As a new era of True Spies begins, Sophia di Martino joins the experts to reveal Osama bin Laden’s origins, methods and motivation. CIA operatives Gina Bennett and Tracy Walder join CNN’s Peter Bergen, the man who first interviewed Osama, to share the unvarnished truth about bin Laden’s rise to power. In Part 3, the hunt for the world's most infamous terrorist begins in earnest - and a humble courier has an important part to play.
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True Spies Episode 135, The Bin Laden Files Part 3: A Lion In Winter

++Disclaimer: This episode of True Spies features accounts of violence. Listener discretion is advised.

NARRATOR: This is True Spies, the podcast that takes you deep inside the greatest secret missions of all time. Week by week, you’ll hear the true stories behind the operations that have shaped the world we live in. You’ll meet the people who live life undercover. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? I’m Sophia DiMartino, and this is True Spies from SPYSCAPE Studios.

PETER BERGEN: There were plenty of people in the Taliban who had a very dim view of bin Laden. So, there was a moment where the CIA felt like there was a road to getting bin Laden where he would just be handed over by leaders of the Taliban to the United States.

NARRATOR: Episode 135: The Bin Laden Files - Part 3 - A Lion In Winter. September 15, 2001. As the rubble at Ground Zero still smoulders, 6,000 miles away the Taliban are deciding what to do with their guest Osama bin Laden - now the most wanted man on earth. An American by the name of Robert Grenier is pitching them a simple solution - hand him over. The CIA station chief in neighboring Pakistan, Grenier arranges a meeting with the Taliban’s Number 2 - A man called Mullah [Akhtar Mohammad] Osmani. At a quiet hotel in Quetta, a Pakistani city near the Afghan border, Grenier and Osmani meet. Over lunch, Grenier gets excited by what he hears. Osmani tells him: “Bin Laden has created a great problem for us. We don’t particularly like this man and we’re worried about the reaction of you Americans.” The two men agree that Osmani should go back to the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Omar, and persuade him to give bin Laden up.

PETER BERGEN: No one needs to be the wiser and we'll take him. 

NARRATOR: If only it were that easy. Osama bin Laden has gone from the quiet son of a Saudi billionaire to the world’s most infamous terrorist in two decades. Spurned by his own country, and his later home of Sudan, he is now hiding out in the tribal regions of the Hindu Kush, Afghanistan, a rugged, endless mountain range dusted with snowy peaks overlooking empty valleys. But, once again, bin Laden has outstayed his welcome. Having masterminded the biggest ever attack on American soil, bin Laden is now America’s Most Wanted. And they’re onto him. In this, the third and final part of The Bin Laden Files, we’ll hear about one of history’s great disappearing acts. 

PETER BERGEN: Bin Laden slipped away out of Tora Bora and disappeared for a long time thereafter and it's one of those great ‘what ifs’ because if bin Laden had been captured or killed at that battle, I think a lot of things would have changed.

NARRATOR: And how the man who warped Western consciousness was finally caught.

PETER BERGEN: It was a very austere, grim place to visit. That's how they lived. I saw on the ceiling where bin Laden was in the room where he was killed, a very large black spot, which I took to be congealed blood where somebody shot up and some of the blood must have spurted up on the ceiling.

NARRATOR: This is Peter Bergen, the journalist who conducted bin Laden’s first ever television interview back in 1997. On September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden was in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan, listening to BBC Radio Arabic with his closest followers. Late in the afternoon, local time, his henchmen are stunned to hear that a plane has hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

PETER BERGEN: And they, of course, were ecstatic. And bin Laden said, “Wait a minute, because there's going to be more news.” Because, of course, he knew that there was more than one plane flying into more than one target.

NARRATOR: Bin Laden’s followers in Afghanistan were jubilant when news eventually came in. Four planes were hijacked. And both of the twin towers had collapsed. Bin Laden rejoiced too - he hadn’t expected the towers to collapse completely, only above the impact zone. But the celebrations were not shared by everyone in Afghanistan. On September 20, 2001, President George W. Bush sent the Taliban an ultimatum - they must hand over all the terrorists in their land or share in their fate. The CIA’s Pakistan station chief Robert Grenier had already met with the Taliban’s Number Two, Mullah Osmani, to discuss the idea of giving up bin Laden. Osmani pitches the idea to the Taliban’s supreme leader Mullah Omar, who knows there is considerable favor for the idea among his men. 

PETER BERGEN: At that time, only three countries recognized the Taliban. The UN had put sanctions on the Taliban and they knew that bin Laden was really complicating their efforts to be regarded as legitimate government in Afghanistan by the international community. 

NARRATOR: Omar convenes 700 clerics in Kabul to decide bin Laden’s fate. After two days of deliberation, the clerics called on bin Laden to leave Afghanistan voluntarily to avoid a war with the US. Bin Laden refused but so did Mullah Omar, the man who convened the meeting.

PETER BERGEN: At the end of the day, Mullah Omar completely embraced bin Laden, looked up to him, it seems, as a jihadist leader and valued the fact that he'd fought against the Soviets during the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. And at the end of the day, it was Mullah Omar's call because the Taliban is a theocracy. The theocracy is led by the commander of the faithful, Mullah Omar at the time.

NARRATOR: On September 21, 2001, Mullah Omar appears on the Voice of America radio network to declare he would not be giving up bin Laden, adding that he is not afraid of attack. Bin Laden stiffened Omar’s resolve by arguing that the US response would be no more effective than previous attacks, which brought insignificant air strikes at best.

PETER BERGEN: But, of course, it was a terrible miscalculation because it's one thing to attack an American target outside the United States, but to kill thousands of Americans at the Trade Center and also at the Pentagon... And the United States’ response turned out to be very effective and relatively quick.

NARRATOR: On the night of October 7, 2001, the war began. A CIA-controlled drone fired at Mullah Omar in Kandahar, narrowly missing its target.

PETER BERGEN: US bombing began in Afghanistan shortly thereafter. There were CIA officers on the ground and then US Special Forces soldiers conducted a classic Special Forces operation in conjunction with the Afghan allies and were in Kabul by November 12, 2001.

NARRATOR: Stunned by the US response, bin Laden flees to Jalalabad, eastern Afghanistan. He ends up high in the mountains of Tora Bora, only 15 miles from Jaji, the site of his great victory over the Soviets 14 years before. But the net is closing in.

PETER BERGEN: Basically, the gig is over because Kabul is taken on December 5, 2001. Kandahar, the de facto capital of the Taliban, is also taken. And so the Taliban is completely defeated within a space of two months. 

NARRATOR: Back in the caves he had lived in on his return to Afghanistan in 1996, bin Laden is determined to stand and fight. But he has already suffered a significant loss. Abu Hafs, the cofounder of al-Qaeda and its military commander, is killed in a US air strike. Another of bin Laden’s key military commanders doesn’t follow him to Tora Bora, having opposed the idea of 9/11 outright. With bin Laden now weakened and ensconced in Tora Bora, meaning ‘black cave’ in the local Pashto language, the CIA starts presenting plans to the president.

TRACEY WALDER: We knew that if a bomb was dropped in the area, that we believed that he was in, that we needed to have our ground forces in there to catch the runaways, if you will. And so, that was the recommendation of what should be done about where he was.

NARRATOR: This is Tracy Walder, a CIA analyst throughout the early 2000s. On 9/11, Tracy and her colleagues’ jobs changed overnight.

TRACY WALDER: Pre 9/11, what we were supposed to do was monitor. Keep our eyes on this. If anything super unusual happened, report that. But after September 11, the focus became toward elimination of the threat.

NARRATOR: With the battle of Tora Bora imminent, bin Laden bid farewell to three of his youngest children, not knowing whether he would see them again. But while the CIA recommended a heavy bombing campaign in tandem with a ground assault, the Pentagon only authorized the former. 

PETER BERGEN: The Pentagon was very reluctant to put additional boots on the ground for a bunch of reasons that really don't make any sense. One of the rationales was ‘We don't want to make the same mistakes the Soviets made’. Well, sending a battalion of rangers into the Tora Bora mountains, which is a very relatively small part of Afghanistan, for the limited purpose of hunting down bin Laden was not replicating the failure of the Soviets by any stretch. I mean, in terms of putting people on the ground, by my calculation, there were more journalists at the battle of Tora Bora than there were American soldiers. 

NARRATOR: Heavy bombing began on December 3rd. Between the 4th and the 7th, the Americans dropped 700,000 pounds of ordnance on the mountain. Bin Laden himself later recalled, “Not a second went by without a fighter plane passing over our heads.” Soon, there was more bad news for al-Qaeda’s leader. Ayman al-Zawahiri, now bin Laden’s Number 2, received word that his own wife and two children had been killed in US air strikes. Bin Laden embraced Zawahiri and burst into tears. But there was little time to reflect. On December 9, the US dropped the biggest non-nuclear weapon in its arsenal - a 15,000-pound bomb nicknamed ‘The Daisy Cutter’.

PETER BERGEN: So these guys were getting, literally, bombed to bits.

NARRATOR: That night, another bomb hit bin Laden’s bunker causing his followers to fear the worst. But bin Laden wasn’t there. The night before he dreamt that a scorpion had descended into his cave. As a man who set great store by dreams, he’d taken this as a sign to relocate. In the heat of battle however, bin Laden wavered momentarily.

PETER BERGEN: It affected him psychologically. He wrote a will. He told his kids not to join al-Qaeda in the will and he was downcast and beaten down. He knew that much of his organization had at best dispersed, while many of them had been killed. 

NARRATOR: Bin Laden spoke personally to his followers still fighting alongside him, saying, “I am sorry for getting you involved in this battle; if you can no longer resist you may surrender with my blessing.” The great Mujahideen hero was having a rare reality check.

PETER BERGEN: His strategy made no sense. He thought attacking the United States would force it to pull out of the Middle East. Instead, quite the reverse happened. 

NARRATOR: And now he was facing total defeat. But there was some respite. While the US had so far sent in no fully fledged ground force, they did have a handful of CIA and Special Forces assets on the ground, largely in a support role to the Afghan fighters on their payroll. By now however, it was clear to these assets that the Afghans were not capable of finishing off bin Laden and completing victory at the battle of Tora Bora.

PETER BERGEN: There were three warlords on the ground who were allied with the United States. Some of them had mixed loyalties.

NARRATOR: The CIA commander on the ground cabled headquarters requesting 800 Army Rangers to seal off the escape routes around Tora Bora. The request was denied.

TRACY WALDER: It was believed that whatever small group of CIA officers were there, they would be able to catch him, which is an impossible task for them. It's an extremely mountainous region. And I think it's hard for us, even in America, to fully understand how remote and how mountainous it is. 

NARRATOR: Either way, the situation in the Tora Bora caves, 9,000 feet up, was deteriorating. Temperatures dropped below -10 degrees Celsius, freezing all water supplies in the complex. Bin Laden was losing men at a fast rate, many of them blowing themselves up with hand grenades if threatened with capture. al-Qaeda officials came up with a daring plan. They proposed a ceasefire to the Afghan fighters down the mountain, promising that bin Laden himself would surrender.

PETER BERGEN: And the ceasefire was granted. 

NARRATOR: Bin Laden could hardly believe it.

PETER BERGEN: Why did they do it? It isn't entirely clear. It may be that it's the middle of Ramadan. Everybody's very tired. Everybody's fasting, fighting a battle several thousand feet in the middle of winter. Yeah, they just may have just given up.

NARRATOR: As the Afghan forces left the battlefield to break fast during the ceasefire, at 11 pm local time on December 12 bin Laden made his escape.

PETER BERGEN: Now, of course, the Americans, when they found out about it went ballistic. And the morning after the cease fire the Americans started bombing again.

NARRATOR: But now bin Laden is - once again - several steps ahead of his hunters.

PETER BERGEN: Bin Laden slips out on horseback and he does something very smart, which is he doesn't go over the border and to Pakistan, which is what everybody would expect. He doubles back into Afghanistan.

NARRATOR: Bin Laden had in fact planned a potential escape from the battle. He paid a local commander called Awal Gul $100,000 just beforehand, on the provision that Gul would harbor him if he could escape Tora Bora. Gul hid bin Laden and his deputy Zawahiri at a safe house in Jalalabad, only 30 miles north of Tora Bora. From there, they rode on horseback 100 miles north east to Kunar province, settling in a hamlet some 5,000 feet up.

PETER BERGEN: Which is very mountainous and it's heavily covered in forests. And so a great place to disappear. He disappears there for a year. 

NARRATOR: While in Kunar Province, he was under the personal protection of an old friend from the Soviet-Afghan war - Gullbuddin Hekmatyar - a man whose tribal faction had received over $600 million from the CIA during that conflict. Although now safe, bin Laden was downbeat.

PETER BERGEN: One of bin Laden's closest buddies calculated that of the 1,900 Arab fighters that were present at the time in Afghanistan, 1,600 of them were either killed or captured. So there was plenty of internal criticism within al-Qaeda that bin Laden had basically blown up the group, that he had destroyed the Taliban government.

NARRATOR: Shortly after the battle, bin Laden films a video sent out to his followers.

PETER BERGEN: He appears to be wounded in his left shoulder because he was barely moving his left shoulder. And he seemed like a very much older man. It was certainly a psychological blow.

NARRATOR: Following Tora Bora, most of bin Laden’s family splintered, many of them following his first wife to Iran. There they were placed under house arrest. For all of bin Laden’s bravado, he was clearly still a man capable of fear and doubt. He turned to his 14-year-old son and said: “I can only see a very steep path ahead, a decade has gone by in vagrancy and travel and here we are in our tragedy.” But it wasn’t just al-Qaeda that felt defeated. CIA director Mike ​​Morell had the unenviable task of informing President Bush that bin Laden had escaped. Again. Not normally a man to raise his voice, Bush became more angry than most of his staffers had ever seen before.

PETER BERGEN: He stopped talking about bin Laden publicly because it was embarrassing that they'd lost him at the battle of Tora Bora.

NARRATOR: It was the last known exact location the CIA had on bin Laden for many years. 

PETER BERGEN: It's one of those great ‘what ifs’ because if bin Laden had been captured or killed at that battle, this was the end of a very major chapter in American life - that bin Laden was finally brought to justice - so things might have been different 

NARRATOR: On the same day that Osama bin Laden escaped the battle of Tora Bora, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was already being briefed on a war plan to invade Iraq. 

PETER BERGEN: Everybody already knows that it's going to happen at least in the upper reaches of the Bush administration. And so, you have a huge sucking sound of the best and the brightest at the Agency being sucked into the Iraq account and the war planning at the Pentagon is really focused on Iraq. And the attention in the White House is all focused on Iraq. 

NARRATOR: Even Gina Bennett, the CIA analyst who first warned of the potential danger from bin Laden way back in 1993, is moved to the CIA’s new Iraq desk.

GINA BENNETT: I took one for the team.

NARRATOR: It was good news for bin Laden.

PETER BERGEN: Governments tend not to be able to do lots of things at once, particularly things like wars, particularly a war on the scale of the Iraq War. And Afghanistan was put in the rearview mirror. The hunt for bin Laden continued. I'm not saying it was downgraded. There were people looking for him all the time. But the Iraq War certainly sucked up a lot of resources. 

NARRATOR: By late 2002, unbeknown to the CIA, bin Laden had relocated across the Pakistani border.

PETER BERGEN: He goes to Peshawar. A big city, links up there with two of his wives. And they go to an area called Swat, it’s this very beautiful Swiss-like tourist destination.

NARRATOR: Known as the Switzerland of Pakistan, Swat is where bin Laden tries to reassert himself on the global stage.

PETER BERGEN: He wanted to be back in the game. And he would release videotapes, encouraging attacks. So, for instance, the Bali attack in 2002.

NARRATOR: Targeting western nightclubs, the Bali bombings in Indonesia were carried out by an affiliate of al-Qaeda, killing over 200 people.

PETER BERGEN: He was certainly applauding that. He was certainly encouraging it. But his ability to launch these kinds of operations himself in hiding on the run was very, very little. 

NARRATOR: When a US-led coalition invaded Iraq in March 2003 however, bin Laden sensed an opportunity to revive al-Qaeda.

PETER BERGEN: Al-Qaeda itself had been dealt a series of very grievous blows by the American response to 9/11. When the Iraq War happened, this was in the heart of the Middle East.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: “My fellow citizens, at this hour American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger.”

PETER BERGEN: It seemed to confirm bin Laden's view that America wants to grab oil and colonize the Middle East. And it really provoked a massive response from jihadists around the world who wanted to go and fight the American Army, not least somebody called Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. 

NARRATOR: A Jordanian, Zarqawi had set up his own terror group in 1999, taking it to Iraq in anticipation of the invasion. He shared many of bin Laden’s views. But the two men were very different.

TRACY WALDER: Bin Laden didn't really like him, to be totally honest with you. Zarqawi is very… He cursed, he drank, just definitely the opposite, really, of the pious person that bin Laden painted himself to be.

NARRATOR: Tracy Walder covered Zarqawi at the CIA, which President Bush had now let off the leash.

PETER BERGEN: ‘The gloves came off … one CIA officer said, which empowered the CIA to become a paramilitary organization. No armed drones had been used in combat until after 9/11, and that program ramped up, and the CIA began using them against members of al-Qaeda.

NARRATOR: Zarqawi and bin Laden’s organizations grew closer together in an uneasy alliance.

TRACY WALDER: But I think bin Laden did see him as someone that he could at least use in various forms. And so he had tapped Zarqawi to really try to recruit people to work for al-Qaeda. That was his job. 

NARRATOR: But Zarqawi starts operating far beyond what bin Laden had envisioned.

PETER BERGEN: One of the things that Zarqawi did is, he beheaded an American businessman named Nick Berg, and he put it on the Internet, and it was viewed like a million times. And it was really the beginning of these sickening executions of prisoners. And al-Qaeda actually, under bin Laden, had a very negative reaction to this. They thought it didn't live up to al-Qaida's “standards” - quote unquote. 

NARRATOR: Zarqawi also thinks that al-Qaeda should start attacking Shia Muslims. To propose the idea to bin Laden, he despatches a Pakistani courier by the name of Hassan Ghul. Ghul heads out of Iraq to deliver the message. But at the border, a female guard gets suspicious.

PETER BERGEN: Hassan Gul just stuck out. He's not from the local area. He's not an Iraqi. He's not Kurdish. He's not an Iranian who might be transiting. He just didn't look right. The border guards are like border guards everywhere. If somebody just doesn't seem right, they're going to pull them over. And that's what happened. 

NARRATOR: The Kurdish authorities arrest Ghul. Upon searching him they find the note addressed personally to Osama bin Laden. The Kurds turn Ghul over to the CIA who begin to interrogate him. One agency official present at those interrogations said Ghul “sang like a tweety bird”.

NARRATOR: PETER BERGEN: He told them that he was a bin Laden courier. 

NARRATOR: But then he lists another name. 

PETER BERGEN: He also told them that Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti was the key courier for bin Laden.

NARRATOR: The CIA have not heard the name before. And while interesting, soon they realize it may be a needle in a haystack.

PETER BERGEN: Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti is an alias and an obvious alias. It is ‘the father of Ahmed from Kuwait’. So that's not a particularly useful clue on some levels. It's a ‘John Smith’ type of name. It's pretty well known. But Hassan Ghul says Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti is important and implies that he's alive.

NARRATOR: Ghul is then transferred to a CIA ‘black site’, a detention center where prisoners were subjected to ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’. Techniques that included waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and coffin-style confinement. In another of the CIA’s black sites is Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, or KSM - the man who proposed the 9/11 plans to bin Laden and was one of his closest confidants. When interrogators ask KSM about al-Kuwaiti, he gives a strange answer.

PETER BERGEN: He said Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti had retired, which is an interesting thing because most people don't retire from al-Qaeda. 

NARRATOR: While this was interpreted as deflection by some within the CIA, it was still not clear how significant the name of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti might be. It was a neat piece of evidence to feed into the Agency’s new strategy however, a strategy born out of the dead end that was bin Laden’s trail.

PETER BERGEN: There's a realization in 2004, 2005, that there's no magic bullet, there's no detainee who's going to magically say, “I know where bin Laden is.” Even if he knew that, he wasn't going to give it up. Doesn’t matter how they interrogated him, whether they used waterboarding or not. But the detainees themselves, they simply didn't really know where he might be. 

NARRATOR: Instead of asking where he might be, the CIA began to think instead about who he might be with. They even examined old cases like the hunt for Pablo Escobar, who was eventually caught while meeting with his family. You can hear that story in True Spies Episode 8, narrated by Hayley Atwell. The CIA called it the “Four Pillars Strategy”. One asked if he was in contact with his family. He wasn’t. Another asked whether he was with other al-Qaeda leaders. Not that they could tell. But the last two seemed like something the CIA could work on.

PETER BERGEN: Bin Laden faced a dilemma, which is if he didn't communicate with anybody, he would be very safe. But if he stopped communicating with anybody, he wouldn't be able to run al Qaeda. And so he chose the latter.

NARRATOR: The final two pillars centered on his messages, both to the media and his followers. They had to get to them somehow. 

PETER BERGEN: And at the end it became really clear that the courier network was the way to try and get to bin Laden. They were the only people that it was obvious were ultimately in direct contact with him. 

NARRATOR: By now, the CIA realized that Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti was a key piece in the puzzle - if he was who Hassan Ghul really said he was.

PETER BERGEN: That begins the long Agatha Christie detective story that leads finally to bin Laden.

NARRATOR: At around the same time, bin Laden had moved again. This time to a large compound bought in one of his bodyguard’s names. It was in Abbottabad, Pakistan, only a mile from the national military academy. 

PETER BERGEN: It's in the foothills of the Himalayas. It's quite a pleasant place, so pleasant that civil servants and Pakistani military officers retire there.

NARRATOR: By this point, bin Laden had a lot of time on his hands.

PETER BERGEN: He spent a lot of time watching al-Jazeera. If a woman presenter came on screen, he would take his remote and put up the channel guide so it obscured her face so he wasn't watching any women broadcasters. He was reading a lot. 

NARRATOR: One of the authors he particularly enjoyed reading? Michael Scheuer, the man who ran the CIA unit that hunted bin Laden for many years.

PETER BERGEN: He was a Michael Scheuer fan. Scheuer wrote these big criticisms of American foreign policy in the Middle East. And bin Laden, in fact, at one point referred to Mike Scheuer in one of his public statements. 

NARRATOR: At the compound, bin Laden is also with two of his wives and the family is growing larger.

PETER BERGEN: During that time, interestingly, his youngest wife, Amal, had four kids in Pakistani hospitals. And because it would be strange for an Arab woman to be having children in obscure cities in Pakistan, when she went to the hospital they pretended she was deaf and dumb so that she didn't have to answer uncomfortable questions about why a woman from Yemen was having children in an obscure Pakistani city. 

NARRATOR: This followed a pattern - a pattern for tight operational security implemented by bin Laden and his bodyguards. At the compound, they burnt their trash so nobody could find any potentially revealing information. High walls encircled both the boundary and the third-floor balcony. There was no Internet. No phone. There were simple gas stoves to cook the rudimentary food grown largely in the garden outside. Bin Laden himself never left the compound for over five years and neither the CIA nor anyone else knew he was there.

PETER BERGEN: Mike Hayden, who was CIA director, would meet with Bush every week for a regularly scheduled meeting at 8 am in the morning and, every week, Bush would say to Hayden, “Mike, how's it going?” And Hayden understood, “How's it going?” referred to the hunt for bin Laden. It wasn't like, “How are you doing personally?”

NARRATOR: But bin Laden was still in regular contact with his followers, whiling away his days writing instructions and hatching plots.

PETER BERGEN: The boss was asking for things that weren’t that doable, which is carrying out a big anti-American attack. ‘Delusional’ may be too strong a word, but he certainly had… These were completely unrealistic [plans]. 

NARRATOR: Eventually, in 2007, the CIA gets a breakthrough.

PETER BERGEN: A government still unspecified, but I think it's the Pakistanis, gives them a real name for Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti which is Ibrahim Saeed. 

NARRATOR: The CIA makes finding Ibrahim Saeed as much of a priority as finding KSM once was - the man who ran operations on 9/11. As time progressed, so did the American’s technical capabilities. Back when Gina Bennett was first tracking bin Laden, she didn’t even have access to the Internet. Now the CIA was operating extensive drone surveillance across the Middle East, as Tracy Walder remembers.

TRACY WALDER: Warp speed would definitely be an understatement. But that innovation was because the funding was finally there.

NARRATOR: But the US government could now intercept satellite calls too.

PETER BERGEN: They had a voice cut of somebody in the Gulf who is associated with al-Qaeda and then al-Kuwaiti called this guy in the Gulf and they were listening to this guy in the Gulf.

NARRATOR: US intelligence follows the conversation. The man in the Gulf asks al-Kuwaiti what he is doing these days. After some hesitation, he replies: “Same thing as before. Go with God.”

PETER BERGEN: Suggesting that he's still part of al-Qaeda. He hasn't retired.

NARRATOR: Intelligence agents triangulate the caller to Peshawar, Pakistan, and put assets on the ground. Eventually, they geolocate the cell phone exactly.

PETER BERGEN: They find a white Suzuki van that this guy is using. It has a very distinctive spare wheel on the back which has got a rhinoceros on it. And they start tracking this vehicle.

NARRATOR: The vehicle winds out of Peshawar, driving over two hours east. Eventually it heads into Abbottabad, to a large compound. 

PETER BERGEN: A compound that is built like a fortress, which, by the way, is not unusual in that part of the world. People have high walls because they are keeping their women enclosed. But they don't usually enclose the walls around a third-floor bedroom in such a way that you can't see out of it. So the fact that this didn't have Internet service, the fact that these guys were burning trash, the fact that these guys were not connected to the phone service. All this seemed to look like a place where somebody was hiding. 

NARRATOR: The CIA examines satellite imagery of the compound. The courier and his brother are both living there with their families. But so are some other people.

PETER BERGEN: There seem to be up to 16 people who were not leaving the compound. There was this adult male, they thought, who was wearing a cowboy hat when he went out briefly for a walk so he couldn't be identified. 

NARRATOR: The CIA presents the intelligence to the White House, now headed by President Obama. His staff begin to notice regular meetings happening - meetings no one knows anything about.

PETER BERGEN: The counterterrorism adviser to the president was the guy organizing most of these meetings, and he put them down on the agenda as ’Mickey Mouse’ meetings, but people began to realize these Mickey Mouse meetings were pretty important because no one would talk about what was going on. The cameras that are in the Situation Room are turned off. And so, people knew something was brewing but they just had no idea. 

NARRATOR: By February 2011, Obama was discussing potential courses of action on the compound.

PETER BERGEN: President Obama realized, look, there was never going to get a better intelligence picture. They tried. It didn't get better.

NARRATOR: One proposal entailed dropping a bomb. Another included flying a small experimental drone above the man in the cowboy hat and taking him out. Eventually, Obama decided on a raid. Two Black Hawk helicopters would carry two dozen Navy Seals to the compound. They would eliminate bin Laden - if he was there - and bring his body back to a US base in Jalalabad, Afghanistan for identification. Two Chinook helicopters would be on standby in case anything went wrong. A date was set for May 1, 2011.

PETER BERGEN: Obama said, “It's a 50-50. Godspeed.” 

NARRATOR: The Black Hawks make their way to the compound - a 90-minute trip across the Afghan-Pakistan border. At around midnight local time, they approach the compound. As the first helicopter tries to land though, things start going drastically wrong.

PETER BERGEN: The guy who was piloting this helicopter realized that he was encountering a phenomenon called “settling with power”, which basically means that your helicopter is basically being forced down by your own rotor wash. And essentially you're going to take a very hard landing or you're going to crash.

NARRATOR: The pilot crash lands the helicopter in the middle of the compound. The second Black Hawk lands outside. The two teams file out and approach the building. Immediately there’s gunfire.

PETER BERGEN: Those guys went to the first small house where Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, the courier, was living with his wife. They shoot at him. He shoots back. They kill him. They wound his wife. They move on to the main house where bin Laden is living. They encounter the second bodyguard, who's the brother of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti and his wife. They shoot them both dead.

NARRATOR: The Seals blast through a steel door blocking the top floor of the house and climb the stairs. 

PETER BERGEN: And they see what looks like bin Laden poking his head out. The first Seal shoots him. He gets back into his bedroom. The three Seals come in. The lead Seal, whose name we still don't know, sees that bin Laden's youngest wife and oldest daughter are in the room. He's concerned that they might have suicide vests. He gathers them up in a bear hug and pushes them aside. And then the two Seals behind him come in and finish bin Laden off. 

NARRATOR: After 20 years as an outlaw, bin Laden went without a fight, not even picking up his AK framed on the wall. 

PETER BERGEN: He knew as soon as the first helicopter came in that it must be the Americans. He knew the game was up. He didn't put up any resistance. Didn't put up a heroic fight. 

NARRATOR: His final act so unlike those that defined his life. The Seals bag as many computers and files as they can, hauling it, and bin Laden’s body, back onto the remaining Black Hawk and replacement Chinook helicopter. Upon exiting the compound, they blow up the crashed Black Hawk.

PETER BERGEN: Already crowds are gathering, but when you blow up a helicopter, it's going to get even bigger. So they bought a Pashtun-speaking, Urdu-speaking Pakistani along. And as the crowds gathered, he said, “Look, this is a Pakistani military operation. Stand back. Go away.” And so he was able to push them back. But now you start having Pakistani police cars coming to the situation. The Pakistani military is starting to [say] like, ‘What the hell's going on here?’ Pakistan scrambles their F-16 jets.

NARRATOR: Just before being intercepted, the Seals are back in Afghanistan.

PETER BERGEN: It's the first time that a lot of the people on the flight hear “Welcome to Afghanistan” from the pilot and are actually very happy to be in Afghanistan. 

NARRATOR: Back at Jalalabad air base, bin Laden’s body is DNA tested.

​​PETER BERGEN: The test results come in. President Obama goes out at 11:25 pm Washington time, Sunday night and announces to the world that bin Laden is dead. 

PRESIDENT OBAMA: “Good evening. Tonight I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda.”

NARRATOR: The US offers the body to the Saudis. They decline. It is then flown to a US destroyer in the Arabian Sea and dropped in the ocean. Just like that, the world’s most infamous terrorist is condemned to the deep. No pictures are released.

PETER BERGEN: Obama's answer was actually pretty simple to this question of, “Well, bin Laden, was he really killed?” And President Obama said, “You will never hear from Osama bin Laden again.” And here we are, 11 years later, and we have not heard from him again.

NARRATOR: Just before the Pakistan government demolishes the compound several months later, they invite Peter to take a look around.

PETER BERGEN: They were living almost like medieval peasants. It was a very austere, grim place to visit. I could also see evidence of a very violent firefight. There was broken glass everywhere where they had the firefight with the first bodyguard. There was evidence of a very violent firefight where they killed the second bodyguard. I saw on the ceiling, where bin Laden was in the room where he was killed, a very large black spot on the ceiling, which I took to be congealed blood where somebody must have shot up, and some of the blood must have spurted up on the ceiling. 

NARRATOR: Peter then notices something else. 

PETER BERGEN: I found ‘Just For Men’ hair dye in his bedroom. He was dying his hair. You know, he's 54. He was prematurely white and he was dying his hair to look younger. 

NARRATOR: For Gina Bennett, the CIA analyst who tracked bin Laden for many years, the number one trait of terrorists is narcissim. Perhaps she’s right.

PETER BERGEN: He's one of the few people that I can think of that really changed history. 9/11 changed the United States and by extension, a good chunk of the Middle East. And we're still living with the reverberations with that, whether it's the civil unrest in Iraq that's going on now or the return of the Taliban in some ways in Afghanistan after the US decided to pull out. None of that was intended by bin Laden. But I think the influence of ‘bin Ladenism’, for lack of a better term, will always be there. 

NARRATOR: I’m Sophia Di Martino. Join us next week for Part 1 of another True Spies mini-series.

Guest Bio

Peter Bergen is a journalist, author, documentary producer and Vice President for Global Studies and Fellows at New America; a professor of practice at Arizona State University; a fellow at Fordham University’s Center on National Security and CNN’s national security analyst.

Gina Bennett, a former member of CIA’s Senior Analytic Service, is a counterterrorism specialist who authored the earliest warnings of some of today's terrorism trends, including the 1993 report that warned of the growing danger ofbin Laden

Tracy Walder worked as Staff Operations Officer (SOO) at the Central Intelligence Agency's Counterterrorism Center Weapons of Mass Destruction Group and as an FBI Special Agent.

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