11 June 2011

"When y'all gonna catch Bin Laden?": An SF Operator Looks Back


A former Special Forces operator looks back at the hunt for the world’s top terrorist.

By: Godfrey Garner                                                            

06/06/2011 ( 2:26am) 

The terrorist chieftain who was killed on May 1 may have been Osama Bin Laden to most of the world but for those of us who were in the intelligence community and pursued him for years in Afghanistan and elsewhere, he will always be UBL, Usama Bin Laden, his first official moniker in the US government lexicon.

His first criminal indictment as a co-conspirator in the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 was issued almost five years after his initial formation of Al Qaeda, (The Base). His subsequent orchestrated horrors including Somalia, in which Arab fighters, following his orders, participated in ambushing and killing 18 US servicemen. With that, UBL exploded on the world’s consciousness.

Each incident propelled him from the periphery closer to the center of concern as an international terrorist. And then, on the morning of September 11th, 2001, he became the most hated, most feared, most wanted and most hunted fugitive in American history.

The following years saw wave upon wave of US and NATO soldiers flow in and out of Afghanistan. Their stated mission was to defeat and eradicate Al Qaeda and Taliban forces. Their unstated mission was to capture or kill UBL.

I was part of 20th Special Forces Group, 2nd Battalion and I joined the hunt in 2003.

High Value Pursuit

Special Forces soldiers deployed for eight to ten months at a time. Working from a series of hastily developed firebases and safe houses around the country, they hit the field daily, conducting missions and gathering intelligence that would hopefully lead them to any one of dozens of High Value Targets, the Holy Grail of which was, of course, UBL.

At the conclusion of their deployment, they left the theater, often reluctantly due to the fact that they hadn’t actually captured or killed the man who triggered Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). Their collected intelligence having been detailed meticulously and passed to their replacements, they returned stateside and began planning their next deployment in support of OEF.

My unit was called for the first of three deployments in 2003. Being one of the only two National Guard Special Forces Groups, we were constantly reminded that we had to prove ourselves. The fact that most of our soldiers were seasoned active duty Special Forces soldiers was lost somewhere in the “National Guard” moniker.

Operating out of support base Karshi-Khanabad, (K2) in southern Uzbekistan, my first team assignment was northern Afghanistan, the city of Mazer-e Shariff. My job with the team was analyzing, interpreting and reporting on gathered intelligence.

In 2003 Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives routed from the country fled to the rugged mountains of Pakistan. They would regroup and return but at this time our greatest challenge was keeping the heavily armed Northern Alliance groups from killing each other.

From there I was transferred to a team in Kandahar, the ancestral home of the Taliban and stronghold of Supreme Taliban Commander, Mullah Mohammad Omar. Firebase Ghecko, the team firebase and home to several other intelligence assets, was coincidently hollowed out of the remains of Omar’s family compound following its bombing by NATO forces and his flight to Pakistan. The primary effort of our teams in this area centered on gathering and analyzing intelligence and responding to sporadic outbreaks of Taliban activity.

Bin Laden had at one time been sheltered by Omar at Ghecko, though their relationship was tenuous. It was rumored that Bin Laden had married Omar’s eldest daughter, a move undoubtedly calculated to strengthen the bond between the two leaders. UBL had additionally financed construction of an elaborate cave complex for the protection of Omar and his family in case of attack. The facility was never completed.

A special quarry

Though the immediate mission or target throughout this phase of OEF might have been keeping peace among members of the Northern Alliance or thwarting Taliban efforts to regroup, capturing or killing the elusive UBL was paramount for every Special Forces soldier in theater.

Every interrogation, every source interview, no matter its subject or focus, always included extensive, detailed interrogatories designed to bring us one step closer to UBL.  The United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had gone so far as to develop detailed plans and scenarios as to the handling of a captured Usama, fully expecting this to come to fruition any day.

In Afghanistan, which was so rife with incongruities and attitudes totally foreign to American logic, the most difficult thing for an American to grasp was the fact that the United States was offering a reward of millions of dollars for information leading to UBL’s capture—and it was as if no one in Afghanistan had ever heard of him.

Our frustration was compounded by the fact that locals routinely informed on their neighbors who might be hiding weapons, though the reward for this was a comparative pittance. It was as though Bin Laden had some near-mystical hold on everyone. The mere mention of his name during questioning of a local was enough to turn a semi-productive process into a total void of communication.

Occasionally, American analysts, spies and soldiers would try to mitigate their frustration by voicing the assumption that UBL was dead. I recall getting some momentary relief as a result of these comments. “Yeah,” I’d think. “Maybe UBL is dead.” And then the next irrefutable Bin Laden video tape would emerge.

During infrequent trips home Special Forces soldiers were constantly harangued by friends and associates with the inevitable question, “When y’all gonna catch Bin Laden?” Though no one I know ever voiced it, the question seared all our minds too: “When are we gonna catch Bin Laden?”

Biting through the pencil

To say that UBL was elusive is a vast understatement. His constantly escaping capture may have at times been the result of sheer luck or more unfortunately, US military and political incompetence, but most often he depended on a vast network of loyal followers and two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Both consisted of unbelievably harsh, unforgiving mountainous terrain.

In early December 2001 during an intense battle in the mountains of Tora Bora, Bin Laden is thought to have escaped by mule through tribal routes in the White Mountains near the Kyber Pass. Fighting to hold on to their last bastion of defense, Taliban forces in this instance were said to have provided cover for Bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders to escape. Their flight from impending capture by NATO Special Forces was further aided by a tediously negotiated truce between some of the Al Qaeda forces and a local militia commander. The process bought the escaping Bin Laden and several other Al Qaeda leaders valuable time.

Bin Laden’s voice was heard over VHF radio for the last time in the area on Dec. 14, 2001. His adamant refusal in the years that followed to use satellite or cell communication as well as his avoidance of Internet communications of any kind caused no end of frustration to a US force heavily reliant on SIGINT, or signal intelligence.

More than 200 Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters gave their lives in the battle of Tora Bora, many doing so willingly in order to assist in Bin Laden’s successful escape. The loyalty of those closest to him as demonstrated in this battle provided a clue as to why the offer of millions of dollars in cash couldn’t shake the slightest HUMINT, or human intelligence, from the trees.

Throughout the ensuing years in Afghanistan various attempts were made to find and or kill Bin Laden. American forces grew increasingly frustrated by the failure of the one thing we were genetically wired to see as infallible; large quantities of cash.

In fairness, however, we had been encouraged at the onset of the war in Afghanistan by the eagerness of local warlords to switch sides for some of that cold hard cash. CIA operatives routinely carried millions of dollars in US currency, which they used to buy loyalty. Our lack of success in enticing Bin Laden supporters to surrender him caused more than one US ground commander to bite clean through his pencil.

Storm and stress

In this, the most dangerous environment in the world for US soldiers, tension—bone-chilling, teeth-clenching tension—comes not from the fear of imminent death but from the pressure exerted upon you by that individual most directly above you in the food chain. Soldiers of all ranks are routinely directed from above to do that which in all cases is difficult and in most cases borders on the impossible.

The path of this pressure follows a downward trajectory and gathers speed and momentum as it flows. It begins in various places, deep in the bowels of Washington DC and continues until it lands squarely on the shoulders of your boss. It is heavy, smelly, and uncomfortable and always produces incredible stress. Such was the case in the hunt for UBL.

Often a Special Forces ground commander would present progress in a briefing to his higher command, only to have the good news followed with the question: “What progress have you made in locating UBL?”

Military commanders as a rule understood the difficulty but the pressure they felt bearing down heavily on their shoulders came more likely than not from someone in Washington who was very powerful and totally clueless.

At death’s door?

The day-to-day ordeal of fighting a war such as this continued then—and continues today. The many less elusive objectives of this mission are pursued by NATO soldiers from more than 25 nations around the world. On any given day, member nation servicemen and women are building, repairing, teaching, training and advising. At the time, most gave little thought to UBL or his whereabouts.

Rumors, some even in the form of information from quasi-dependable intelligence sources over the years indicated that UBL’s health was deteriorating. Intelligence reports from various sources went so far as to assure that he had succumbed to kidney failure. In the final months of the Bush administration a leaked CIA report fueled by information as to the type of medication UBL was taking indicated that he had less than a year to live.

Such reports were received by ground commanders with a mixture of relief and further frustration. Though his demise was exactly what the United States sought, the idea that he would pass peacefully wasn’t what they had in mind.

Any relief they felt from his alleged medical maladies, however, was short-lived. UBL, like the veritable “bad penny” just kept popping up in ostensibly authentic video tapes urging his followers to wreak havoc on the civilized world.

The first of these tapes was discovered on Sept. 16, 2001 in which Bin Laden denied responsibility for 9/11. In all, 36 such tapes were released, the most recent, on Jan. 21, a warning to Paris of retribution for French foreign policies.

Patience and persistence

Many outside the OEF theater of operations lost sight of the importance of capturing or killing UBL. However, such was never the case for those of us pursuing this war. Though often frustrated and stymied, one of the prime attributes of our fighting men and women is patience and perseverance. Such strengths have often been attributed to Afghan fighters and cited as the reason they have never been defeated but in this particular case America and its allies demonstrated that they will never give up either in their quest for mission success.

With the death of UBL at the hands of American Special Operations forces, America has again demonstrated its ability to adapt to difficult situations in war. Such surgical raids by Special Operations forces are the perfect answer to the insidious war of terror launched by those who lack the ingenuity and planning ability to fight conventionally.

Our quest to bring Bin Laden and those like him to justice has been and remains a noble one. We, along with our allies have gone further than any other country at any other time in history to assure that we pursue a just conflict in a just manner and though our efforts in this at times hampered our mission, we have, through perseverance and patience in this instance, accomplished the objective.

My last involvement with OEF ended in May of 2010. I retired from 20th Group in 2007 but continued to contribute to this effort as a civilian.

As I watched the news of Bin Laden’s much deserved demise unfold, I couldn’t help but wish, just as any retired Special Forces soldier would, that I was a kid again and had had an opportunity to take part in the operation in some capacity. I realized immediately, though, that this operation involved folks way above any pay grade I ever reached.

The era of the conventional war is believed to be over and many feared that we would be ill-equipped to fight in any other way. The successful mission against Bin Laden, however, refutes that and in the strongest possible terms. There should be no doubt in the mind of anyone that we can and will adapt to any threat with which we may be faced.

Rest assured, the hunt is now on for Mullah Omar, Anwar Al Awlaki, the Haqqanis and any of the remaining Al Qaeda threats to America and its allies. Though someone will undoubtedly step up to fill the shoes of Usama Bin laden, no one can deny that the United States of America, with a little help from our friends, has once again demonstrated its willingness and its ability to defend itself and its allies against all enemies.

Godfrey Garner, PhD, is a retired Special Forces officer. His previous article for Homeland Security Today was “Super Sleuth,” in the May 2010 issue.

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