The Point: 'The point of the spear'

The Joint Special Operations raid that killed Osama bin Laden was just the climax of an effort that had begun years earlier and engaged thousands of people.

Posted: November 05, 2012

Mark Bowden

is the author of "The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden," from which the following is excerpted

The raid that killed Osama bin Laden on May 1, 2011, was the brief, climactic end of a story that had begun almost 10 years before, with the attacks of Sept. 11. It had taken that long to put the al-Qaeda founder in America's crosshairs. Even so, as President Obama instructed CIA Director Leon Panetta and Joint Special Operations Commander Bill McRaven to launch the raid on the curious compound in Abbottabad, he was only half sure bin Laden was there - "This is 50-50," he told his advisers.

With a final order from Panetta - "Go in there and get bin Laden; and if he isn't in there, get the hell out!" - McRaven launched the raid.

The two Stealth Black Hawks lifted off from the airfield at Jalalabad precisely at 11 p.m. local time. They were blacked out and each carried a full, minutely calculated load. Each of the SEALs was in full kit: desert camouflage, helmet, night-vision goggles, gloves (for fast roping), and hard knee pads (better for dropping to a knee for shooting). Each carried a booklet with photos of the people they expected to find in the compound. They were armed with various pistols and short-barreled automatic rifles outfitted with silencers. They carried only light arms because the compound was not heavily defended. While they might encounter armed men once on the ground, there would not be many. Attacking loud and fast in darkness, with finely choreographed moves, able to operate in the night as if it were day, the SEALs would have an overwhelming advantage.

About 10 minutes into the flight the choppers rose above a series of rugged peaks and crossed into Pakistan. As soon as they did, the three big Chinooks lifted off from Jalalabad. One would set down just inside the border on the Afghan side. The other two would proceed to the staging area north of Abbottabad by a different route. The Black Hawks eased down into the wide Mardan Valley, flying well north of Peshawar, moving fast and hugging the terrain.

The special operators of JSOC like to see themselves as "the point of the spear," and these two helicopters racing east in darkness were unquestionably that. Here was the final thrust of an enormous effort that stretched back over 91/2 years - further if you considered the whole modern history of special ops.

The post-9/11 effort to find Osama bin Laden and his small band of zealous killers had engaged two presidential administrations and many thousands of people in America's military and intelligence communities: the analysts working in shifts, the CIA officers rebuilding human spy networks, and the combined satellite and aerial and electronic surveillance efforts of an alphabetical jumble of agencies and branches, developing drones and secure live telecommunications links, creating computer software, and honing strategy and tactics.

If a nation must learn how to fight each war anew, borrowing from its existing arsenal, adapting, and innovating to meet the threat, then the SEALs on these Black Hawks were, in effect, America's response to the challenge of 9/11, closing in at last on the war's ultimate target.

McRaven sat in a large rectangular windowless room with plywood walls, surrounded by manned computer stations and looking up at a wall of video monitors. One monitor would show video of the raid itself - from a high-flying RQ170 Sentinel drone - but there was nothing to watch there yet. Another had a graphic display showing the location of the choppers.

There was some tension as the two smaller choppers crossed into Pakistan, followed about 15 minutes later by the two Chinooks, but none of them tripped alarms at the country's air defenses. With the full array of national security assets at his disposal, McRaven was able to monitor exactly what the Pakistanis were doing ... and as the minutes went by it became clear that they were doing nothing.

The task force had entered Pakistani airspace before, on covert missions into the tribal areas, so they had been confident they could slip in unnoticed, but it was nevertheless a relief when it had been done. The admiral had precalculated a point where, even if the Pakistanis woke up, the mission would proceed. Soon enough they had passed even that point. Now, as the blacked-out choppers moved toward Abbottabad, there was nothing to do for about an hour but wait.

At that point, McRaven knew he would have decisions to make only if something went wrong.

Up on the big screen in the White House Situation Room, Panetta read out occasional updates on the choppers' progress. One of Obama's aides said, "Mr. President, this is going to take a while; you might not want to sit here and watch the whole thing unfold."

"No, I think I'm going to go ahead and watch," said Obama. In Chicago 91/2 years earlier, he had watched 9/11 unfold in a crowded basement room; now he would watch the final act of that drama from another.

[Vice President] Biden was typically restless, moving in and out of the room, and when he noticed that the live feed of McRaven and the Sentinel were up in the side room, he went in and sat down to watch there. [Marshall] Webb [JSOC's assistant commanding general] was hunched over his laptop at the head of the table.

In Jalalabad, McRaven's sergeant major was sitting alongside the admiral, communicating on a chat line with Webb and others in the command loop. He looked up.

"Hey, sir," he said. "General says the vice president just walked in."

Secretary of Defense [Robert] Gates was not far behind.

The Point:

Chat live with Mark Bowden

on Monday at 1 p.m. at

Mark Bowden is scheduled to read from "The Finish" at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St. For more information, call 215-567-4341.

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