The mission to kill Usama Bin Laden concluded 10 years ago today when a team of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) special operators and aviators from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment raided a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. It ended a nearly 10-year hunt for the terrorist that had begun after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Here’s a look back at the words that defined the hunt for and killing of Usama Bin Laden.
“It kept getting worse.
“The horror arrived in episodic bursts of chilling disbelief, signified first by trembling floors, sharp eruptions, cracked windows. There was the actual unfathomable realization of a gaping, flaming hole in first one of the tall towers, and then the same thing all over again in its twin. There was the merciless sight of bodies helplessly tumbling out, some of them in flames.
“Finally, the mighty towers themselves were reduced to nothing… For those trying to flee the very epicenter of the collapsing World Trade Center towers, the most horrid thought of all finally dawned on them: nowhere was safe.”
- N. R. Kleinfield, The New York Times, Sept. 12, 2001.
“I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”
- President George W. Bush, Ground Zero, Sept. 14, 2001.
“Start with thousands of small bits of information. Names, lots and lots of names. Sightings. Rumors. Interrogation transcripts. Phone numbers. Phone calls. Dates. Addresses. Geographic coordinates. Aerial photographs. Ground surveillance photos. Videos. Faces. Iris images. Gaits. Maps. Fingerprints. Old diaries. Emails. Websites. Social media. Text messages. Tweets. Old fashioned letters. Blogs. News reports. Broadcasts. Bills. Payment schedules. Traffic tickets. Rent payments. Credit card numbers. Charges. Bank account numbers. Deposits. Withdrawals. Transfers. License numbers. Passport numbers. Police reports. Arrests. Travel itineraries. Everything and anything that can be transformed into data when you are looking for one person in a world of seven billion …
“Viewed backward, from Bin Laden’s hideout to the scraps of intel that led to it, the trail seemed obvious. Tracing it from end to beginning, obscures the level of difficulty: the years of frustration and patient effort, the technological innovation, the lives lost, the mistakes made, the money spent.”
- Mark Bowden, The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden.
“He sang like a tweetie bird … It was well known that [Usama Bin Laden] was always with Abu Ahmed [al-Kuwaiti].”
- CIA interrogator, on Hassan Ghul, an al Qaeda operative captured in 2004. Ghul identified Bin Laden’s primary courier, who the CIA eventually traced to Bin Laden’s compound.
“Mr. President, Leon and the guys at Langley think they may have come up with something.”
- Tom Donilon, then-deputy national security advisor, Summer of 2010. “Leon” is Leon Panetta, then-head of the CIA.
“Look, it’s a compound. This is not hard. It’s a little bit bigger than we’re used to, but we were doing about 10 to 12 missions a night in Afghanistan at the time … Once we got on target, the guys could do their job.”
- Admiral William McRaven, commander, Joint Special Operations Command.
After months of planning, classified variants of MH-60 Black Hawks from the 160th SOAR were tasked with delivering the raiding team to the home in Abbottabad, while MH-47 Chinooks would be held back as backup aircraft and to refuel the Black Hawks at a remote location.
- A 160th Black Hawk pilot, playfully taunting 160th flight commander and Chinook pilot Doug Englen.
May 1, 2011
10 years ago. Right now. 23 dudes flew to a house and fucked shit up.
— Robert J. O'Neill (@mchooyah) May 2, 2021
In Washington, only President Barack Obama and a few national security aides knew of the impending raid. As a result, as the historic mission neared, most people in the White House were focused on a trivial and irritating event held the same night: the president’s joke-filled speech at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner. According to an oral history published by Politico, a joke that staffers presented to Obama was meant to make light of the tendency of some Republicans to mock Obama’s middle name, Hussein, by inventing middle names for well-known Republicans.
“One of them was like ‘Tim Bin Laden Pawlenty.’ And [Obama is] like, ‘Why don’t we say his middle name is Hosni, like Hosni Mubarak?’ I remember just being like, ‘That’s not as funny.’ And Obama is like, ‘Trust me on this. I really think Hosni will be much funnier.’”
Meanwhile, in Abbottabad, IT engineer Sohaib Athar was hearing strange noises around 1 a.m.
Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event).
— Sohaib Athar (@ReallyVirtual) May 1, 2011
A huge window shaking bang here in Abbottabad Cantt. I hope its not the start of something nasty :-S
— Sohaib Athar (@ReallyVirtual) May 1, 2011
As the helicopters approached the compound, a combination of hot weather and fuel weight caused one of the helicopters — flown by the same pilot who had teased Englen, according to Military Times — to crash, a scene broadcast both to commanders in Afghanistan and to the White House by drones overhead.
“I could feel my butt coming off the floor and for a second I could feel a panic rising in my chest. I could feel [a fellow SEAL’s] grip tighten on my body armor as the helicopter started to drop. I leaned back as far as I could.
“‘Holy fuck, we’re going in,’ I thought.”
- Matt Bissonnette, Navy SEAL, No Easy Day.
“Mr. Director, as you can see, we have a helicopter down in the courtyard. My men are prepared for this contingency and will deal with it.”
- McRaven, The Finish, to Panetta, who was briefing the president in real time as they watched the video feed.
“I’m glad no one was hurt in the crash, but, on the other hand, I’m sort of glad we left the helicopter there. It quiets the conspiracy mongers out there and instantly lends credibility. You believe everything else instantly, because there’s a helicopter sitting there.”
“Khalid, come here.”
- Unidentified SEAL, in Pashtu and Arabic, to Bin Laden’s 23-year-old son, to lure him out of hiding. When Khalid emerged, the SEALs shot him. O’Neill, who recounted the moment in his book, said, “That call-out was one of the best combat moves I’ve ever seen.”
“For God and country — Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo.”
- A SEAL, reporting via radio the code word to indicate that the team had found Bin Laden.
During the return flight, a Pakistani F-16 tried three separate times to lock its missile-firing radar onto the fleeing American Chinook that carried Bin Laden’s body and many of the SEAL Team 6 raiders.
“It was as an electronic fight. A missile never left the rail. So I was able to evade him electronically. That’s all I’ll say. But, he was searching and hunting for me, and three times came very close to actually launching a missile … We pulled every technique and tactic out of the book. And it worked.”
- Doug Englen, the flight commander of the 160th helicopters on the raid, as told to Military Times.
Word spread quickly. The first source to announce the killing, nearly an hour before Obama addressed the nation, may have been The Rock.
Just got word that will shock the world – Land of the free…home of the brave DAMN PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN!
— Dwayne Johnson (@TheRock) May 2, 2011
Fans react to the news that Osama Bin Laden was killed during the Mets-Phillies game nine years ago today on May 1, 2011. 🇺🇸⚾️
— Baseball Quotes (@BaseballQuotes1) May 1, 2020
That time John Cena announced the death of Osama Bin Laden after Extreme Rules 2011 pic.twitter.com/q8iApW7qYB
— 𝙒𝙧𝙚𝙨𝙩𝙡𝙚𝙡𝙖𝙢𝙞𝙖 (@wrestlelamia) April 25, 2021
“Good evening. Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Usama Bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda, and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.”
- President Obama, 11:35 p.m., May 1, 2011.