Killing the Killers: The Secret War Against Terrorists
The man with thirty minutes to live sleeps in his beige pajamas.
Meanwhile, two US Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters fly low over Pakistani airspace. The moon is a waning crescent. HAC—the helicopter aircraft commander—is up front in the left seat, his copilot to the right. “Chalk One,” as the lead bird is known, carries a dozen Navy SEALs on the hard metal floor in the cabin space behind the cockpit. Chalk Two ferries ten SEALs, a Pakistani American CIA translator, and a six-year-old Belgian Malinois dog named Cairo. Like the soldiers, Cairo wears Kevlar body armor and specially fitted night vision goggles.
The fuselage of each bird is painted black. Special metallurgy and heat-suppressing exhaust systems minimize the 60’s radar profile. Noise-reducing technology affixed to the tips of the rotors dampens sound. The pilots enhance their aircraft’s invisibility by using a flying technique known as “nap of the earth,” hugging landscape contours as low to the ground as possible. The fully laden machines travel at a deliberate seventy-five miles per hour.
Death is coming in the darkness.
Each member of this special team of SEAL (Sea, Air, Land) commandos remains almost motionless on the floor. The 60s are equipped with crew seats, but it is a matter of pride that SEALs are too tough for such luxury. Many are asleep despite this dangerous mission. Their uniform consists of Crye Precision desert digital camouflage combat pants with a matching pullover shirt designed to be worn under body armor. Pockets along each pant leg contain gear vital to the mission: leather gloves, medical kit, energy bars, extra ammunition.
In case the mission goes wrong, every SEAL carries a few hundred dollars in American currency to buy local assistance and find a way out of Pakistan.
The fighters are navy, but the pilots are army. This is by design. The 60 is flown by both branches of the service, but it is widely acknowledged that army pilots are best in “infil” and “exfil”—infiltration and exfiltration, the dangerous business of landing a helicopter in a battle zone and successfully departing when the mission is over.
Tonight, infil and exfil are life and death.
Both Black Hawks took off sixty minutes ago from a secure airfield in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. In support, two larger CH-47 Chinook helicopters flew out fifteen minutes later, loaded with spare fuel for the return journey. The two “Bathtubs,” as the Chinooks are nicknamed for their elongated shape, will land at a secret base in Afghanistan close to the Pakistani border, there to await further orders.
The SEALs are headed toward a private compound near the town of Abbottabad, just under two hundred miles away. Locals call it the Waziristan Palace for its enormous size.* Located on Kakul Road, in a middle-class section of Abbottabad known as Bilal Town, the acre-sized facility is surrounded by thick walls ranging in height from ten to eighteen feet tall. Solid steel gates cover each entrance. Several structures and a large open courtyard for raising animals and growing vegetables fill the space inside.
The plan is for Chalk One to hover low over the courtyard. SEALs on board will invade the compound by sliding down a system of thick ropes attached to a strong point inside the helicopter, known as the FRIES—fast rope insertion/extraction system. “Fast-roping” greatly resembles a fire pole descent—thus the leather gloves each man carries. Once on the ground, they will spread out and begin their search for tonight’s target.
Meanwhile, Chalk Two will land just outside the compound walls. Cairo the dog, his SEAL handler, Will Chesney, the CIA interpreter, and a small sniper team will disembark to provide perimeter security. They will seek out any approaching force or anyone trying to escape. One squad of SEALs will remain on board Chalk Two at this time, then be flown into the compound, where they will fast-rope onto the flat rooftop of the three-story main house.
Unloaded, both helicopters will then fly to a designated location to await the order to return and pick up the combatants. Total time on the ground will be no more than forty minutes.
There are several buildings to infiltrate, but the main house is of greatest interest. It is thought that “the Pacer,” as the tall figure whom satellite cameras so often photograph strolling the grounds is called, lives in this structure. The SEALs will enter the residence seeking this man. If he chooses to come along peacefully, he will be bound and escorted into a helicopter for a flight to captivity.
Should the homeowner prefer to fight, he will be shot dead. The weapon of choice for these SEALs varies by man, whether it be the Heckler & Koch HK416 assault rifle, FN Mark 48 machine gun, or the H&K MP7 machine pistol that fires an armor-piercing cartridge. In addition, each man wears a holstered pistol. And no SEAL is ever comfortable unless he is carrying a very long and very sharp fixed-blade knife.
The target on this warm, humid night is the notorious killer Osama bin Laden, the fifty-four-year-old terrorist mastermind of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, DC. Formally named Osama bin Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden, he is six foot five, with a long black-and-gray beard. Saudi Arabian by birth, the terrorist was born the son of a billionaire who died in a plane crash when Osama was just ten.* Bin Laden is known to be frugal and soft-spoken but a strict father to the estimated twenty-six children he has fathered with his many wives.
The terrorist is the most wanted man in the world. People everywhere know his face; there is nowhere he can go without being recognized. Raised in a world of privilege, he is driven by a deep hatred for America. Bin Laden has turned his back on the peaceful tenets of the Muslim religion, preferring to live a life dedicated to killing US citizens. This has come at a cost: he spends his life on the run, taking extreme precautions to avoid being apprehended. But even from this remote hideaway, bin Laden controls a vast terror network. Extremists rally to his cause, and his message of hate does not fall on deaf ears in the world of the jihadi.
Most of all, bin Laden is a murderer. In addition to the almost three thousand innocent people killed on 9/11, he has used his considerable wealth to lead the terrorist organization al-Qaeda—“the Foundation”—in numerous deadly attacks around the world since 1998. In August 1996, bin Laden declared a holy war, a jihad, against America, operating from a hidden refuge in Afghanistan. For the past ten years, the most well-equipped intelligence agencies on the planet have hunted bin Laden, but he has been elusive. There have been numerous alleged sightings of the man, all of which have led nowhere.
Tonight will be different.
The CIA has confirmed that Osama bin Laden, his children, and his many wives have occupied the Abbottabad compound since 2005. Interrogation of al-Qaeda detainees at the US-run Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba revealed the name of a bin Laden courier known as Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, real name Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed. In 2007, officials learned that this messenger was living in Abbottabad under an alias; careful tracking of Ahmed’s movements led the CIA to believe he might be sheltering bin Laden. US intelligence officials sought to confirm this hunch by obtaining a blood sample from one of the many children whom satellite photos showed to be living in the compound. These same images revealed the first intriguing images of the Pacer.
Pakistani doctor Shakil Afridi, considered the top physician in the nearby Khyber tribal regions, was recruited by the CIA to set up a vaccine clinic in Abbottabad. He had previously worked on several US-funded vaccination programs in Pakistan and willingly agreed. Afridi was not told the name of the target. Unbeknownst to the doctor, any blood samples that could be acquired would be compared with DNA known to belong to bin Laden to confirm a match. The operation was successful.*
After the verification of bin Laden’s location, the American military and the CIA developed “Operation Neptune Spear.”† Several different tactics were discussed, including a stealth bomber dropping munitions on the compound or a drone-fired missile. But none of those actions would confirm the truth about whether Osama bin Laden was alive or dead. So the decision was made to send in SEAL teams to do the work.
But the strategy is a high-risk gamble. The SEALs have all volunteered to travel into Pakistan without permission from its government, knowing full well that a Pakistani military headquarters is just two miles from the compound. Should they be captured alive, each SEAL is guaranteed hours of the most heinous torture before being executed, most likely by beheading, in a dank jail cell. Thus, the TOT—time on target—must be as short as possible.
There are so many things that can go wrong. The twin-engine UH-60 carries 1,200 pounds of fuel in each of its two tanks. That’s enough gas for ninety minutes of flying. Add in another 1,200-pound auxiliary tank, heavy stealth technology, and the combined weight of the men, and these aircraft are at the very end of their technical flying ability. Simply put: they might not have enough gas to get home. And “getting home” in this case means flying back into Afghanistan over the rugged Hindu Kush, some of the most difficult terrain on earth.
But for pilots and SEALs alike, many years of training have been preparation for a scenario just like this: neutralizing a sworn enemy, one who has killed not just in America but all over the globe for two decades.
Osama bin Laden is the most important target in the world.
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|Epub||May 8, 2022|
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