Killing bin Laden: How the U.S. Finally Got Its Man

http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2069455,00.html

A jubilant crowd of mostly college students celebrated in front of the White House the night bin Laden’s death was announced by the President

Killing bin Laden: How the U.S. Finally Got Its Man

By David Von Drehle Wednesday, May 04, 2011

The four helicopters chuffed urgently through the Khyber Pass, racing over the lights of Peshawar and down toward the quiet city of Abbottabad and the prosperous neighborhood of Bilal Town. In the dark houses below slept doctors, lawyers, retired military officers — and perhaps Osama bin Laden, the world’s most wanted fugitive.

Half a world away, it was Sunday afternoon in the crowded White House Situation Room. President Barack Obama was stone-faced as he followed the unfolding drama on silent video screens — a drama he alone had the power to start but now was powerless to control.

At a meeting three days earlier, Obama had heard his options summarized. He could continue to watch the strange compound using spies and satellites in hopes that the prey would reveal himself. He could knock out the building from a safe distance using B-2 bombers and their precision-guided payloads. Or he could unleash the special force of Seals known as Team 6.

How strong was the intelligence? he asked. A 50% to 80% chance, he was told. What could go wrong? Plenty: a hostage situation, a diplomatic crisis — a dozen varieties of the sort of botch that ruins a presidency. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter authorized a daring helicopter raid on Tehran to free American hostages. The ensuing debacle helped bury his re-election hopes.

To wait was to risk a leak, now that more than a hundred people had been briefed on the possible raid. To bomb might mean that the U.S. would never know for sure whether the mission was a success. As for an assault by special forces, U.S. relations with the Pakistani government were tricky enough without staging a raid on sovereign territory.

Sunday morning, the bet was placed: American choppers invaded the airspace of a foreign country without warning, to attack a walled compound housing unknown occupants.

As Obama followed the operation from the Situation Room, chaos addled the satellite feeds . A hole was blown through the side of the house, gunfire erupted. Seals worked their way through the smaller buildings inside the compound. Others swarmed upward in the main building, floor by floor, until they came to the room where they hoped to find their cornered target. Then they were inside the room for a final burst of gunfire.

Osama bin Laden, elusive emir of the al-Qaeda terrorist network, the man who said yes to the 9/11 attacks, the taunting voice and daunting catalyst of thousands of political murders on four continents, was dead. The U.S. had finally found the long-sought needle in a huge and dangerous haystack. Through 15 of the most divisive years of modern American politics, the hunt for bin Laden was one of the few steadily shared endeavors. President Bill Clinton sent a shower of Tomahawk missiles down on bin Laden’s suspected hiding place in 1998 after al-Qaeda bombed two U.S. embassies in Africa. President George W. Bush dispatched troops to Afghanistan in 2001 after al-Qaeda destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon. Each time, bin Laden escaped, evaporating into the lawless Afghan borderlands where no spy, drone or satellite could find him. Meanwhile, the slender Saudi changed our lives in ways large and small, touched off a moral reckoning over the use of torture and introduced us to the 3-oz. (90 ml) toothpaste tube.

“Dead or alive," Bush declared in 2001, when the smell of smoke was still acrid, and the cowboy rhetoric struck a chord. It took a long time to make good on that vow — an interval in which the very idea of American power and effectiveness took a beating. Thus, to find this one man on a planet of close to 7 billion, to roar out of the night and strike with the coiled wrath of an unforgetting people, was grimly satisfying. The thousands of Americans across the country whose impulse was to celebrate — banging drums outside the White House, waving flags at Ground Zero — were moved perhaps by more than unrefined delight at the villain’s comeuppance. It was a relief to find that America can still fix a bull’s-eye on a difficult goal, stick with it year after frustrating year and succeed when almost no one expects it.

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