of thing, because he had kept his tormentor close ever since. Donilon found him to possess a fine mind and a deep knowledge of American history and the law. It was hard to get the better of him in argument. To engage him fully meant being fully prepared; otherwise you were likely to come away humiliated. A physically expressive man, Obama had a way of shooing away an ill-founded argument with an amused smile or a more subtle expression like a raised eyebrow and dismissive tilt of his head. Donilon worked hard to avoid that look. He was rarely seen outside the corridors of the White House, a rumpled creature of the cramped warren of offices occupied by the National Security Council leadership downstairs. He was rarely interviewed by the press and seemed egoless. Obama drove his inner staff hard, but Donilon, if anything, drove himself harder. He graded his performance every day—highorlow. After the election, Obama asked him to chair his State Department transition team, and had then placed him under General James Jones on the NSC staff. Jones, a former Marine Corps commandant, had been recruited in part as a bridge to the U.S. military, with which Obama had virtually no firsthand experience, and he had agreed from the start to stay in the job for only a year or two. From the beginning of the term Donilon was seen as Jones’s likely successor.
It particularly pleased him to have something new for the president about bin Laden. There had been no scent of the world’s most infamous terrorist for more than seven years, ever since he had slipped away from the mountain outpost of Tora Bora during a botched siege by allied troops. The Bush administration had said for years that he was somewhere in the mountainous regions of northwest Pakistan but, in truth, they had no idea. There had not been a lead or a sighting in years. Obama had taken office determined to resurrect the hunt.
On May 26, 2009, four months into his presidency, he had ended a routine national security briefing in the Situation Room by pointing to Donilon, Leon Panetta, his newly appointed CIA director, Mike Leiter, director of the National Counter Terrorism Center, and Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff.
“You, you, you, and you,” he said. “Come upstairs. I want to talk to you guys about something.”
The four followed Obama up a short flight of stairs and through the warren of narrow West Wing hallways to the Oval Office. Afternoon sun poured through the windows from the Rose Garden. They didn’t sit down. This was something quick that the president had been thinking about and wanted to impress on them personally. They had been on the job now long enough to have taken hold of America’s vast intelligence apparatus . . . time enough to have eased fully into their new roles.
As Donilon would tell me, Obama said: “Here’s the deal. I want this hunt for Osama bin Laden and al-Zawahiri to come to the front of the line. I worry that the trail has gone cold. This has to be our top priority and it needs leadership in the tops of your organizations. You need to ensure that we have expended every effort to take down the top leadership of al Qaeda, especially these two individuals. And I want regular reports on thisto me,and I want them starting in thirty days.”
Donilon followed up and drove the point home with a memo, which the president signed. He sent it to each of those present. It read: “In order to ensure that we have extended every effort—directly provide to me a detailed operational plan for locating and bringing to justice Osama bin Laden.”
That brief huddle in the Oval Office had not been scheduled, as virtually every minute of the president’s day was, and Obama had not discussed it beforehand with Donilon. The president had plenty of other things to think about. He was beginning to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq and was reevaluating the future of the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan. He had authorized a covert cyberwar on Iran’s efforts to enrich uranium to weapons grade, and he was trying to assemble a coalition to apply economic pressure on that country to end its pursuit of nuclear weapons. He had vigorously expanded the secret program to target al Qaeda leaders inside Pakistan and other countries with drones, putting unrelenting daily pressure on the organization. He was trying to counter a Chinese military buildup by reorienting the nation’s military forces toward the Pacific Rim. So there was plenty on the agenda every time his national security team sat down with him. But as the president would later tell me, he wasn’t hearing enough about bin Laden to convince him thateverythingwas being done, thatevery effortwas being made. He wanted to make sure the right people knew what a big priority this was for him. And in the months that had followed, in between those monthly reports, he brought the matter up again and again. It was one of several things he raised at nearly every security meeting. He would always ask about cybersecurity efforts and he would always ask about Osama bin Laden.
Obama’s leadership style was to enumerate clear, consistent priorities, and stay focused on them until they were accomplished. About twice a year he would meet with the national security team for several hours with nothing else on the agenda. He would bring in a legal pad on which he had listed his priorities in handwriting so small and meticulous that from across the room it looked like type.
“Hey guys, these are the three most important things we’re working on right now,” he’d say. “And this is where I want your efforts.”
He’d go through his list item by item and they would discuss and critique their performance: where they had made progress and where they had not. Often he would move things up or down on his list or add things, but when he was done everyone had a clear understanding of where they should be spending their time and resources. Always, from the first such session, finding bin Laden had been at the top of that list.
As far as Obama was concerned, getting him was more than just symbolic. He had long been critical of Bush’s “War on Terror.” The way he saw it, America was not at war with something amorphous, like a concept or a tactic. It was at war with specific individuals who had attacked the country and continued to threaten it. When he took office in 2009 al Qaeda and its affiliate organizations remained the first clear and present danger, even after two long, bloody wars and the unceasing efforts of America’s intelligence and special ops soldiers.
Obama had been sternly warned about this by Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and Brookings Institution scholar whom he had called at home just days after the inauguration and asked to conduct a sixty-day review of American policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Eight days before he had pulled his intelligence chiefs into the Oval Office, Riedel had briefed him on his findings in a long meeting aboard Air Force One. He had told Obama that, in his estimation, al Qaeda was more dangerous today than it had been on September 11.
As Bob Woodward would report in his 2010 book,Obama’s Wars,Riedel said, “Some al Qaeda watchers would argue that bin Laden, hiding in Pakistan, is irrelevant. He’s stuck in a cave somewhere, and yes, he puts out these audiotapes once in a while, but he’s more of a symbol than the commander of a global jihad. What I learned is that’s just not true. He communicates with his underlings and is in touch with his foot soldiers. His troops believe they are getting his orders, and we know from good intelligence that they are . . . These guys are serious. They are clever, and they are relentless. Until we kill them, they’re going to keep trying to kill us.”
As Obama saw it, there was no way to defeat al Qaeda so long as its founder and spiritual leader remained at large. He was the soul of the organization. The president believed thatbin Laden wasn’t just evil, he wascharismaticallyevil.
“He understood that with technology and modern media, the potential impact of a big event can magnify and leverage the power of even a small group,” the president told me. “In that sense, although the notions of terrorism hadn’t obviously developed or started with him, I think he had an understanding of the West and where our potential vulnerable points were that made him a singular figure, somebody who was uniquely capable of doing great damage to us.”
Despite the simple life he preferred and his romantic notions of the past, bin Laden understood modern media and exploited it, Obama said. It gave him an influence far beyond the reach of his actual following. The September 11 attacks had shaken the world.
President Bush had felt the same way. Unable to squelch his Texas swagger early on, he had said he wanted bin Laden “dead or alive.” But in the view of the Obama administration, the two wars Bush had launched gradually became usurping priorities. There is, as Donilon would put it, “limited bandwidth” in the White House. In the final years of the Bush administration, even though the man at the top still badly wanted bin Laden, the effort to find him was publicly downplayed in the way Riedel explained. It was said that bin Laden was out of touch. That he had been effectively sidelined and, so far as operations were concerned, rendered irrelevant. Unable to find him, the Bush administration had de-emphasized the importance of finding him.
The way Obama saw it, this was a mistake. America’s war-making bureaucracy was vast, and without determined pressure from the White House, without an enumerated list of priorities that kept coming back and coming back until each item was crossed off, even urgent concerns got lost. Just keeping track of all the missions under way on any given day was more than a full-time job. There were U.S. troops on the ground in more than 150 countries around the world. When those missions turned hot, as they had in Afghanistan and Iraq, they devoured not just men and resources but the time and attention of the decision makers atop the chain of command. The essence of leading any very large enterprise was maintaining priorities, and while bin Laden had never slipped from the top during the Bush years, the list itself had become very crowded. The bottom line, as Obama put it to Panetta and Leiter, was that bin Laden’s trail had gone cold. The president wanted it warm again.
Now, more than a year later, the agency finally had something to report. It had found an unusual compound just outside Abbottabad while looking for an al Qaeda figure who went by the name Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, “Ahmed the Kuwaiti,” a man known to have been a trusted aide and courier for bin Laden. Along with family, known associates, financial webs, and other networks, couriers had long been seen as potential cracks in the walls around the fugitive Sheik. Too wary to use cell phones or Internet links, bin Laden relied on couriers to distribute by hand his letters, poems, and occasional video and audio pronouncements. Reversing the paths to media outlets taken by these tapes or thumb drives always ended one or two steps short of their origin. The Kuwaiti might be one of those final links, perhaps even the courier who dealt with the Sheik directly. The search for him had lasted eight years. It had taken the CIA five just to learn his real name, which was Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed. And then the trail had led them to this very curious residence.
Panetta brought two of the agency’s bin Laden team leaders with him to the Oval Office. The lead analyst, who would become known as “John” (his middle name), was a tall former college basketball player, now middle-aged, who had devoted himself to the hunt for most of the previous ten years. He had a broad chin and a big-featured face and looked more like an athlete than someone who spent most of his time before a computer monitor. At Langley, he reported to Michael Morell, who had risen to deputy director in the years since he had been briefing Bush.
The agency men handed around classified pictures and maps and analytical material, and walked the president and Donilon through their thinking in great detail—the reverse engineering that had helped them identify “Ahmed the Kuwaiti” and the suspicious nature of the compound itself. Panetta compared Abbottabad to a well-to-do northern Virginia suburb. The compound was eight times larger than any of the surrounding residences. Unlike most, it did not have any Internet or phone connections. The walls that surrounded it were built unusually high, topped by two feet of barbed wire. There were even walls around a patio at the back of the third floor. There was no way to see inside the house itself, from the ground or above. The windows were made of reflective glass or had been coated to achieve the same effect. The agency first learned that not only Ahmed and his family lived there, but also his brother Abrar and his family. They went by assumed names in the neighborhood, Ibrahim called himself Arshad Khan and his brother went by the name Tareq Khan. Both had been born in Kuwait, but ethnically they were tall, fair-skinned, bearded Pakistani Pashtuns. They had never been wealthy, but their compound appeared extremely pricey. And in addition to the high walls, it seemed the brothers observed extraordinarily strict security measures. They even burned all of their trash on-site. Other than to attend the local religious school or to visit a doctor, none of their children left the compound. In telephone calls to other far-flung family members, always made from locations distant from the compound itself, they lied about where they were living. The CIA had been known to misinterpret many things, but one thing it knew inside out was high operational security.
The agency had been investigating the compound quietly, snapping pictures from above and spying on it with agents on the ground—who couldn’t see inside but who asked casual questions of those living nearby, always careful not to appear too curious.Who lives in that big place? I wonder what the people who live there do?That and telephone intercepts had produced two discoveries in recent weeks that the agency considered greatly significant, and persuaded Panetta that he ought to bring the discovery to the president.
The first was that living inside the compound on the upper two floors of the big house was a third family. No member of that family ever left the grounds. Its children did not even leave to attend school with the others. Neighbors in Abbottabad who knew of the Khan brothers and their families were not aware of this third one. And there were signs that the brothers, who ostensibly owned the place,servedthis hidden family. One or the other brother was always present, so the third family was never left alone. Ibrahim Ahmed and his family occupied the guesthouse on the grounds, and his brother Abrar and his family lived on the first floor of the main house.
The second discovery was that Ibrahim Ahmed was apparently still working for al Qaeda. Though he was known to have been close to bin Laden years earlier, the agency had no proof that he had retained the connection. Some of the detainees interviewed about him over the years had said that he had left the organization, in which case he might now be working for anyone with a need to lie low: An organized crime figure? A rich man with political enemies? A Saudi millionaire with a mistress or hidden second family? But in a telephone conversation with an old friend that summer, a call that the United States monitored, Ahmed was peppered with the standard questions—“What are you doing now? What are you up to?” At first he didn’t answer. He dodged the questions. But his friend was insistent, and so he finally gave in, albeit cryptically. “I’m with the same ones as before,” he said. His friend seemed to know immediately what that meant and, after uttering “May Allah be with you,” dropped the subject. That suggested that whomever Ahmed and his brother were minding in Abbottabad belonged to al Qaeda.
These were the details presented to the president.
“This is the best lead we’ve had on bin Laden since Tora Bora,” said “John.”
Obama was familiar enough with bin Laden’s background to have long ago stopped picturing him crouched in a cave or living in some sparse mountaintop camp. But to find himin a sprawling compound in an affluent neighborhood known for golf courses and cool summer breezes—they were all surprised by that. Still, the president wasn’tespecially hopeful. He knew he had been leaning hard on the CIA to come up with something, and demanding updates, so he had to expect they would bring him every scrap. This was a scrap. He found the information intriguing, but only in a general way. The connection to bin Laden was tenuous at best. He encouraged Panetta to press on. He wanted the identity of the hidden family nailed down. He also wanted a “close hold” on the lead, meaning it was not to leave his office. No one else in the military or intelligence chain was to be brought in yet. And they were not to seek help from Pakistan or tip their interest in the compound there . . . yet. The president left open the option of going to his purported Pakistani allies for help once they knew more. In the meantime, he wanted regular progress reports.
“Just emotionally,” Obama told me, “I was not particularly optimistic about it. I mean, I think my general view was, okay, these guys are carrying out my orders to pursue every lead. Did I think at that stage that we had the goods? I think I was pretty guarded about not letting myself get overly excited about the prospects.”
At that point, the president had been ordering drone hits and special operations raids to kill al Qaeda leaders for nearly twenty months. The skills of America’s intelligence and military, honed over nine years of war, had given him tools no president had ever had. National Security Council meetings in this presidency were not just policy discussions. They regularly concerned matters of life and death for specific individuals. The capability developed over the previous decade armed the president with immediate choices about these prospective targets—people who had been found and identified and were now in the nation’s crosshairs. They could be killed on his orders without placing a single American in jeopardy. There had been fifty-three drone strikes in Pakistan alone in the first year of his term. In 2010 there had been more than twice that number: 117. The numbers of strikes in Yemen, while fewer, had been steadily increasing every year, from two in 2009 to four in 2010. There would be ten the following year. Nearly every day the president faced immediate, deadly choices. Should this specific person be killed? Would killing him possibly involve killing others—others less culpable, perhaps others completely innocent?
Decisions like this had always come with the office, and sometimes had concerned questions of life and death for thousands, or even hundreds of thousands—one thinks of President Harry S. Truman making the decision to drop the atom bomb. But how many of these decisions concerned taking a single life? It gave the commander in chief a strangely direct role in the war. There were precedents. During World War II, American forces decrypted a Japanese message revealing that Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Japanese fleet, would be making an inspection tour of the Solomon Islands. His plane was intercepted and shot down, and he was killed. President Kennedy had notoriously plotted to assassinate Fidel Castro during the early 1960s. But these incidents were rare, and were undertaken at great risk. Toward the end of his second term, President Bush, and now Obama, had what was, in essence, a sniper rifle pointed at men regarded as significant terrorists. Obama was routinely presented with a brief on the target: who he was, how important he was, how dangerous he was, how much it might matter to be rid of him, and who else might die as a result. He had only to decide to pull the trigger. This was something new.
This war had demanded something new. After the 9/11 attacks, the two most obvious ways of fighting back had both been defensive: prevent the most dangerous kinds of attacks and prepare to cope better with smaller ones when they occurred. So the United States had spent billions on efforts to block known or obvious avenues of attack, and to improve emergency response. This is what the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Safety Administration had been all about. Another step was to secure materials worldwide, such as plutonium, surface-to-air missiles, and toxic biochemicals, that could be used to create especially powerful weapons. This approach is what had led, in part, to President Bush’s invasion of Iraq—to secure Saddam’s supposed arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.
As for offensive strategy—going after al Qaeda itself—this became immeasurably more difficult once the organization had scattered from its safe havens in Afghanistan. In solving this problem, the United States would bring to bear enormous resources of talent, wealth, and technology. The story of the previous ten years of war, viewed in this broad sense, had been the story of developing the right tools to destroy a terrornetwork. It was still a work in progress in 2010, but it had come a long way. With the military’s typical disdain for ordinary English, it had slapped an acronym on this capability. It was called “F3EAD” (Find, Fix, Finish, Exploit, Analyze, Disseminate). It stood for a remarkable fusion of instant global telecommunications, drones, computer-data storage, cutting-edge software, experienced analysts, stealth helicopters, precision munitions, and the operational skills of pilots and shooters who could execute strikes with great surprise and skill virtually anywhere in the world.
When Obama took office he inherited this unprecedented and still-evolving capability. The tool—particularly the use of drones—was proving to be lethal to al Qaeda. As much as it troubled those concerned about potential abuses—pinpointing and killing people by remote control was a scary futuristic concept—it was also, paradoxically, a fundamental advance in the humane pursuit of war. The three basic principles of lawful warfare had long beennecessity(violence as a last resort),distinction(targeting the right people), andproportionality(not killing the wrong people). Very few would argue that the nation was not justified in using force to protect itself from Osama bin Laden and his movement, bent on suicidal acts of mass murder. Drones uniquely enhanced compliance withdistinctionandproportionality. The ability to soundlessly observe a target for days, weeks, or months before deciding to attack greatly improved the odds of hitting appropriate targets and avoiding inappropriate ones. There was no comparison with ground combat or even very precise bombs and missiles. If it was necessary to fight, then drones killed far fewer civilians than any previous war-fighting method, and they did so without placing American fighters at risk.
Obama had kept this capability on a tight leash. In most cases, he alone made the final decision to kill. In some cases, the decision was made by the CIA director. They would review the case against the targets and decide whether to shoot. Obama had directed the Justice Department and the CIA’s legal staff to draw up secret guidelines that would mark the first step toward institutionalizing those controls, so that whoever succeeded him in office would inherit clear rules, clear precedent, and clear constraints. The administration had not made these guidelines public, which troubled many who were concerned about the growing use of drones. There was no doubt that within those strictures, whatever they were, Obama had proven himself willing to pull the trigger regularly.
This surprised many. Bush had brought to the White House a light dusting of military experience—he had served as a pilot in the Air National Guard during the Vietnam War period—but he was nevertheless seen by the military as one of them, a president who openly admired the armed forces and who was, to a fault, quick to authorize their deployment. He spoke their can-do vocabulary with a Texas drawl. His father had been a war hero and had served as the CIA director—the headquarters building at Langley was even named after George Herbert Walker Bush. Obama, on the other hand, was strictly civilian. His father was Kenyan. He was a liberal Democrat with an international upbringing—an academic and an intellectual. He had been an early, consistent, and outspoken critic of invading Iraq, which he had called a “dumb war.” Indeed, he had initially geared his campaign for the Democratic nomination in 2008 as an antiwar candidate, attacking his foes in the primaries, Hillary Clinton in particular, for her early support of the conflict. Obama had also criticized the more controversial tools of the war—coercive interrogation methods, extraordinary rendition, military commissions, and indefinite detention—arguing that the nation’s security should never trump its values. He talked a lot about the need for negotiating with enemies and the virtues of mutual understanding—not the kind of talk that rouses the troops. Much of what most Americans heard from him during his scant twenty months in the Senate concerned hastening America’s withdrawal from Iraq and spelling out his desire for a clearly defined exit strategy from Afghanistan. They had expected an all but pacifist president.
But the number of drone strikes in his first two years would be more than four times the total in Bush’s two terms in the White House. And Obama’s appreciation and enthusiasm for the Special Operations Command was clearly genuine. He seemed to fully embrace General Patraeus’s line about going to bed each night with more friends and fewer enemies—with particular emphasis on the “fewer enemies.”
Those who had been paying close attention to Obama were not surprised. He had been spelling out for years, in increasing detail, his willingness to wage war in general, and, in particular, his intent to wage war on al Qaeda. Just over a year after the September 11attacks, as President Bush was gearing up to invade Iraq, Obama, still largely unknown outside of his Chicago district, was invited to speak at an antiwar rally in Chicago. He was one of the lesser speakers, and his talk wouldn’t even get a line in the account in the next morning’sChicago Tribune.It was received with lukewarm applause. In his bookThe Bridge, David Remnick captures Obama’s discomfort at the overall tenor of the rally, listening to the plaintive strains of John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” and leaning to one of the event organizers, Bettylu Saltzman, to ask, “Can’t they play something else?” Giving a rousing speech that would excite the gaggle of tired lefties in Federal Plaza might make for a feel-good moment and some admiring local press, but it could also hurt his chances statewide. He had conferred with the consultants helping him prepare for his Senate run, trying to hone a message that, as Remnick wrote, “would express his opposition to an invasion of Iraq without making him seem disqualifyingly weak on terror.” His advisers wanted him to speak—any African-American seeking statewide office in Illinois would need the Chicago vote. But he also had to transcend that audience.
So Obama’s speech was very carefully thought out. It was an early effort at speechmaking and shows it. The speech was overly dramatic and derivative, echoing the famous “I Have a Dream” speech of Martin Luther King Jr. It showed careful political calculation but, given what we would see years later, it also expressed conviction. It also showed how far his thinking on the subject had evolved since his comments to theHyde Park Heraldthe year before. His first words were: “Let me begin by saying that although this has been billed as an antiwar rally, I stand before you as someone who is not opposed to war in all circumstances.”
Obama took note of the Civil War, “one of the bloodiest in history,” which had driven “the scourge of slavery” from America. “I don’t oppose all wars,” he said. He noted his grandfather’s service in World War II. “He fought in the name of a larger freedom, part of that arsenal of democracy that triumphed over evil, and he did not fight in vain,” he said, and then repeated, “I don’t oppose all wars.”
He would continue to repeat that line as a refrain, imitating King’s famous and stirring repetition of the line “I have a dream.” It took cheek to borrow the most famous rhetorical device ever employed by King, the great practitioner of nonviolence, to proclaim his belief in the necessity of war.
“After September 11, after witnessing the carnage and destruction, the dust and the tears, I supported this administration’s pledge to hunt down and root out those who would slaughter innocents in the name of intolerance, and I would willingly take up arms myself to prevent such a tragedy from happening again. I don’t oppose all wars.”
He went on to denounce the pending invasion of Iraq as a “dumb war,” and a “rash war,” but what those listening that day most remembered was hisaffirmationof war as just and necessary. His belief that some wars were worth fighting. The one against al Qaeda was one of them. It was a doubly bold speech for someone contemplating a run for the U.S. Senate, because it not only ran counter to the blanket antiwar sensibilities of his immediate audience but also bucked the decidedly pro–Iraq War sentiment of Illinois voters, most of whom were far to the right of the small group of protesters in downtown Chicago. Where the Iraq invasion was concerned, Obama was once more out of step with the nation, but where al Qaeda was concerned, he was no longer calling for some sort of global-welfare campaign. He was ready to “take up arms” himself in that war. In a more direct manner than he could have imagined, he would get his chance.
Three years later, after his victory in the 2004 Senate race and rapid ascent to national prominence, Obama was running for president. In August of 2007, he was still struggling. There had been excitement for him when he announced his candidacy in February, but things had quickly leveled off. He was running well behind Hillary Clinton, considered by many to be a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination, and also behind John Edwards, who was thought to be next in line in the unlikely event that Clinton stumbled.
At the time, the strongest thing Obama had going for him seemed to be that 2002 speech. Here was an attractive, smart, antiwar candidate at a time when America’s patience for its adventure in Iraq was at an all-time low. Every Democrat in the race was opposed to continuing the war. They vied now only over who was more emphatically opposed to it. Obama had not been in the Senate when votes were cast to authorize the war so, unlike Clinton and Edwards, he could claim ideological purity on the issue. And the Chicago speech put him on record as having spoken out against it from the start. He was the premier antiwar candidate, and that’s how he presented himself. The simple thrust of his attack on Clinton, in particular, was that she had gone along with Bush on the war, while he had taken the unpopular, principled stand and had been proved right. Over the course of the campaign Obama would be forced to spell out his thinking in more detail, and the picture would become more complex.
His rise was so meteoric that many felt it had come too fast. His opponents were both baffled and annoyed by the messianic luster that he and his campaign encouraged. The best way to push back was to convince voters that he was in too big a hurry. At age forty-five, with only half of his Senate term behind him . . . well, even if he was destined to be America’s first black president, he wasn’t ready for the job yet. He was one of the youngest men to ever seek the presidency.
So experience was the hammer, and Clinton lowered it whenever Obama gave her a chance. He gave her one after a CNN/YouTube debate on July 23, when he was asked if he would consider meeting with America’s enemies without preconditions. The questioner, whose face was projected on a big screen, approvingly cited Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat’s courageous (and ultimately fatal) decision, in 1977, to initiate peace negotiations with Israel, and asked if any of the candidates would be willing, in the first year of their tenure, to meetwithout preconditionsthe leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea in an effort to “bridge the gap that divides our countries.”
It was an easy question to dodge:Negotiation is terribly important . . . I wouldn’t rule it out. . .we have a history with these countries that didn’t begin yesterday . . .But Obama didn’t dodge it. Up on the glitzy stage before glowing red, white, and blue screens, behind a spare, modernist podium of steel and plastic, he was the first of the eight candidates asked to respond.
“I would,” he said.
A gasp rose from the studio audience, no doubt partly because of the directness of his answer. They were used to more maneuvering.
“My reason is this,” he explained. “The notion that, somehow, not talking to countries is punishment to them, which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this [George W. Bush] administration, is ridiculous . . . We may not trust them, they may pose an extraordinary danger to our country, but we have the obligation to find the areas where we may potentially move forward, and I think that it is a disgrace that we have not spoken to them.”
Clinton, who answered next, promptly said that she wouldnot. She explained that a lot of groundwork went into negotiations with unfriendly nations; that one did not rush into them. But, perhaps startled like everyone else, she didn’t hit Obama too hard onstage. On reflection, however, and no doubt after her campaign strategists weighed in, she returned more harshly to the point the next day in interviews, labeling Obama’s answer “irresponsible and frankly naive.”
This was strictly politics. The United States had a long bipartisan tradition of negotiating with even its worst enemies, from John Kennedy—“Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate”—to Richard Nixon’s opening with China, to Ronald Reagan’s famous “walk in the woods” with Mikhail Gorbachev. Obama’s position was firmly in line with longstanding diplomatic practice. George W. Bush’s post–9/11 policy—“You are either for us or against us”—was the exception, and a bad one. It removed subtlety from international affairs. It made no sense whatsoever for a savvy internationalist like Clinton to ignore the opportunity every newly elected president has to reset relations with hostile nations. Still, conventional wisdom held that you didn’t admit such things. It made you sound soft. Andnaivewas a word that worked against Obama.
It worked because many believed he lacked substance. He had yet to really define himself in detail on foreign policy or anything else. He had given a foreign policy address in April in line with his antiwar image, primarily calling for renewed internationalism, a greater willingness to seek consensus, and cooperation from other countries in pursuit of our national security goals. His remark about negotiating with enemies without preconditions made it easy for his critics to paint him as a complete pushover. It also suggested that Obama was a man who did not think things through carefully.
The “naive” label was troublesome. Soon enough the word had attached itself to him. TV pundits seemed unable to mention him without repeating it. Over the next few weeks his standing in the polls continued to fall as Clinton’s rose.
Obama’s staff fretted. Some wanted him to back off from his position, but he refused. “The thing is that I am right about this,” he insisted in a meeting with his advisers Denis McDonough and Robert Gibbs. “Why would we not want to get into any negotiation that we could?” He asked them to schedule a national TV interview to reiterate his position, to underline it. It was, he felt, precisely the kind of message he wanted to send. He was offering to break with the past, to look at these foreign policy issues in a new way.
And he was just getting started. Obama was not about to let others substitute their analysis for his own. His approach to a problem was to look for a new solution, an original one. He believed much of the way America thought about defense issues was cast in archaic molds—the old divisions of left vs. right, conservatives vs. liberals, hawks vs. doves that had been set by the debate over Vietnam. He had been thirteen years old when that war ended. Much of the voting-age population of the country had not even been born. Nothing had shaken up that old dynamic as much as 9/11. Young people in particular were hard to classify in this regard. They tended to be far more liberal than their parents on most social issues—hence more likely to support Obama—but were also strongly supportive of robust military and intelligence efforts. As the candidate saw it, he was as hawkish as any American about defeating al Qaeda, but some of the tools traditionally associated withdoves—tools such as negotiation and international cooperation—weren’t just means of appeasing an enemy. They were essential to defeating this one.
A few weeks earlier, according to John Heilemann and Mark Halperin inGame Change,Obama had brought one of his close friends and old law professors, Chris Edley, to Chicago to lambaste his inner campaign circle for failing to let him do thingshisway. They were not giving Obama time and space in his frenetic campaign schedule to lay out his ideas in more detail.
“This is a guy who likes to think, he likes to write, he likes to talk with experts,” said Edley, whose work on past Democratic campaigns and in White House service lent authority to his words. “You folks have got to recognize what he’s in this for. He’s in this because he wants to make contributions in terms of public policy ideas, and you’ve got to make time for him to do that . . . With all due respect to all you here, you should just get over yourselves and do what the candidate wants.”
So in the days after the fallout from hisnegotiate without preconditionspromise, it was decided that Obama would give another major national security speech. He did so at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, in Washington, D.C., on August 1, outlining his thinking on national security in some detail and in the process correcting the impression that he was “naive” or, worse, “soft” on national defense.
A National Intelligence Estimate that spring suggested al Qaeda had actually grown stronger in the previous six years. It noted that Pakistan had become the new safe haven for the terror group after the fall of the Taliban. All Democratic candidates had pledged change, but beyond promising to pull the plug on Iraq and end some of the more controversial intelligence-gathering methods (most of which had ended already), none had clearly articulated an approach to national security that differed significantly from Bush’s.
Former Congressman Lee Hamilton introduced Obama at the Wilson Center gathering before an audience of a few hundred, many of them journalists.The speech had engaged all of Obama’s foreign policy advisers, and every word in it had been weighed carefully. Tapped with the task of drafting it was Ben Rhodes, the former NYU graduate student who had watched from the Brooklyn waterfront as the World Trade Center towers collapsed. He was now a top-level campaign worker with prematurely thinning black hair and a perpetual five o’clock shadow. Instead of setting to work on a first novel, he had joined Hamilton’s staff just as the congressman was named cochair of the 9/11 Commission. Rhodes had helped draft policy proposals for the Commission Report and helped write the chapter entitled “What to Do?” One of the subheads in that chapter had been “Attack Terrorists and Their Organizations,” and its first proscription was “No Sanctuaries.” Of all the most likely places in the world to play host to terrorist groups, first on the list was Pakistan. Rhodes eventually helped Hamilton and his cochair, former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean, write a book about the commission’s work. After serving Hamilton on the Iraq Study Group, which the congressman also cochaired, Rhodes joined Obama’s Senate staff as a foreign policy adviser and speechwriter. He had helped draft some of Obama’s talks about Iraq in the Senate, and had then signed on as a speechwriter in Obama’s Chicago office. This was the first campaign speech he had been asked to draft, and it was a big one. It also returned him to a familiar theme.
In a telephone conference with Rhodes, McDonough, Samantha Power, and various other national security aides, Obama outlined seven points he wanted to make in the speech. These were distilled to five by Rhodes and Power. One of them concerned efforts to destroy al Qaeda. As for the issue of safe havens, Rhodes would remember Obama telling him, “Let’s come up with the most forward-leaning formulation to make it clear that we are going to go after these guys, because that’s the whole argument.”
Before the crowd at the Wilson Center, Obama began by relating his own experiences on 9/11—hearing the first report on his drive into Chicago, standing on the sidewalk in the Loop eyeing the Sears Tower, watching the towers fall on TV. In the six years since then, the stirring sense of national unity and purpose engendered by the attacks had been squandered, he said. The Bush administration had started well, toppling the Taliban and chasing al Qaeda, the real enemy, from its bases in Afghanistan. But then it had dropped the ball. Instead of going after the architects of 9/11, who were on the ropes and on the run, the Bush administration had decided to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein, a move that had quickly absorbed the nation’s primary military and intelligence resources. The move had been “rubber-stamped” by Congress, he said, sideswiping his Democratic primary opponents. It was, he said, “A misguided invasion of a Muslim country that sparks new insurgencies, ties down our military, busts our budgets, increases the pool of terrorist recruits, alienates America, gives democracy a bad name, and prompts the American people to question our engagement in the world.” Obama pointed to the new Intelligence Estimate as proof that al Qaeda had only changed its home address.
Once again, he pledged to end the Iraq War, not out of any pacifist conviction, but in order to refocus on the real enemy. His focus, he promised, would be on crushing al Qaeda. This wasthemission 9/11 had compelled, a national priority that trumped peaceable relations with Pakistan or any other country. The enemy had been too broadly defined by the Bush administration, he said, a failing that not only had diminished the impact of our response but had fed into al Qaeda propaganda that America was at war with the entire Muslim world. The necessary war called for a much smaller focus: to find, target, and destroy the terror organization. To underscore his determination, Obama said he would respect no sanctuary and zeroed in specifically on Pakistan.
“Al Qaeda terrorists train, travel, and maintain global communications in this safe haven,” he said. “The Taliban pursues a hit-and-run strategy, striking in Afghanistan, then skulking across the border to safety. This is the wild frontier of our globalized world. There are wind-swept deserts and cave-dotted mountains. There are tribes that see borders as nothing more than lines on a map, and governments as forces that come and go. There are blood ties deeper than alliances of convenience, and pockets of extremism that follow religion to violence. It’s a tough place. But that is no excuse. There must be no safe haven for terrorists who threaten America. We cannot fail to act because action is hard. As president, I would make the hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. military aid to Pakistan conditional, and I would make our conditions clear: Pakistan must make substantial progress in closing down the training camps, evicting foreign fighters, and preventing the Taliban from using Pakistan as a staging area for attacks in Afghanistan. I understand that President Musharraf has his own challenges. But let me make this clear, there are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered three thousand Americans. They are plotting to strike again. It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an al Qaeda leadership meeting in 2005. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.”
That final line was the very last one inserted in the speech. Much deliberation preceded it. Rhodes had originally written, “If we have targets [in Pakistan] and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.” It was in keeping with the candidate’s instruction to be as “forward leaning” as possible. But the issue of Pakistan was delicate. That unstable nation was critical to the war effort in Afghanistan. It was a nuclear power in one of the world’s most volatile regions, and yet elements of its government, particularly its powerful intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), were known to be in bed with all manner of Islamist radicals. Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf had been walking a narrow line with the Bush administration, providing enough cooperation to avoid being branded an enemy but falling well short of routing extremists holed up in Pakistan’s lawless northwest. Threatening to go after “targets” without Pakistan’s cooperation made Obama’s national security team nervous.
Nobody had been happy with the line in a pre-speech review at Obama’s Washington headquarters. Present were Robert Gibbs, Susan Rice, Jeh Johnson, Rand Beers, and Richard Clarke, the campaign’s premier consultant on security matters.
“Look, that is not how you talk about these things,” said Clarke. He explained the importance of working with the tribes in Pakistan’s northwest territories.
But the candidate was resolute. He wanted the line in. It said exactly what he thought, and what he planned to do as president.I do not oppose all wars.He was going to go after the real threat. So the discussion focused on the wording. Two caveats were added: “If we have actionable intelligence” and “high-value targets.” This was to make it clear that Obama was talking about acting only in an exceptional circumstance, and only in a specific, limited way.
No matter. The careful phrasing was ignored. Obama had covered a lot of ground in the speech, reiterating his plan to get troops out of Iraq, pledging to reinvest in the effort against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and promising to give a major speech somewhere in the Middle East, within his first hundred days as president, to redefine the U.S. mission for that region. He also promised to close the prison at Guantánamo and to end Bush-era programs that “tracked” American citizens. But the line about going after targets in Pakistan got nearly all of the press. There was heat from every quarter.
Jeff Zeleny of theNew York Timesreported that Obama had “vowed to dispatch American soldiers to eradicate terrorist camps” in Pakistan.
The subhead on the story in theLos Angeles Timessaid, “He says he’d reserve the right to invade,” and reporter Paul Richter wrote, “Senator Barack Obama said Wednesday that the United States should reserve the right to invade the territory of its Pakistani allies and withdraw U.S. financial aid if it believed Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was failing to do enough to stop terrorists.”
Liberals accused Obama of embracing the Bush administration’s cowboy mentality. Conservatives faulted Obama for a supposed lack of sophistication: Didn’t he understand the delicacy of our relationship with Pakistan? Even if that was his plan, didn’t he understand that you don’t talk about things like this?
Liberal blogger Jerome Armstrong was disappointed. “For progressive Democrats who want a more peaceful leadership in the world . . . [Obama’s speech] fails the threshold of getting us out of picking fights in the Mideast, and discarding the Bush doctrine of preemptive attacks.”
Conservative columnist William Kristol wrote that Obama was “frantically suggesting that he would invade Pakistan” in order to shore up his tough-guy credentials against Hillary Clinton.
On his radio show, Rush Limbaugh mocked Obama. He noted that Osama bin Laden had been exhorting his followers to overthrow Musharraf, and now Obama—“I get these guys confused,” he said—had threatened to “invade Pakistan.” Limbaugh added, “Poor Musharraf is going to get it on both ends if Obama is elected.”
“It’s a very irresponsible statement, that’s all I can say,” said Pakistan’s foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri. “As the election campaign in America is heating up we would not like American candidates to fight their elections and contest elections at our expense.” Kasuri said that President Bush had called to privately reassure Musharraf, terming Obama’s comments “unsavory” and prompted by political considerations “in an environment of electioneering.”
“I do not concur in the words of Barack Obama in a plan to attack an ally of ours,” said former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who was then a front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. “I don’t think those kinds of comments help in this effort to draw more friends to our effort.” He said, U.S. troops “shouldn’t be sent all over the world,” and called the comments “ill-timed” and “ill-considered.”
Again, some in Obama’s camp wanted the candidate to issue an explanation, but once again he refused. He had meant what he said. Obama told his staff that their public posture on the comment should be to shoot down any talk of an “invasion,” but to stand behind his willingness to act unilaterally in Pakistan if the right occasion presented itself.
“I am not going to be lectured about foreign policy by the same people who were responsible for this catastrophic war in Iraq,” he maintained, in response to some of the criticism. It illustrated, he said, his willingness to “think outside the box.” The campaign released a memo by Power, reiterating the candidate’s promise: “Conventional wisdom would have us defer to Musharraf in perpetuity. Barack Obama wants to turn the page. If Musharraf is willing to go after the terrorists and stop the Taliban from using Pakistan as a base of operations, Obama would give him all of the support he needs. But Obama made clear that as president, if he had actionable intelligence about the whereabouts of al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan—and the Pakistanis continued to refuse to act against terrorists known to be behind attacks on American civilians—then he will use highly targeted force to do so.”
Despite this effort to explain, the supposed call to “invade” Pakistan quickly entered campaign lore . . . and evolved. Obama’s eventual Republican opponent, Senator John McCain, would claim that Obama had threatened to “bomb” Pakistan.
“The best idea is to not broadcast what you’re going to do,” McCain said the following February. “That’s naive. The first thing that you do is you make your plans and you carry out your operations as necessary for America’s national security interest. You don’t broadcast that you are going to bomb a country that is a sovereign nation and where you are dependent on the goodwill of the people of that country to help you in the war—in the struggle against the Taliban and the sanctuaries which they hold.”
So in 2007 and early 2008, on the question of going after Osama bin Laden, Obama’s call for direct, unilateral action was roundly condemned. It remained his plan, however, and as soon as he was elected he acted on it. As Obama settled into the job, his determination to pursue al Qaeda’s leadership was plain. If bin Laden had empowered himself, or had felt chosen by God, Obama had been elected. He had sought and had been chosen by the people of the United States to make these life-and-death decisions.
The new president immediately began shifting resources from Iraq, where he was determined to systematically draw down U.S. involvement, to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Large numbers of drones began leaving Iraq and flying missions over the steep mountains of eastern Afghanistan and the lawless regions of northwest Pakistan. The Joint Special Operations Command, which had been operating out of Balad Air Base, in Iraq, relocated in the summer of 2009 to Jalalabad, Afghanistan, beefing up bandwidth at the new encampment to retain links between intelligence computers and analysts in Washington. And as we have seen, the number of drone attacks spiked. America’s relationship with Pakistan grew more troubled.
When he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October of 2009, just as he was deciding to send thirty thousand more American troops to Afghanistan, Obama had a chance to fully articulate once more his thinking about war.
Again Rhodes was pressed into service. This time Obama presented him with a handwritten first draft, which had three quotes from Reinhold Niebuhr, the American theologian who argued strongly for the necessity of war and who rejected pacifism as a sure prescription for tyranny. The emergence of fascism in Germany and Japan, and communism in Russia, had prompted Niebuhr to famously renounce his lifelong pacifism. That movement had enjoyed a resurgence after World War I, with its seemingly senseless slaughter of millions. Now, with the world teetering on the brink of an even larger catastrophe, pacifists, who included a good many Christian thinkers in Europe and America, argued that if enough people refused to serve in armies, states would be unable to wage war ever again. Niebuhr did not believe it. The passages Obama quoted were from Niebuhr’s 1939 essay, “Why the Christian Church Is Not Pacifist,” in which the theologian argues, “If we believe that if Britain had only been fortunate enough to have produced 30 percent instead of 2 percent of conscientious objectors to military service, Hitler’s heart would have been softened and he would not have dared to attack Poland, we hold a faith, which no historical reality justifies.” Niebuhr believed that just as men were imperfect, so, too, were states, and just as men must struggle to defeat evil in themselves, they must also struggle to defeat evil at large.
Obama had pronounced his willingness to “take up arms” years earlier. Now, armed with more military power than anyone in any other country, he was not just prepared to use it, he felt morally obligated to do so. Just as he had done before the antiwar audience in Chicago seven years earlier, he would use this pacifist platform to argue his belief in the moral use of violence. The Nobel Peace Prize itself had grown out of the same pacifist movement Niebuhr turned against in 1939. It was one of the award categories established by Alfred Nobel at the behest of his friend Bertha von Suttner, a well-known nineteenth-century Austrian novelist, pacifist, and eventual peace prize recipient. So it is not surprising that Obama looked back to Niebuhr’s arguments as he prepared to accept the prize himself in Oslo.
His speech there was a brief lecture on the necessity of war, and a tribute to the use of force—American force above all—as the only practical means of achieving the peace prize committee’s high ideals. He saluted two of the twentieth century’s most famous practitioners of nonviolence, Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi, but said, “I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake, evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent movement could not have stopped Hitler’s armies. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism—it is a recognition of history, the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”
Evil does exist in the world. As president, Barack Obama had been given an opportunity to take up arms against the enemies of the United States in a more direct way than had any previous holder of that office. He welcomed it. He did everything he could to push the matter. The CIA had long called whoever was in the White House the “First Customer,” and on this issue there was no confusion about what the customer most wanted.
High in his seventh-floor office at Langley, overlooking the Potomac, Michael Morell had felt the same way for a long time. In his climb to the post of deputy director, he had run the agency’s analysis division, and he knew that, despite their lack of success, they had never lost the sense of urgency. He still remembered flying around with President Bush on 9/11, the uncertainty and fear in the country, the way he had felt looking in on his daughters sleeping when he finally returned home. Even with two wars to fight, there had never been a want of manpower or of resources for finding bin Laden.
Still, he felt, Obama’s push might have some effect. Morell’s new boss, Panetta, for one, was now demanding those regular progress reports: at least one a month. In any large organization a demand for progress reports has an effect. No one wants to file a progress report showing no progress.
4The Targeting Engine
There had been times, off and on, when the United States government knew where Osama bin Laden was. The CIA had been interested in him since 1991, after he moved from Afghanistan to the Sudan. Almost everywhere the agency looked in the expanding Sunni extremist world, his name came up. Not as a commander but as the go-to person for false documents, money, training, weapons, or chemicals that could be made into bombs. In December 1995, the agency created a small bin Laden unit, headed by Michael Scheuer.
A burly, confident man with a full beard and glasses who speaks with a flat Midwestern accent, Scheuer was less inclined than many in the CIA hierarchy to swallow his own opinions. He had not been a typical CIA recruit. A Buffalo native, he had worked as a rigger for Union Carbide while earning two master’s degrees and then a PhD at the University of Manitoba, in Canada. He believed his bin Laden unit was the first ever established to hunt down an individual, and as the effort matured—as he learned more and more about bin Laden—he grew increasingly convinced of the danger al Qaeda posed for the United States. In time, his assessment of that danger outpaced his superiors’. His small group worked out of an office in a business center just a short drive from the main CIA campus at Langley. Scheuer named the office after his son Alec: “ALEC Station.”
The best weapon they had for gathering intelligence at that point was rendition, the practice of arresting a suspect and turning him over to authorities in another country for interrogation. The practice enabled the agency to at least technically abide by rules against torture. The CIA obtained assurances that captives would not be abused, which some foreign governments likely honored more diligently than others. At that point the agency did not have the option of killing suspected senior terrorists: they had to be arrested and held somewhere. Rendition enabled the Clinton administration to avoid the legal difficulties of placing them in U.S. custody. As Scheuer would remember it, this was not so much a matter of explicit policy as it was policy by default. He would seek guidance from the White House about what to do with a target, and the answer would come back, “That’s your problem.” The problem was solved by willing governments in East Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East.
Rendition did not, as it happens, produce the first big breakthrough for ALEC Station. That came in September 1996, when a Sudanese militant named Jamal al-Fadl, a former close associate of bin Laden’s, turned up at the U.S. embassy in Eritrea offering to tell everything he knew about al Qaeda. He was flown to the United States and placed in the federal witness-protection program. He provided the first trove of fresh information about bin Laden and his organization—about its personalities, structure, and planned operations. His relevations ratcheted up interest in the group, which was clearly willing and able to launch major terror attacks.
By 1999, ALEC Station employed twenty-seven people, many of them women. They ran an unorthodox CIA office, very informal. People dressed casually. Because it maintained informants and contacts worldwide, the office was open twenty-four hours a day. Everyone worked long hours so few formalities of office life took hold. Scheuer would nap every afternoon in his office. As their sense of the threat posed by al Qaeda grew, so did their sense of mission. Some in the office, like Scheuer, passed up offers for promotions in order to stay with the work. Marriages broke up. The place had a cultish feel. Because Scheuer presided over so many dedicated women officers, some started calling his group “the Manson family.”
They couldn’t get bin Laden arrested in the Sudan, so they came up with a plan to harass him. He had a number of large projects under way there—road building, agricultural programs, and businesses. He was also actively underwriting terror attacks throughout the region. So ALEC Station proposed sabotaging his construction equipment. They wanted to spike engines with slurry that would force them to seize up. When the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence was briefed on the plan, one member objected: “If you do that, won’t you be putting some Sudanese farmer out of work?” The project was scrapped.
Not long afterward, when the attempted assassination of the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was linked to al Qaeda,the Sudan was pressured by states in the region to expel bin Laden. He relocated to Afghanistan, where he declared his war on the United States. This move pleased ALEC Station, because the NSA could now listen in on phone conversations in Afghanistan; there was also an enormous archive of overhead imagery left over from themujahidin–Soviet wars, and the CIA had many friendly contacts in that country. In 1997, Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, invited bin Laden to live in Kandahar, at an experimental agricultural station called Tarnak Farms, south of the city. This was an area where the agency had an especially rich network of spies, a group it called “Tripoints.”
For once they could watch bin Laden closely and listen to him and his people. Lacking the authority to kill him, Scheuer’s group laid plans to kidnap him—that would have been in May or June of 1998, several months before the embassy bombings in East Africa. They intended to hold him in a remote mountainous area for interrogation and then fly him to an Arab state for imprisonment (unless the United States decided to prosecute him directly). They fleshed out a raid in detail, a snatch-and-grab mission inside Afghanistan employing a special ops team delivered by helicopter. But when the plan was run up the chain it was vetoed as too risky. American forces might get killed, and because bin Laden lived with his wives and children, some of the children might be harmed. Scheuer recalled being mystified by the decision. He asked, “How much more of a threat do you need before you finally do something?”
When Director George Tenet paid a visit to ALEC Station not long afterward, one of the women on Scheuer’s staff confronted him angrily: “You and the White House are going to get thousands of Americans killed.”
Tenet told them that he understood their anger, but that it would subside. By now the group’s growing sense of urgency, coupled with its cultish image and high number of female staffers, had begun to work against it. They were seen as overly emotional and alarmist. Tenet’s response reflected this subtle prejudice and rankled ALEC Station still further.
“You will all think clearer in a couple of days,” he said.
In August, after the embassy bombings, Scheuer recalls being asked if the plan to kidnap bin Laden could still be pursued. The answer was no. Bin Laden knew that the chances of America taking action would grow after those attacks. He had gone into hiding. They had missed the chance.
By now, the United States was willing to use lethal force on bin Laden. President Clinton authorized two cruise missile strikes soon after the embassy bombings, one targeting Al-Shifa, a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum thought to be developing chemical weapons, and the other targeting a bin Laden camp near Khowst. The missiles hit on August 20, fired from ships in the Arabian Sea. The CIA would estimate that twenty to thirty people were killed—but not bin Laden, who had reportedly left the Khowst camp a few hours earlier.
After that, the project for ALEC Station became pinpointing bin Laden long enough in advance to be targeted. They presented the White House with eight such opportunities, Scheuer recalled, and each time the strike was called off, primarily over concerns about collateral damage. The CIA man had always been prickly and eccentric. He was so much more willing to accept collateral casualties than his superiors—was so convinced that the threat posed by bin Laden warranted drastic, immediate action—that he had begun to be regarded with suspicion. He seemed obsessed.
In 1998, on the Sunday before Christmas, ALEC Station learned that bin Laden was staying in the Haji Habash house, part of the governor’s palace in Kandahar. The CIA had a local spy who knew which wing of the building bin Laden was in, and even which room, because he had escorted him there. It was first-rate, firsthand intelligence, and a target that could easily be reached by Tomahawk missiles launched from ships in the Arabian Sea.
“Hit him tonight—we may not get another chance,” advised Gary Schroen, ALEC Station’s field officer.
Scheuer took it directly to the White House, along with Director Tenet and John Gordon, the deputy director. It was snowing. The three men drove from Langley into D.C. together, but inside the White House only Tenet was allowed into the meeting, which the Clinton administration’s principals joined by teleconference. Scheuer and Gordon waited outside for hours. The missile strike was not authorized. According to The 9/11 Commission Report, there was concern that as many as three hundred people might be killed or injured, and that there was thought to be too great a chance of bin Laden moving at the last minute, as he had before. There was also a mosque nearby that might have been damaged. The CIA men drove back up the George Washington Parkway, disappointed yet again. Scheuer was particularly upset by the administration’s worry about damaging a mosque.
The next day, with the opportunity gone, Scheuer wrote to his field officer, Schroen, that he had not been able to sleep. “I’m sure we’ll regret not acting last night.”
“We should have done it last night,” Schroen wrote back. “We may well come to regret the decision not to go ahead.”
Scheuer’s frustration got the better of him. In 1999 he drafted a memo to the heads of the CIA, complaining about the risks being run to collect timely information, the hours of hard work that went into each targeting opportunity, and the unwillingness of the government to take action.
“[It seemed wrong to] me, to some extent, the idea of continually sending your officers into harm’s way to gather information that is credible and usable and to find the government not willing to use it to defend American people for reasons that [exist only in] their own minds,” he explained years later in an interview for this book. “You know, how racist is it to think that 1.4 billion Muslims are going to rise up and attack the United States because some shrapnel hits a stone mosque in Kandahar? You have to have zero respect for the humanity or the common sense of the Muslim world to expect something like that to happen. And yet, that’s the excuse these brilliant Harvard-trained people come up with.”
He was relieved of responsibility for ALEC Station. As he recalled later, he was told, “We want you to tell your people that you are burned out and don’t worry, we’re going to give you a medal and a monetary award.”
Scheuer said he told them, “Stick it in your ass.”
Everything changed after 9/11, of course. Then the questions all became, Why hadn’t the United States acted against bin Laden more aggressively when it could? “Obsessives” like Scheuer and his “cult” at ALEC Station looked prophetic, not overly emotional. The United States had missed its chance to get bin Laden before his biggest plan bore fruit.
After the invasion of Afghanistan there were battlefield leads that pointed American forces toward a rugged redoubt in Tora Bora, which translates to “Black Cave.” It was in the far easternmost part of the country, near the border with Pakistan, and was reputed to have a byzantine maze of caves, natural and man-made. It was also reputed to be bin Laden’s hideout. When American forces and Afghan militiamen took it in 2001, over a five-day siege, they found lots of small caves and some bunkers, but nothing like the fortress they had imagined. It turned out to be another place the Sheik had recently left.
The best reports said he had fled over the White Mountains into Pakistan, probably before the assault even began. After that . . . nothing.
No, not nothing.
Start with thousands of small bits of information. Names, lots and lots of names. Sightings. Rumors. Interrogation transcripts. Phone numbers. Phone calls. Dates. Addresses. Geographic coordinates. Aerial photographs. Ground surveillance photos. Videos. Faces. Iris images. Gaits. Maps. Fingerprints. Old diaries. E-mails. Web sites. Social media. Text messages. Tweets. Old-fashioned letters. Blogs. News reports. Broadcasts. Bills. Payment schedules. Traffic tickets. Rent payments. Credit card numbers. Charges. Bank account numbers. Deposits. Withdrawals. Transfers. License numbers. Passport numbers. Police reports. Arrests. Travel itineraries. Everything and anything that can be transformed into data. When you’re looking for one person in a world of seven billion, and when that one person does not wish to be found, you cast a wide net.
After 9/11, and after bin Laden escaped Tora Bora, it is safe to say that the United States government was fully engaged in hunting him down. Engaged to a degree that makes the uphill battles of little ALEC Station seem like a basement hobby. The Obama administration might invoke “limited bandwidth” and competing priorities to explain why these efforts fell short, but the truth is that every agency and branch of the vast U.S. military-industrial complex was now fully invested. What did that mean? It meant that finding and eliminating bin Laden was not just a preoccupation of a small group working in a storefront near Langley. It was a central goal. No one would be left waiting in the hall at the White House ever again for permission to strike. But finding bin Laden had also become exponentially more difficult. Tools and networks and units had to be developed to find, fix, and finish al Qaeda and other terror networks like it. What would evolve—this thing they called F3EAD—is worth examining in more detail.
You begin with scraps. Anything that can be transformed into data, those names and numbers and other types of information partially enumerated above. All of that and more, intel from every pipeline: detainee interrogations, HUMINT (human intelligence), SIGINT (signals intelligence), GEOINT (geospatial intelligence), and even something called MASINT (measurement and signature intelligence, which converted into searchable data highly technical things like radar or chemical or sound). Each bit is a potentially useful dot in a vast matrix. Collection flowed from a blizzard of agencies, large and small—CIA, FBI, NSA, NGA, and many more. The SEAL and Delta Force warriors ransacked the hideouts they raided for everything that might contain a lead—they called it “pocket litter.” Who knew which stray fact might lead to bin Laden? Or if any of them ever would? At times the CIA had dozens of analysts working on bin Laden full time, but the sheer number and variety of leads was daunting. There was always a good chance, perhaps a better than even chance, that the Sheik would live out his days in hiding and die peacefully in bed, surrounded by his wives and his many children and the devoted members of his intimate circle, perhaps after leveling one last broadside at the “Head of International Unbelief”—thumbing his nose as he entered paradise. For those who believed in such things, evading the grasp of American justice would lend credence to his claim of divine guidance.
In the end, finding bin Laden would illustrate the most banal of truths about intelligence work. More than genius or courage, it is about effort and patience and will. It is also, of course, about money and time—but when we are talking about a goal assigned top priority by not one but two presidents of the United States, and where time and resources are, in effect, bottomless, it boils down, ultimately, to a steady application of will. President Bush famously kept a chart of wanted terrorists in a desk drawer and would personally X out those who were captured or killed. Bin Laden was always “Number One.” At his regular daily briefings, Bush would routinely ask, “How’re we doing?” and everyone knew what he was talking about. It was the same with Obama. After that impromptu meeting in his office with his new intelligence chiefs in 2009, he would bring it up at nearly every security briefing.
“Are we any closer?”
“What have we learned?”
An intelligence network like America’s is not one but multiple bureaucracies, each with its own specialty—listening, observing, photographing, sensing, probing, analyzing. The strength of such an overlapping structure is that things get looked at more than once, and from every conceivable angle. And the strength of bureaucracy—everyone knows about the weaknesses of bureaucracy but rarely do we consider its strength—is in its limitless capacity for work. Steady, unceasing work, like the trickle of the river that ever so slowly carves a gorge. Hour after hour, day after day, year after year, here was an effort that would consume large chunks of the careers of analysts—analysts replaced at intervals with fresher eyes and ears and minds who would eagerly set off down stale trails with new vigor.
Now add supercomputers. Convert those millions of bits of intel gathered from all over the world over years of effort into bytes, and suddenly the impossible, finding the needle in a million haystacks, becomes at least a little more probable.
So when we trace the trail to Abbottabad, this is what we are talking about—a sophisticated targeting engine. Viewed backward, from bin Laden’s hideout to the scraps of intel that led to it, the trail seems obvious. Tracing it from end to beginning obscures the level of difficulty: the years of frustration and patient effort, the technological innovation, the lives lost, the mistakes made, the money spent. Just the special ops piece of the story unfolded over a quarter of a century of trial and error, beginning with the improvised mission to rescue American hostages in Iran in 1980.
After Iranian students seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran in November 1979, President Jimmy Carter undertook months of fruitless diplomatic efforts to free the more than fifty Americans held hostage there. During that time, the army’s newly formed counterterrorism unit, Delta Force, cobbled together a daring effort to rescue them. They borrowed helicopters from the navy used for minesweeping, and marine pilots unused to the kind of flying required. The mission called for the choppers to fly to a rendezvous point in the desert outside Tehran, called Desert One, refuel the choppers from large fixed-wing aircraft flown in by air force pilots, and then proceed to a hiding place near the city. The following evening Delta Force would emerge from hiding, raid the embassy compound and free the hostages, then assemble in a soccer stadium across the street from the embassy in central Tehran, where they would be picked up by the helicopters and flown to an airport that was to have been seized by U.S. Army Rangers. From there, the rescuers and hostages would be flown out of the country.
This extraordinary bold and complicated mission never made it past the rendezvous point in the desert. Sandstorms damaged choppers and forced several pilots to turn back. With too few helicopters to proceed, the mission was aborted.
As the aircraft maneuvered to fly quietly out of Iran, one of the choppers collided with a plane on the ground, and both exploded, killing eight American servicemen. The disaster ruined hopes of keeping the aborted rescue effort secret. The subsequent embarrassment condemned the hostages to many more months of captivity, handed Iran a large propaganda coup, (they claimed an American “invasion” had been thwarted by God), and likely destroyed Carter’s hopes of being elected to a second term.
That episode would bear a striking similarity to the one that killed bin Laden, and it would illustrate how far the talents and tools of the special ops community had come. That 1980 disaster, in effect, created the Joint Special Operations Command, by demonstrating cruelly what this nation could not do. Progress can be further traced back to the heroic and bloody firefight in Mogadishu in 1993, the battle documented inBlack Hawk Down,which resulted when another special ops raid spun off track. Thousands of missions, successful and unsuccessful, large and small, honed the men and machines and tactics that would target the Sheik.
That raid could not be launched until bin Laden was found. Finding him meant reconstituting human spy networks dismantled in the complacent years after the Cold War, when spying was considered unseemly and unlawful and a threat to personal liberties and human rights. After 9/11, the public rediscovered the value of spies on the ground and of eyes and ears overhead. It would speed the development of unblinking aerial platforms and telecommunications networks that would allow constant, real-time surveillance unheard of in the past.
Four months after the attacks, former Admiral John Poindexter was appointed to head a new initiative he had helped devise called Total Information Awareness, which sought to use supercomputers to amass unimaginably huge databases in order to, in essence, collect, as its name suggested,everything.With the right software, you could mine that data in order to identify and locate potential terrorists. The admiral’s history of lying to Congress during the Iran-Contra episode did not engender confidence, nor did the inherently scary, Orwellian notion of the government compiling vast pools of data about American citizens. In that sense, the name, Total Information Awareness, was a fatal public relations blunder. The bald, white-mustachioed Poindexter was called the “Pentagon’s Big Brother,” and worse. Congress scotched the program as originally conceived. Poindexter found employment back in the private sector, and the remnants of the project, which was barred from collecting information on American citizens, was tactfully renamedTerrorismInformation Awareness.
As wrong a choice as Poindexter was to lead this project, and as tone deaf as he may have been in its presentation, he had the right idea. He had been thinking about it for decades. One of the computer’s great contributions—this ability to store and manipulate vast amounts of data—seemed mundane but was in practice so revolutionary that it was transforming modern life, whether performing a Google search, stocking the shelves at a Walmart from an international supply chain, shipping packages anywhere in the world overnight, or mapping the human genome. So why not put that capacity to work tracing a terrorist network—recognizing clues in what would appear, even to teams of skilled analysts, to be random events?
Poindexter’s concept did more than survive. It would come to undergird the entire war effort: storing every scrap of intel about al Qaeda and related groups gathered by the nation’s very active military and spy agencies, transforming them into data, and then plumbing that data for leads. The hunt for bin Laden and others eventually drew on an unfathomably rich database, accessible to anyone in the world with the proper security clearance, whether a marine officer at an outpost in Afghanistan or a team of analysts working in Langley. Sifting through it required software capable of ranging deep and fast and with keen discernment—a problem the government itself proved less effective at solving than were teams of young software engineers in Silicon Valley. A start-up called Palantir, for instance, came up with a program that elegantly accomplished what TIA had set out to do. Founded in 2004 by Alex Karp and Peter Thiel—the latter is the billionaire cocreator of Paypal and an early Facebook investor—Palantir developed a product that actually deserves the popular designation Killer App. Newly minted software engineers from the best computer schools in the country were put up in a seven-thousand-square-foot workspace in Palo Alto. It was stocked with junk food and video games and nicknamed “the Shire,” the home of the Hobbits in Tolkien’sLord of the Rings. (The company itself is named after a magical stone in the Tolkien saga that confers special powers of sight and communication.) The software produced from this very unlikely source would help turn America’s special forces into deadly effective hunters. Palantir is now worth billions, and has contracts with, among others, the CIA, the NSA, the Defense Department, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the FBI, the National Counterterrorism Center, and the Department of Homeland Security.
The pace and urgency of war have always accelerated the development of technology and encouraged novel uses of devices that already exist. After rapid initial success toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, American forces found themselves under increasing attack by Sunni extremist groups, the most violent of which was a new branch of al Qaeda, under the direction of an innovative killer named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. His group mounted a campaign of roadside bombs and brutal suicide attacks, many of them designed to kill Iraqi civilians indiscriminately—the sort of attacks that bin Laden, in hiding, considered mistakes. Indeed, the mass killings eventually helped turn the Sunni majority in Iraq against the insurgency, marking the turning point in the war. But at the same time, under the direction of General Stanley McChrystal, JSOC was hammering away on insurgent cells of the local al Qaeda killers with increasing effectiveness, mounting mission after mission in rapid succession, capturing and killing at a pace that such operations had never before been able to sustain. They found Saddam Hussein hiding in a hole in the ground in late 2003. Zarqawi himself was killed by an American bomb in 2005. McChrystal’s success, considered to be one of the major military accomplishments of modern times, was something he called “collaborative operations,” by which he meant the fusion of “special operators”—teams of elite shooters from every branch of the service—with this new computational ability, which amassed data from all of the other inputs. The task force built a massive database at Camp Victory in Iraq, and then another at Bagram in Afghanistan, blending the big picture with the small. It meant bringing a different kind of warrior to the front, one more accustomed to clicking a mouse than pulling the trigger.
Guy Filippelli was one of them. A young army captain, a West Point graduate with a master’s degree from Oxford, in 2005 he was asked by his commander in Afghanistan to visit the walled-off facilities of the task force—the special ops unit—and show them what he could do with his computer. Filippelli calls himself a geek. He had started writing computer programs as a high school student before heading to West Point’s growing computer science department. He was helping the command staff at Bagram design systems to better control “information flow,” plugging intel collected from the sites of raids in the field and from the interrogations of detainees into a growing national terror database. He arrived inside the cloistered walls of the task force full of enthusiasm for his work, certain his lecture would excite these frontline troops. The shooters and their staff could not have been less impressed. Filippelli’s subject matter was highly technical and abstract, cutting edge, and very cool to him, but he was talking to a roomful of soldiers whose adrenaline rush came from . . . free falling from high altitudes or getting shot at. Their world was the extreme opposite of virtual. So the next time the young captain got a chance, this time with a smaller group of soldiers, he tried a different tack.
“Listen, I know you guys are a thousand times better at this stuff than I am and are probably already doing all this, but let me show you what I’m doing and I’ll be out of your hair in ten minutes.”
At first it was something easy. The task force was used to simply locking up suspects in the detainment facility as they awaited questioning. Filippelli had built a database for detainees, and had also mapped the facility’s population by tribal affiliation, background, kinship, and other factors. Putting a detainee in the wrong place, for instance, with a group from his own village, meant that his comrades would rapidly coach him. Filippelli could show how those poorly placed were significantly less useful afterward in interrogation. So where you put them in the facility was important.
“Look,” he said. “You’ve picked up this guy. Why did you put him withtheseguys? You could have done this . . .”
And with that, he closed his laptop and started for the door.
“Thanks for your time,” he said. “Let me know if there’s anything else I can do for you.”
“Wait,” the men protested. “Tell us a little more about this.”
Gradually, he found himself working more and more with the task force, showing them how crunching data could vastly improve their efficiency. The applications went way beyond storing detainees. The name of the game in warfare is to learn faster and act faster than the enemy. So, as Filippelli and others doing the same kind of work came to see it, the contest had to do with time cycles. If it’s a detainee who could be held for, say, only twenty-four hours, how do I use that time most efficiently? What questions should he be asked? What do I need to learn in order to ask him the best questions in the time allotted? And that was just one piece of the puzzle. Looking at the larger mission, the special ops teams needed to get inside the information cycle of their enemy. In the past, after a successful night raid where a member of an insurgent cell was killed or arrested, by morning, or even within a few hours, every critical member of that group would know about it and would have taken evasive action. Information spread quickly. Cell phones would be ditched, computer discs destroyed, bomb-making facilities moved—the bad guys would scatter. But if you could getinsidethat response time—if you could beat their information cycle and learn enough from the first raid through either interrogation or, say, scrutinizing a seized cell phone or hard drive—you might be able to launch a new raid or even multiple raids before word of the first one had gotten out.
The databases enabled local scraps to be instantly cross-checked with the larger data pool. Warrior geeks like Filippelli would examine the pocket litter, and plug that into the national collection; it was like jumping from the middle of the woods to a panoramic view of the forest. The warrior geeks helped connect the dots for the shooters, lifting order from disorder. Soon enough, the teams were doing it for themselves. Armed with such rapid intel, the teams got very fast indeed, going out on multiple missions every night, easily lapping the enemy’s information cycle. They had, in strategic terms, “seized the initiative.” This capability turned terrorist hunting from a passive endeavor, characterized by long periods of intel collection and analysis and preparation, punctuated by occasional raids, into an aggressive endeavor. To stay alive, the bad guys had to stay in constant communication with each other and keep moving—two activities that actually made them easier to find. In Iraq, under McChrystal in 2007 and 2008, JSOC teams began dismantling networks at an ever increasing pace, taking them down before they knew what hit them.
McChrystal would be handed the entire Afghan command soon after Obama’s election, turning over JSOC to Vice Admiral William McRaven, who signed a secret agreement in early 2009 with the new CIA director, Leon Panetta, spelling out guidelines for expanded cooperation. So at the same time Obama was pushing the CIA to find bin Laden, JSOC was deepening its relationship with the spy agency worldwide.
The right weapon had evolved. Just nine years earlier, President Bill Clinton had complained to General Hugh Shelton, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs, about his lack of options in going after Osama bin Laden. “You know, it would scare the shit out of al Qaeda if suddenly a bunch of black ninjas rappelled out of a helicopter into the middle of their camp,” he said. It was the wish of a man who had more experience with the military in movies than real life. In order to rappel into an enemy’s camp, you first had to know where it was and who exactly was there. From time to time, as we have seen, the United States had obtained reasonably current intel about bin Laden’s location, but the ability to act swiftly and effectively on that knowledge, at acceptable levels of risk, did not yet exist.
Now it did. No matter how one felt about the wisdom of invading Iraq, or the seemingly unending conflict in Afghanistan, a near decade of combat had matured a generation of warriors and tools, battle tested and custom-made for finding and killing terrorists. This is what author Bob Woodward had hinted at when he caused a stir in a 2008 interview with60 Minutesby referring to a “secret operational capability.” It briefly inspired wild speculation about a crash military research program like the Manhattan Project in World War II that produced the atom bomb. Some imagined a “terrifying radar cannon” or a “thermal signature” device that could effectively fingerprint a target from twenty thousand feet. But there was no one secret weapon. The new tool waseverything: reconstituted human spy networks, supercomputers, state-of-the-art software, global surveillance, and elite commando units.
There was, however, one more critical piece, one of the most dramatic developments in the history of modern warfare. One that began not at some secret lab with cutting-edge scientists, but on an airstrip in Hungary, with an air force colonel they called Snake.
James Clark had planned on a career in politics when he graduated from Catholic University in 1973. He had it all mapped out: law school, legal practice, then a run for Congress . . . But he had accepted an ROTC scholarship to help pay for school, and when he graduated the air force invited him to fly fighter jets. It was a thrill he found hard to leave behind, so his four-year commitment turned into ten, and then ten turned into a career. His call sign was “Snake.” He was based in Taszár, Hungary, in 1995 when he got the chance to play with something then called the Gnat. It illustrated how a good idea doesn’t always require a blinding stab into the unknown, because the Gnat was basically a glider with an Austrian skimobile engine. It would improve, of course: its surveillance tools would become state-of-the art and its engine virtually silent. Its hover time would greatly lengthen and its optics would become astonishing. It would eventually carry its own missiles. Called the Predator, it rapidly became the most sought-after weapon in the air force’s multibillion-dollar arsenal.
The drone, or, as the air force prefers, the UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), was not new. Radio-controlled aircraft were used during World War II. President John F. Kennedy’s older brother, Joe, was killed on a secret mission when his specially engineered B-24, designed to fly itself to a German target after Kennedy had bailed out, exploded prematurely. Drones had been used in Vietnam, and the Israelis had used them to good effect over Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley in 1982. Several of the Israeli models were purchased by the CIA, which turned them over to the San Diego defense contractor General Atomics for further development. Clark got four of them in Hungary during this experimental phase. He housed them in small tents out on the runway at Taszár. They were an immediate hit. Soldiers had long sought the ability to see over the next hill and the Gnat gave them a sixty-mile panorama from a platform that could stay airborne more or less permanently, flown in twelve-hour shifts. Manned aircraft could stay aloft for only as long as a pilot could stand it, or until his fuel ran out. Satellites provided a nice view when they happened to be passing overhead, and were in great demand, but they were expensive and few, and not always overhead. Once Clark’s Gnats started flying missions over Kosovo they never stopped. Demand for them grew and grew. They have been in continual action ever since.
As the air force saw it, the problem during the Cold War had not been finding the enemy; they were, for the most part, in plain sight—tanks, missile silos, armies, and so on. The problem was how to attack them. The war that began in earnest after 9/11 posed the opposite problem. Al Qaeda terrorists made easy targets, if you could find them. At most they were holed up in compounds with a few armed guards. So a capability that allowed you to silently watch a target from fairly close range over days, months, and even years, in real time, was suddenly as valuable, if not more valuable, than a multimillion-dollar piece of hardware in orbit around the Earth.
General James Poss, working with Clark, commanded the first Predator mission over Iraq early in 2001, when the UN was policing a no-fly zone. The Iraqis would occasionally shoot at American planes patrolling the no-fly zones, aided by a large, clumsy Russian Cold War–era portable radar device called “Spoon Rest.” It was mounted on a large van with twelve giant antennae shaped like coat hangers on top. In other words, they were hard to miss. Except that after nine months of trying, the air force could not find any of them. How could something so big and distinctive remain invisible? Whenever an American plane detected it was being tracked by radar, the force would direct an AWACS—Airborne Warning and Control System—to fly over and scan for a Spoon Rest van. None was ever seen. Could the Iraqis be dismantling them after each use? The old Soviet manuals said a unit could not be taken apart in less than twenty minutes, and the AWACS would get overhead a lot faster than that. The air force tried spotting them with a U-2, which also turned up nothing. Poss tried everything he could imagine. He had every large building in the vicinity surveyed. He tried pattern recognition analyses to try to predict where they were likely to show up. Nothing.
The Predator found the answer on the first try. Able to silently watch an Iraqi town where a Spoon Rest van was known to operate, it saw the Iraqis drive the distinctive van through the central market and park it under a bridge. All of the Spoon Rest vans were quickly located and destroyed.
There were other uses for drones. Before the U.S. bombing campaign began over Baghdad in 2003, Poss and Clark flew an old Predator they had planned to retire low and slow over the capital, prompting the Iraqis to fire up the radar at all their antiaircraft installations. This enabled the air force to map the city’s defense system. When the Predator ran out of fuel they plunked it in the Tigris River, prompting the Iraqis to claim they had shot down an American fighter. They never recovered the aircraft. The next day, Poss and Clark did the same thing, but they miscalculated the fuel levels. Instead of splashing it into a lake on the outskirts of the city, the drone made it only to the water’s edge. Alerted again by claims that an American jet had been shot down, film crews the next day recorded the recovery of an old drone painted with graffiti, without a bullet hole in it.
These first experimental models could only transmit TV signals along a line of sight, but before long Predators were bouncing their feed off communications satellites, which meant the view from above could be monitored and analyzed from anywhere, in real time. This was the real breakthrough. Drones provided not just a view from above—balloons had been floated over Civil War battlefields to accomplish that. The revolutionary change came when drone surveillance was tied into the existing global telecommunications system. This allowed the U.S. military to mount “caps,” or permanent stable observation platforms, over whole cities. Tie that capability into supercomputers, with software capable of recognizing the “signature” of a specific target—say, a red pickup truck with a dent on its right rear fender—and you had the ability to track a target night and day.
By 2010, fleets of UAVs—which today include Predators, Reapers, Global Hawks, and a growing variety of others—were part of a worldwide integrated network that enabled remote operators at bases in the United States to fly missions almost anywhere in the world, funneling imagery and sensory data for analysis back to computers at Beale Air Force Base in California and CIA headquarters in Langley. The number of drones was well into the thousands, enough to sustain as many as sixty-five caps at once. For a selected target, the unblinking eye could establish things as simple as: How many people live in a compound? When do they wake up in the morning? When do they go to bed at night? What kind of weapons do they have? The air force was now using drones in teams, producing a system it called Gorgon Stare, that could cover an area four kilometers square—an area the size of Fairfax, Virginia. The image would not have to be monitored continually by human beings; it could be monitored by computers, which never get bored or distracted and are serenely undaunted by complexity. If, say, a vehicle belonging to a suspected terrorist was recognized by the computer—because it had some distinguishing feature that enabled the computer to track it—then the movements of that vehicle could be followed over a small city for months, or even years, permitting a detailed map of the suspect’s travels. Combine that map with cell phone tracking, with human intelligence, and you can begin to assemble a detailed and accurate chart of your target’s connections, or his network. Improvements in optics had enabled such observations from a great distance, so that the UAVs themselves would not have to be directly over a target. They could “stand off,” well outside the restricted airspace over a country such as, say . . . Pakistan.
The trail to Abbottabad that seemed so clear in retrospect represented a triumph of dot connecting. In this case, it began with a name. It was not even a real name, and the reference was to someone reported, falsely, to be dead.
The name Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti was first mentioned to authorities in Mauritania by an al Qaeda operative, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who went by the nom de guerre “Abu Musab.” Slahi was a veteranmujahid, having fought twice in Afghanistan: first against the Russians and then against the regime left in place when the Russians departed. He had sworn allegiance to bin Laden and was living in Germany in late 1999, pursuing a degree in electrical engineering, when he befriended two of the young Arabs who would become 9/11 hijackers: Ramzi bin al-Shibh and Marwan al-Shehhi. The two were looking to join the jihad in Chechnya, but Slahi advised them first to travel to Afghanistan for training. Joined by Mohammed Atta, who would become the leader of the 9/11 group, the young Mauritanian helped them make travel arrangements to Karachi, launching them on the road that would take them to the United States and flight training. Performing this service placed Slahi at the origins of the 9/11 plot, and he was thus a highly wanted man after the attacks. In just ten days he was located living in his home country and was brought in for questioning by Mauritanian authorities. He was arrested in November 2001 and underwent extensive questioning in Mauritania and then in Jordan, where he claims he was tortured, and probably was. He has been imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay since 2002.
In telling the story of his travels and battles with themujahidin,one of the names Slahi mentioned—one among many—was this Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, whom he said had been killed. It was obviously a pseudonym. The name meant “the Father of Ahmed from Kuwait.” It was just one name among thousands that were daily being entered into what would become the Terrorism Information Awareness database.
The same pseudonym, and person, would be fleshed out in more detail more than a year later by a true believer named Mohammed al-Qahtani, a baby-faced young Saudi who had pledged himself to al Qaeda and had planned to join the 9/11 hijackers as “muscle”—one of the enforcers trained to seize the plane and keep the passengers under control on the way to impact. He had arrived in Orlando about a month before the attacks—Mohammed Atta was waiting there to pick him up—but was turned away by an immigration officer, whose suspicions, even in that relatively unwary time, were aroused by the fact that Qahtani had a one-way ticket and could not speak English. When Qahtani grew indignant, he earned himself a return flight to Afghanistan. Denied martyrdom, he rejoined bin Laden and fought in the battle of Tora Bora. Fleeing that encounter, he was arrested crossing the border into Pakistan with othermujahidinin December of 2001. Qahtani claimed he had been in Afghanistan to learn the art of falconry. He was turned over to American authorities, who eventually matched his fingerprints with the young Saudi who had been denied entry to the United States in Orlando the previous August. This made him a subject of great interest.
Qahtani was interrogated relentlessly at Guantánamo from early November of 2002 until January of 2003. A daily log of his ordeal reveals a grinding effort to break down the young man’s resistance. He displayed heroic defiance. There were repeated hunger strikes and attacks on his guards and interrogators—he frequently spat at them, head-butted one, and threw himself bodily at others. When doctors tried to administer IV fluids he tore out the needle, and when his hands were strapped to his chair he got the IV line in his mouth and bit it in two.
The Obama administration has claimed that torture played no role in tracking down bin Laden, but here, in the first two important steps down the trail, that claim crumbles. At best it demands a very narrow definition of the word. Slahi’s prosecutor refused to pursue charges against him before a military commission because he found they were based on statements made under torture. And in Qahtani’s case the coercive methods employed are clearly documented and public, and would be described as torture by any disinterested person. Indeed, it was his case that prompted the Department of Defense to draw up guidelines to curb interrogation excesses.
In time Qahtani succumbed to this pressure, however it is defined, and dropped his falconry story and began describing his work with al Qaeda in detail. One of the many names he mentioned as part of bin Laden’s inner circle was this same Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. He did not know the man’s real name, but said he was not only alive and well but had worked closely with Khalid Sheik Mohammed, al Qaeda’s Number Three, and had given Qahtani some preliminary computer instruction at an Internet café in Karachi, showing him how to communicate with the group’s leaders once he was in America. As Peter Bergen reported in his excellent account,Manhunt,Qahtani was taught to compose a letter on an e-mail account, and then store it as a draft instead of sending it. His colleagues, armed with a password to the same account, could then log in and retrieve the draft e-mail without it ever having been sent, presumably avoiding America’s watchful eye. Qahtani would also describe Ahmed the Kuwaiti as a “courier.”
So now the name had come up twice, from two different men in two different countries, separated by more than a year. No one was yet paying attention to it. Many of the early detainee interrogations were not widely distributed, even within the agency—the importance of the single, enormous database would rise only when the software to exploit it appeared in a few years. In the early years of the hunt, even with dozens of analysts working full time, even with President Bush’s list in the drawer of his desk in the Oval Office and his constant prods of “How are we doing?,” and even with the help of the computers, it was nearly impossible to keep up with the flood of tips and “Elvis sightings.” There was a $25 million reward offered by the State Department for information leading to bin Laden, and an additional $2 million put up by an airline trade association and the pilots union, so passing along a tip was like buying a lottery ticket: you can’t win if you don’t play. Tall, slender, olive-skinned Arab men were seen on every continent. The analysts did not have high expectations for any of these leads, but given the national priority assigned to the task, every single one had to be taken seriously. It was a powerful time suck.
In that context, a detail offered up under duress by Qahtani, one that would later prove key, was years away from being recognized as significant. Qahtani himself was not that big a deal. He was a foot soldier, one of thousands rounded up in Afghanistan as they fled across the border. All of them were questioned, and their answers were all swept into the growing database. Qahtani merited more attention than most, though. He was an Arab fighter, after all, and, unlike most detainees, he had been a member of al Qaeda. He had fought at Tora Bora and had tried to enter the United States shortly before the attacks, and if he had not been turned away he might have played a role in them himself. But he was still just muscle, a foot soldier. There was no reason to believe he could point out the location of Osama bin Laden. His mention of this Ahmed the Kuwaiti was noted. The supposed “courier” had helped prepare Qahtani for the 9/11 mission and apparently had worked closely with Khalid Sheik Mohammed, so he was potentially significant. But it was still just a fake name. Whoever the Kuwaiti was, by 2003 his pseudonym remained just another drop of intel in what was fast becoming an ocean of data.
Then Khalid Sheik Mohammed himself was arrested in Pakistan just a few months after Qahtani started talking. This dark, burly, hairy man was easily the most important al Qaeda figure ever apprehended—the terror group’s Number Three, its operations director and the primary architect of 9/11. His arrest stirred a great deal of excitement. Here was someone who could provide a map of the entire organization, possibly cough up the hideouts of bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, or at least lead them closer, and perhaps reveal ongoing plots before they matured into new incidents of mass murder. Khalid Sheik Mohammed got the full treatment. He was interrogated aggressively by both Pakistani and American forces. In between 183 waterboardings at a secret CIA interrogation center in Poland, he was asked about many, many names. One among the many was Ahmed the Kuwaiti. And in addition to the volumes of information Khalid Sheik Mohammed provided—some of it true, some of it false—he acknowledged that such a character existed, but said the man was unimportant and had retired from al Qaeda years earlier.
So it was not as if the teams of analysts at the CIA were now, in 2003, looking at this fellow called “the Kuwaiti” as an important lead. But having been thrice acknowledged, albeit thrice acknowledged under torture, the prospect of his being fiction—someone made up by a detainee spinning stories—became less likely. He existed, or had existed. He may have been dead but was probably still alive. He may even have been, or might be, a member of bin Laden’s inner circle—perhaps even a courier. Even so, the name wasn’t a real name, and it was one of a multitude. It was not yet a lead, because to know so little doesn’t lead or point anywhere.
The teams looking into the matter were smart, dedicated, and possessed the agency’s studied, nondescript style. They were members of a kind of university of analysis, working under the direction of Michael Morell. When the effort settled into a routine, there were more than twenty analysts, men and women. There were more women than usual for this kind of job, partly because the CIA had undertaken to achieve a better balance of gender, but also partly because women were considered especially good at this kind of patient detail work and had a reputation for being sensitive to subtleties that eluded many men—the same insight that had guided Scheuer’s staffing of ALEC Station. The teams tended to be on the youthful side of middle age, and the analysts had the look of people who commute to a job in a cubicle and spend long working hours before a computer screen or in meetings. They got a chuckle out of the depiction of CIA agents in books and movies—jumping from airplanes, leaping from rooftops, speeding through European capitals in sports cars under fire. They were mostly bookish sorts, but seemed less like academics than like accountants or junior business executives. Indeed, that’s probably what they would tell you they did for a living if you asked. Ego and eccentricity were suppressed, sublimated by the clandestine nature of the job.
The Elvis sightings had slowed and then pretty much stopped by 2004. Bin Laden seemed lost. The teams turned more attention to sorting through the accumulated data—sorting it, devising ways to improve how they attacked it. There was his family, his huge family, with a dizzying number of kin and in-laws, any one of whom might become a conduit for a message to his mother (bin Laden had always been very close to her, a point of potential weakness). As the head of al Qaeda, he was known to be sending and receiving messages constantly. People were supplying him with food, medicine, and information . . . what methods did he use? And those video and audio statements? Who in his inner circle was known to make such recordings? The recordings were scrutinized with great care. What kind of wallpaper is that behind him? What sort of plants are in the room? What is he wearing? Analysts were far more interested in the trappings of bin Laden’s statements than in anything he had to say. Why, if he was living in a cave in the wilds, were his robes so clean? There was a “media” team that focused on clues like that. And who delivered these offerings to Al Jazeera and other outlets? That was the job of the courier team. The agency got to where it could track the chain of couriers back to Number Three—it was Khalid Sheik Mohammed and then his replacement, a Libyan, Mustafa al-’Uzayti, who went by the nickname Abu Faraj al-Libi—but there the trail always went cold.
In January 2004, Kurdish police arrested Hassan Ghul, a known al Qaeda figure, trying to enter Iraq with money and bomb-making schematics. He was carrying a letter from bin Laden to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the murderous leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, the local franchise that was just beginning its bloody campaign against Americans and the Iraqi citizenry. During Ghul’s interrogation the name Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti surfaced once more; Ghul described him as an important courier, one of the Sheik’s most trusted aides. There were now four mentions of this mystery man, who was looking more and more real. But who was he? What sort of person would he be? The most valuable sort in such a role, if bin Laden were hiding in Pakistan, would be someone fluent in both Pashto and Arabic. Did the Kuwaiti fit that profile? If so, how do you track a nickname?
The public line offered during the remainder of the Bush years was that bin Laden was probably living in a cave somewhere in Waziristan. The CIA teams had stopped believing that in 2002. There were no sightings or even rumors of his presence in the northwest Pakistani territories—not a single report. There were also many stories suggesting that he had a serious kidney disease, and these, too, were discounted early on—these were the stories bin Laden himself had attempted to disprove by feasting before the Pakistani journalist Mir. The CIA rejected them because the logistics of dialysis would have been too difficult to sustain, and the Sheik appeared hardy enough in his videos.
When the analysts weren’t slugging away on their computers, they were in meetings, proposing theories and arguing about theories. Detailed profiles were worked up. How would bin Laden be living? Who was likely with him? How big was his household? Where would it be? What might it look like?
The four most promising avenues seemed to be family, organization, finances, and couriers. The agency had committees focusing on each. And each of these avenues was generating its own collection of data—names, numbers, photos, interviews, etc. . . . all of it swelling the database, the great pool of potential leads. The work ground on, day after day, week after week, year after year. And nothing seemed especially promising.
The arrest of Abu Faraj al-Libi in May 2005, in Pakistan, raised hopes once again for a breakthrough. The second al Qaeda Number Three to be captured, it was known that he had been in direct communication with bin Laden in the years since the 9/11 attacks. But while he provided a lot of information after his capture, he offered nothing that directly helped the bin Laden teams. He did,indirectly, provide some help, however. Among the many people al-Libi was asked about was the Kuwaiti. Al-Libi said he had never heard of him.
Thatwas interesting. Five different detainees had been asked about him now. Four said they knew of him. Three placed him close to bin Laden (although one of those three said he was dead), and one, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, said he had left al Qaeda.Now al-Libi, who had been with al Qaeda for more than twenty years, said he had never even heard of the man. How could he know nothing about someone Khalid Sheik Mohammed had readily acknowledged? The organization was not that big. Here’s what the analysts gathered: their two most important captives either minimized the importance of the Kuwaiti or denied his existence altogether. This might mean that Ahmed the Kuwaiti was very important indeed. Bin Laden was the crown jewel. If the most important captives would protect anything, it would be information that might lead to him. That was one possible explanation. Add the fact that the Kuwaiti had dropped off the map . . . just like bin Laden. For the first time the CIA teams began to consider that the Kuwaiti was with the Sheik even now—his primary conduit with the rest of the world.
So among the various avenues still being explored intensely, the Kuwaiti became more important. Again, the name was just one of many and was just an alias. It would be five years before they managed to connect it with a real person. In 2007, the agency learned that the Kuwaiti’s real name was Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed. It will not say how the connection was made. It might have been as simple as an informant, perhaps someone detained and being interrogated in another country, or it might have emerged from the wizardry of its supercomputers—from the Terrorism Information Awareness database—after some conversation on a cell phone somewhere in the world triggered the right connection. One senior official said that the information came from a “third country.” Morell would tell me later, “You could write a book about how we figured it out.” It is a book he is not ready to see written.
However the connection was made, by 2007, in light of the increasing usefulness of human intel networks and the enormous TIA database, a real name was a huge step forward. A real man had a history. Ahmed came from a large Pakistani family that had moved to Kuwait. He and his brothers had grown up speaking Pashto and Arabic. One of his brothers had been killed fighting against the Soviets in Afghanistan. A man with a large family had relatives who had telephones and mail delivery and computers with Internet connections. A man like Ahmed had a network that could be mapped and monitored. With the ability to pore rapidly over every scrap of data and find links in terabytes of intel, one might, say, notice a suspicious cell phone number that made calls home to Kuwait from Pakistan, and then locate the cell towers where the signal originated and comb through the reams of numbers that pinged that tower, looking for telltale patterns of usage. You could also begin routinely recording the conversations on that cell phone, although there is no evidence that anyone was interested enough to listen in just yet.
There still wasn’t that much excitement over Ahmed the Kuwaiti. Again, he was just one of a great number of potential leads, many, many of which looked a lot more promising. Most of the analytical effort focused on finding the new al Qaeda Number Three or other key operational players, which had the added benefit of possibly thwarting ongoing plots. The Kuwaiti was peripheral. Much of what they had heard about him over the years suggested that he had dropped out of the organization altogether. His past associations would have been enough to explain why he kept out of sight. Perhaps it was the renewed pressure generated by President Obama in 2009, or perhaps just a decision by the teams to crank up the courier angle. It might have been that there was no change at all, that the patient collection of information and the growing sophistication of the software used to explore the TIA database finally delivered a key. But in June of 2010, because of either some change in his cell phone or its service package or some improvement in their own capability, the United States was able to pinpoint the phone’s location when it was in use. This meant they could find the Kuwaiti, and watch him.
What they found, and what immediately provoked even more curiosity at Langley, was that Ibrahim and his brother Abrar were extremely careful. They would use their phones only in the car. Ahmed drove a white Suzuki Jimny with a spare tire mounted on the back, which could be watched from above. It turned out that before even turning on his phone he would drive for at least an hour from what turned out to be that very curious compound in Abbottabad. Ibrahim and his brother were using assumed names, Arshad and Tareq Khan. That was interesting, but there could be many explanations for it. Ibrahim’s past associations alone might account for it. It was possible they were involved in some sort of illegal enterprise. Drug smuggling was big business in the Afghan-Pakistan border areas. Or maybe they were still working for al Qaeda.
These insights were sufficient to ramp up interest. If Ahmed the Kuwaiti was still a courier, perhaps he could lead them to where bin Laden was hiding.
The brothers’ recorded phone calls now got close attention. Neither gave away anything in conversation about what they were doing but, significantly, there was that business about telling lies even to close family members about where they were living. And in one of Ibrahim Ahmed’s calls came the brief exchange that appeared to confirm that he was still working with al Qaeda.
“I’m with the same ones as before.”
Now his compound in Abbottabad had the agency’s full attention.
5“Please Make Sure to Keep the Children and All of the Families Away from the Areas That Are Being Photographed and Bombed”
Nine years after his most spectacular success, things were not going as Osama bin Laden had foreseen. He was cut off from his followers, frustrated, and his organization was fraying. The 9/11 attacks had been both his greatest achievement and his undoing. Toppling the World Trade Center towers and crashing a commercial jet into the Pentagon had not, as he supposed, sent the United States into a spiral of fear, retreat, and ruin. It had instead set al Qaeda and himself on the run from a patient, determined, and deadly pursuer. The movement had been fragmented physically and conceptually. It had become less his organization than a franchise, a banner waved by men who did not share his precise, divine insight, and who sullied its name with acts that killed, maimed, and alienated those he sought to defend and convert. The holy cause had gone off the rails. In isolation, he could no longer steer it himself. But the Sheik had not given up. The divinely inspired don’t.
So he wrote letters, windy letters that filled many pages, a steady stream of them that were passed along a chain of couriers to the men he recognized as his deputies. Despite the oppressive reality, his letters offered consistently hopeful assessments of al Qaeda’s opportunities. They contained detailed instructions promoting men to positions made vacant by virtue of an arrest or drone attack, bestowed or withheld his official blessing on start-up organizations in other countries, requested more detailed updates and information, mourned the dead, and critiqued, guided, and motivated his increasingly far-flung troops. He himself had little else to do. He would either tap away on the keyboard with his long, delicate fingers or dictate to one of his wives. He paced.
“In the name of God most merciful,” he began one letter in October, 2010to “Sheik Mahmoud” Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, one of his most faithful, long-serving soldiers, “may God protect him. I hope that this letter finds you and your family are in good health. I offer my condolences to you for the death of our beloved brothers. May God have mercy on their souls and consider them among the martyrs.”
A Libyan, al-Rahman had sought out the Sheik in Afghanistan more than twenty years earlier, when he was a teenager determined to fight the great Soviet military machine. Even today he had a youthful, permanently unkempt look, with pale skin and a beard so sparse that it grew only in wisps on his jaws before thickening under his chin. Until recently, al-Rahman had been living in relative safety in Iran, serving as bin Laden’s emissary to that country’s mullahs, with whom bin Laden had an uneasy relationship. One of the Sheik’s three wives and some of his twenty-two living children had been in Iran for years, either imprisoned or living under “protective custody.” It was a matter of interpretation. Al-Rahman had helped broker their release, and was now back in the tribal regions of western Pakistan, somewhere in North or South Waziristan, ready to assume an operational role.
As it happened, there was an opening. The Sheik must have been grateful to have al-Rahman back. Drone attacks on al Qaeda forces in Waziristan had so thinned its ranks that the group was finding it hard to retain anyone in the critical Number Three position —operations commander, beneath only the Sheik himself and al-Zawahiri. Anyone pledged to al Qaeda was now a marked man, but this was especially true for its Number Three. The job required suicidal commitment. Unlike the organization’s most infamous leaders, the operations commander had to be in constant touch with the group’s rank and file, plotting actions, moving money, and training recruits, and the more active you were the more likely it was that the American satellites, drones, or raiders would find you. Number Threes did not last long. There had been 9/11 planner Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who was found and arrested in Pakistan in 2003. His successor, Abu Faraj al-Libi, was arrested in 2005, and al-Libi’s successor, Hamza Rabia, was killed later that year by a drone strike. Next up, Sheik Saeed al-Masri, had been killed in May of 2010. The Americans were getting better. The rain of death was accelerating. Al-Rahman, stepping in for the late al-Masri, would die within the year, less than a month before his successor, Abu Hafs al Shahri, would likewise be killed in a Predator strike. And his successor, Abu Yahya al-Libi, would be killed in June 2012.
By now, every letter the Sheik composed from his cramped third-floor office in Abbottabad began with prayers for the martyrs and lists of condolences.
“This is the path of jihad,” he intoned stoically in another letter to Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, his new Number Three. “God said, ‘You will sacrifice your money and yourself for His sake.’ They strike us and we will strike them back.”
The limitations of this movement were more apparent. And while bin Laden politely asked his followers to launch more attacks on the United States, there was no longer any way for al Qaeda to make such ambitious arrangements. The 9/11 attacks had taken years to prepare, and had involved substantial international travel, long months of training, money, and close coordination. When the plan had been set in motion, the group was a peripheral concern for the United States and the Western world. Michael Sheehan, the U.S. ambassador for counterterrorism in the waning years of the Clinton administration, had felt like he was butting his head against a wall trying to get people to take bin Laden and his group seriously in the late 1990s. Michael Scheuer and “the Manson Family” of analysts at ALEC Station were regarded as alarmist, and wore themselves out with frustration.
This was no longer the case. America had spread an invisible web of surveillance that registered seemingly everything that stirred. Death rained continually. It was dangerous for the organization’s leaders to move from one house to another, much less put another international plot in motion. And yet here was the Sheik still dreaming his big dream. His own men, even those who shared his vision, were discovering that their revered leader lived in a fantasy. He was still urging them to “hunch forth and stain the blade of lances red.” Bin Laden had become the crazy officer waving his sword and rallying depleted troops to run headlong into withering fire—before him, mind you, not behind him. He sent them broad strategic analyses and called for specific missions that were wildly unrealistic, even screwy.
“I asked Sheik Sa’id, Allah have mercy on his soul, to task brother Ilyas to prepare two groups—one in Pakistan and the other in the Bagram area of Afghanistan—with the mission of anticipating and spotting the visits of Obama or Petraeus to Afghanistan or Pakistan to target the aircraft of either one of them,” he wrote. “They are not to target visits by U.S. Vice President Biden, Secretary of Defense [Robert] Gates, Joint Chiefs of Staff (Chairman) [Michael] Mullen, or the Special Envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan [Richard] Holbrooke. The groups will remain on the lookout for Obama or Petraeus. The reason for concentrating on them is that Obama is the head of infidelity and killing him will automatically make Biden take over the presidency for the remainder of the term, as it is the norm over there. Biden is totally unprepared for that post, which will lead the United States into a crisis. As for Petraeus, he is the man of the hour in this last year of the war, and killing him would alter the war’s path. So please ask brother Ilyas to send to me the steps he has taken into that work.”
Bin Laden diagnosed their primary problem not as the deadly American pursuit, which it was primarily, but their own lack of focus. And he had become a scold.
“After the war expanded and themujahidinspread out into many regions, some of the brothers became totally absorbed in fighting our local enemies, and more mistakes have been made due to miscalculations by the brothers planning the operations.”
Too many operations against Americans had inadvertently killed Muslims. He criticized two specific efforts, both by local jihadists affiliated with al Qaeda: the first being the unsuccessful attempt on the life of Afghanistan regional commander General Abdul Rashid Dostum in January 2005. The suicide bomber in that case had blown himself up outside the Ghocha Park mosque in Dostum’s hometown of Sheberghan, where the general and his retinue had been praying during the annual Eid al-Adha festival. About twenty people had been injured. The other was an attempt to kill Pakistani General Muhammad Yusef Khan, in June 2004, again setting off a bomb at a mosque. Both had killed many Muslims, and both, bin Laden wrote, “bear extreme negative impact on the partisans of the jihad. . .It is extremely sad for an individual to fall into the same mistake more than once.”
The campaign of terror led by al Qaeda’s franchise in Iraq had killed eight times more Muslims than non-Muslims, according to a 2009 study. Bin Laden saw this kind of information reported on satellite TV. The bloodshed was thought to have caused many Sunni groups opposed to the U.S. invasion to turn on al Qaeda. This had been a clear tactical error, and a moral one. The rule was that one did not kill Muslims unless there was no other way to get at legitimate targets.
“[This] has resulted in the killing of Muslims (we ask God to have mercy on them and forgive them, and compensate their families).”
Bin Laden was now not so sure that the rule allowing even this exception to killing brother Muslims was valid. He wanted such rationales “revisited based on the modern-day context, and clear boundaries established for all the brothers, so that no Muslims fall victim except when it is absolutely essential. . .Here is an important issue that we should pay attention to: carrying out several attacks without exercising caution, which impacted the sympathy of the Nation’s crowds toward themujahidin. It would lead us to winning several battles while losing the war at the end. It requires an accurate criterion for the ramifications of any attack prior to carrying it out; also weighing the advantages and disadvantages, to then determine what would be the best attack to carry out.”
Even successes troubled him. During a siege in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, in May 2004, a large group of terrorists took hostages from two oil company installations and killed nineteen foreigners. The attackers were part of the “al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” branch, based in Yemen. They had asked each of the hostages if they were Muslims, and slit the throats of those who were not. Most of the attackers were killed in a rescue operation, and the incident helped provoke a brutal Saudi crackdown on extremists.
The Sheik now cautioned against mounting attacks like these and others inside Arab countries.
“The regime shall have a huge reaction toward themujahidin; this would lead to defending themselves and avenging the regime,” he wrote. “The brothers and the regime would then engage in a war that we did not begin against it, because the power of the brothers is not ready for it.” The right strategy was to defer conflict with local Arab states, such as Yemen and Iraq and Saudi Arabia, “to avoid wasting our energy with these regimes at this stage [and]. . .losing the sympathy of the Muslims toward us. . .We are the ones defending the Muslims and fighting their biggest enemy, the Crusader-Zionist alliance.”