A Decade on the LAM

By Dickey, Christopher; Yousafzai, Sami et al. | Newsweek, May 16, 2011 | Go to article overview

A Decade on the LAM


Dickey, Christopher, Yousafzai, Sami, Moreau, Ron, Newsweek


Byline: Christopher Dickey, Ron Moreau, and Sami Yousafzai

How much longer will Al Qaeda survive? Just look at all it took to hunt down its leader.

Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the most powerful man in Pakistan, gazed across the parade ground of his country's equivalent of West Point. Row upon row of graduating cadets stood at immaculate attention in their green berets and khaki uniforms, their boots covered by pristine white puttees. "The terrorists' backbone has been broken, and God willing, we will soon prevail," the Army chief told the future commanders.

The leaders of the ranks saluted, their drawn swords glistening in the sun. Osama bin Laden may have heard the parade--and maybe even the speech. He was holed up in a three-story villa within a high-walled compound just down the street.

Nine nights later, after midnight on May 2, people in the hill town of Abbottabad heard the muffled flutter of helicopter rotors and the blasts of combat as U.S. Navy SEALs dropped behind those high walls. In less than 40 minutes, bin Laden was dead.

When President Barack Obama announced the kill that night in Washington, America erupted in celebration. "The war on terror is over!" shouted Jake Diliberto, a former Marine and opponent of the ongoing U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, outside the White House. But the elation was almost certainly premature. "It's not over at all," says a senior American intelligence officer who has tracked bin Laden for almost two decades. Few fights have ever been more complex and frustrating than the global campaign to eradicate Al Qaeda. And nothing has made that clearer than the long hunt for bin Laden himself.

That hunt has come to an end, accompanied by a volley of relief and jubilation. Pungent questions remain, however, as does the need for intense national self-criticism: what took us so long? Were we simply unlucky, or were we often ham-handed and overcautious?

After all, U.S. officials became aware of his potential for trouble in the early 1990s. He had been active in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, but after the Russians pulled out in 1989, he went looking for new targets. He moved to Sudan and began funding terrorist movements all over the Arab world. Washington pressured Sudanese leader Omar Bashir's regime until bin Laden was expelled in 1996. "We wanted him out of Sudan," says the senior officer, who dealt with the case and whose current position does not allow him to speak on the record. "The question was where would he go, and who would take him."

Bin Laden ended up back in Afghanistan, where he quickly allied himself with Mullah Mohammed Omar, whose Taliban fighters were in the process of gaining control over the war-torn country. "We should have left him in Sudan," says the officer. "Bashir you could work with. Mullah Omar you couldn't." Now bin Laden had a new sanctuary--and big plans for how to use it. He issued what he called a "declaration of war" against the West, and when few people took notice, he issued what he called a fatwa--a religious edict--approving the killing of "crusaders," meaning Americans and Jews, anywhere in the world. He joined forces with an Egyptian terrorist leader named Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Al Qaeda as we have come to know it was born.

The CIA saw what was happening, but it was painfully short on money and personnel. The agency had suffered one scandal after another. It had been penetrated by Russian agents. Powerful voices on Capitol Hill questioned whether there was still a need for the agency at all. Case officers who manage human sources of intelligence are vital when tracking someone like bin Laden, but in 1996 only six case officers were in training for assignments anywhere in the world. So the agency tried something new--it set up a special CIA station based in Virginia, focusing on just one man: Osama bin Laden. The hunt began in earnest.

Then simultaneous suicide bombings hit American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998, killing more than 200 people and injuring thousands. …

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