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Rediff.com  » News » Revisiting Geronimo: The op that killed Osama bin Laden

Revisiting Geronimo: The op that killed Osama bin Laden

May 02, 2016 08:37 IST

It has been five years since Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden was killed by American forces in Pakistan’s Abbotabad.

Many hoped that this would bring about the end of the ‘War On Terror’.

The people who planned and executed the operation knew that getting bin Laden in Pakistan was going to be a difficult mission, and the plan nearly went awry.

Rediff.com present to you a blow-by-blow account on what happened on the night of May 1, 2011, when the terror mastermind was killed

Geronimo EKIA. This is the terse message that United States President Barack Obama is waiting to hear anxiously. It would mean that bin Laden has been killed. The code name for bin Laden is 'Geronimo' and EKIA stands for Enemy Killed In Action.

Operation Geronimo is being executed by a 79-member US commando team that races into Abbottabad from a base in Jalalabad in Afghanistan on a moonless night before Pakistani authorities could sense a breach of their territory and react possibly violently. 

By the time the Pakistani military is scrambling forces in response to the incursion into their territory, everything is over.

IMAGE: US President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House.

Before the Op

On May 1, 2011, White House officials cancel all public tours of the West Wing Area in the President's House so that unsuspecting terrorists wouldn't run into security officials moving in and out of the situation room, from where the run-up to the operation is being monitored.

A little after 2 pm (local time), (former) Central Investigation Agency chief Leon Panetta details the operation to the group headed by the president in the situation room for the last time.

Within an hour, he declares, "The team has crossed into Pakistan." The aim is to get in and get out of Pakistan, across the border in Afghanistan, before their breach can be detected by the Pakistani authorities.

Operation Geronimo commences

Two stealth Black Hawks, each of which has two pilots and a crewman from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, or the Night Stalkers, has been modified to mask heat, noise, and movement; the copters' exteriors have sharp, flat angles and are covered with radar-dampening ‘skin’.

Ten minutes later, the choppers arrive at the compound in Abbottabad. SEALS rappel down to the streets below. Some of them head towards the compound, while others form a cordon around it to keep locals away.

IMAGE: Osama bin Laden is shown watching himself on television in this video frame grab. Photograph: Pentagon/Reuters

The SEAL team storms into the mansion and seconds later, a firefight breaks out with the terrorists inside.

The climax begins when a SEAL personnel steps into Osama's bedroom and trains the infrared laser of his M4 on his chest.

Bin Laden, who is wearing a tan shalwar kameez and a prayer cap on his head, freezes; he is unarmed. Osama's two wives, who are nearby, try to protect him by placing themselves as human shields.

Amal al-Fatah, bin Laden's fifth wife, is screaming in Arabic.

"She motioned as if she was going to charge; the SEAL lowered his sights and shot her once, in the calf. Fearing that one or both women were wearing suicide jackets, he stepped forward, wrapped them in a bear hug, and drove them aside," a report says later.

"He would almost certainly have been killed had they blown themselves up, but by blanketing them he would have absorbed some of the blast and potentially saved the two SEALs behind him. In the end, neither woman was wearing an explosive vest," the report says.

The US Navy SEALs pump two 5.56-mm bullets to kill the Al Qaeda chief, killing him instantly.

The first round, a 5.56-mm bullet, hits bin Laden in the chest. As he falls backward, the SEAL fires a second round into his head, just above his left eye.

Once the raid is over, four SEALs scoure the second floor, plastic bags in hand, collecting flash drives, CDs, DVDs, and computer hardware from the room, which had served, in part, as bin Laden's makeshift media studio.

The SEALs also find an archive of digital pornography.

"We find it on all these guys, whether they're in Somalia, Iraq, or Afghanistan," the special-operations officer said. Bin Laden's gold-threaded robes, worn during his video addresses, hung behind a curtain in the media room," the same report adds.

Win some, lose some

IMAGE: Part of a damaged helicopter is seen lying near the compound after SEALs killed bin Laden in Abbottabad. Photograph: Stringers/Reuters

Outside the compound, the Americans have developed a problem. One of their helicopters stalled and cannot take off. Rather than let it fall into the wrong hands, the commandos move the women and children, who are mostly unharmed in the operation, to a secure area and destroy the defective chopper.

In Jalalabad, where the corpse is brought, a pair of SEALs unload the body bag and unzip it so that man in charge of the mission, Vice Admiral William H McRaven and the CIA station chief can see bin Laden's corpse with their own eyes.

Minutes later, McRaven appears on the teleconference screen in the Situation Room in the White House and confirms that bin Laden's body is in the bag. The corpse is sent to Bagram.

The SEALs have planned disposal of bin Laden's body on the basis of a similar burial they carried out for Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a top Qaeda leader in East Africa, in 2009.

Nabhan's corpse was flown to a ship in the Indian Ocean and was given proper Muslim rites before being thrown overboard.

But, according to reports, former US deputy national security advisor John Brennan (now the CIA director) calls up a former Saudi intelligence official, asking him whether the country is interested in taking the body of Laden as his relatives were there and once he was a citizen of Saudi Arabia.

However, there is no positive response from the other side.

IMAGE: The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson leads the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill during a passing exercise. Photograph: James R Evans/Reuters

After determining that it would follow Islamic tradition of burial within 24 hours, the US concluds bin Laden would have to be buried at sea, since no country would be willing to take the body.

"All along, the SEALs had planned to dump bin Laden's corpse into the sea -- a blunt way of ending the bin Laden myth," the report says.

Burial at sea

They Americans do not want to create a shrine for bin Laden’s followers.

A flip-wing V-22 Osprey carries the body from a US base in Bagram to USS Carl Vinson -- a thousand-foot-long nuclear-powered aircraft carrier sailing in the Arabian Sea, off the Pakistani coast -- in another violation of Islamabad's airspace.

IMAGE: Children are seen through the window of a house under construction as they play cricket on the demolished site of a compound of bin Laden in Abbottabad. Photograph: Mian Khursheed.

Once the body reaches Carl Vinson, it is washed, wrapped in a white burial shroud, weighted, and then slipped inside a bag.

Photographs are taken of bin Laden's face and then of his outstretched body. Osama is believed to be about six feet four, "but no one had a tape measure to confirm the body's length. So one SEAL, who was six feet tall, lay beside the corpse: it measured roughly four inches longer than the American," a report said later.

The body is then placed on a prepared flat board and eased into the sea. Only a small group of people watching from one of the large elevator platforms that move aircraft up to the flight deck are witness to the end of Americas most wanted fugitive.

The process is done "in strict conformance with Islamic precepts and practices," Brennan later tells media persons in Washington.

And thus, ends the bin Laden myth.

Footnote: Since Osama was killed, the world's most feared terror group, Al Qaeda has been steadily losing recruits and funding sources to its splinter faction -- the Islamic State.

-- This report is a reproduction of an earlier report that Rediff.com published back in 2011.