By Dalton Fury
During the December 2001 Battle of Tora Bora, there were a few moments that served up optimism, indicating that our mission to kill Usama Bin Laden would prove successful. Numerous times throughout the battle we listened to al Qaeda fighters unknowingly provide us with guy-on-the-ground information – intercepts like “Father (meaning bin Laden) is trying to break through the siege line” and “We are surrounded by the American commandos from above.”
At times, the al Qaeda leader came up on the net. It was sporadic, but real time. Bin Laden’s distressed voice, over short range radio as the battle progressed, was very telling. “The time is now,” he was resigned to say. “Arm your women and children against the infidel” and “I’m sorry for getting you involved in this battle, if you can no longer resist, you may surrender with my blessing.”
Straight from the terrorist leader’s mouth, his words led us to believe the end might be near. However, Tora Bora was home turf for Bin Laden and al Qaeda. We were careful to self-regulate our expectations, cautioning ourselves not to underestimate al Qaeda as a fighting force or the leader as a shrewd and slippery commander.
With no body and no proof of death, there was no certainty of mission accomplished. As we learned years later, a battered UBL fled Afghanistan for Pakistan with a few trusted aides. One of those trusted friends was a little known Kuwaiti-born man, oddly fluent in both Arabic and the Taliban language of Pashtu. The al Qaeda leader’s trusted and longtime friend Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti, we now know from recently leaked custodial interviews, proved to be the golden nugget in the long ten year hunt for UBL—and is the central figure in the recently-released blockbuster thriller Zero Dark Thirty.
Since those early days in the War on Terror, hundreds of terrorists were on the receiving end of lengthy, but entirely legal, interrogation methods like psychological ploys, verbal trickery, or other nonviolent and non-coercive ruses. Some have even argued that select detainees, those dubbed as high value to the security of the United States of America, were rendered to black sites where sleep deprivation, belly slaps, death threats, and variable lighting and environmental patterns may have been used. Either way, many were also blasted with heavy metal music like Drowning Pool’s Bodies, with its repetitive mind-numbing lyrics of “Let the bodies hit the floor!”
Besides UBL, one of the bodies that had yet to hit the floor ten years after he fled Tora Bora, was Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti.
The fighters captured at Tora Bora and other high level AQ detainees scarfed up around the world were oddly close-hold about al-Kuwaiti’s relationship to UBL. They downplayed it at times and provided false names to obscure his importance. One high-level AQ operative swore that the Kuwaiti had been wounded at Tora Bora and had died in the arms of another mujahedeen who just happened to be a Gitmo detainee himself. Let’s give the CIA a little more credit than that. Sure, it took many more years, but eventually al-Kuwaiti’s true significance was exposed to the point that one U.S. official described him as the crown jewel.
Just over two years after UBL and al-Kuwaiti had outrun us at Tora Bora, I stood on a partly crumbled asphalt runway in northeastern Iraq. The flex-tied person under custody, or PUC – pronounced puck by those in the ranks didn’t want to get on the duel-propeller plane we referred to affectionately as the shorts. Standing blindfolded in front of the C-23 Sherpa’s metal fold-out stairs, on the port side of the small puddle jumper, a plain-clothed Delta assaulter controlled his every movement from behind. The blonde operator motioned the PUC to lift his right foot to take the first step. The PUC shuddered, shook his head rapidly from side to side, and let out a muffled yell around the cloth muzzle shoved in his mouth.
My gloved hand grabbed his left arm to help induce some compliance. His arm felt strangely thin, free of bi’s or tri’s—almost fragile. It wasn’t just the frigid weather that night that was similar to the mountains of Afghanistan, but the physique of our guest was no different from the al Qaeda foot soldiers we bagged a few years earlier at the Battle of Tora Bora. But, that data point is arguably immaterial, as every American had come to realize by 2004, our true enemies valued a strong mind over a strong body any day.
Sitting in the cabin of the fuel-smelling shorts, I looked at the others through the lime-green haze of my night-observation device or nods. It was just the five of us in the cold belly of the Sherpa fixed wing plane; myself, our guest, the blonde senior operator, Delta Major Jim “Serpico” Reese and then-Colonel and commander of Delta, Gus Murdock—one of the most talented and special officers to ever serve the Unit’s ranks.
We were bundled in layers, stiff arming the cold with a mix of local clothing and inner layers of the best cold weather kits available at the time. Our doctored M4 rifles hung cross vertical fighting side, suppressor down.
On the surface, as far as we knew, our guest wasn’t entirely atypical. A common denominator among our enemy was they all gave off an aroma that was as hard to explain as it was to get used to. Probably from their unique diet or limited number of two-cycle washing machines to the nomadic lifestyle, or maybe it was simply just the smell of the inherently austere life of a mujahedeen fighter. Regardless, the body odor of our trophy that night, dressed only in a single layer of traditional white and dark brown clothing, was strong and telling enough to trump the smell of aviation gas.
I looked him over through my nods. His feet were covered with beat up leather shoes. A black blindfold tightly wrapped around his head matched the one holding the creases of his mouth open. Capture shock is a delicate, yet fleeting physiological setting, which requires the disorientation process to begin as early as possible and a consistent kindling as time progresses. The PUC didn’t need to take it all in. No, the narrow shouldered man rocking back and forth under his seat restraints, muffling phrases from the Koran, had just lost his individuality, his ability to decide simple things for himself, or control much more than his own bowel movements.
Even so, the smell in the cabin that cold night flying over central Iraq from Kirkuk to Baghdad never suggested that the PUC would prove to be a pivotal link in the eventual killing of terrorist mastermind Usama Bin Laden. Sure, we knew he was a messenger for al Qaeda central, believed to have traveled close to 1500 miles beginning inside the Northwest Frontier Province in Western Pakistan, skirting south under Afghanistan, and crossing the length of Iran before reaching Iraq. Anyone believed to have even a fuzzy dotted line link to the senior leadership of al Qaeda sparked our intense interest, but after years of rabbit holes, we were cautiously optimistic that the Gatekeeper, as he was referred to in terrorist circles, might provide the obscure golden nugget of actionable intelligence. If the right strings were pulled or buttons pushed, we knew maybe this one wouldn’t be simply another body. Maybe the two compact discs in the bag of personal effects we secured from him would tell us something more.
A week or so later, the CIA was pressing me for the results of the SSE, sensitive sight exploitation material, or more informally, the pocket-litter stuff. The CDs had been undergoing forensic analysis by a special cell within JSOC for several days, and the CIA’s patience was wearing thin—particularly because the terrorist was demonstrating the hallmarks of formal resistance training.
My partner, Scotty, and I jumped in our locally-procured-and-aged, white Toyota pickup, affectionately named ole’ Bessy, and took our chances along Route Irish, the enemy-controlled, IED infested, ambush-prone seven-and-a-half-mile, four-lane highway that connected the Euphrates River-hugging Green Zone in Central Iraq, with the American-owned, former Saddam International Airport. Only three months, earlier Serpico and Murdock had survived an ambush on this same stretch one night, after two of the 38 enemy bullets entering their vehicle found their mark in each of them.
Scotty and I listened to the tired and overworked forensic specialist as she told us the CD was a bust. Nothing on it. In fact, she was about to send it to the burn pile.
“Don’t do that,” I said. “Let me give it to the agency folks. If for nothing else, to get them off my back about it.”
She placed the CD in a hard plastic holder and handed it to me, happy to be rid of it. I put it in my right cargo pocket before Scotty and I reloaded ole’ Bessy, to make a few more stops before heading back. By the time we were done, from the passenger seat, I had complained to Scotty about the corner of that CD case sticking me in the leg a half dozen times.
It was dark by the time we wrapped up our errands and we rolled passed the M1 tanks, up armored HUMVEEs, and heavily armed troops in desert camouflage, which stood intimidatingly on the main checkpoint east of the airport. Their spot marked the beginning of Route Irish. Our standard procedure for black out drive, once we left the reach of their security spot lights, was to don Kevlars, drop our nods in front of our eyes, immediately kill the headlights, move to the center of the road, and gas it as fast as we could while still controlling the vehicle.
Scotty did, and halfway through the blacked out race to the Green Zone, I said, “I’m about tired of this CD case sticking me in the leg. I’m about to dump it out the window.”
Fortunately, I didn’t toss it. When we got back to the station, I gave it to the agency folks who had flown in one of their top computer forensics experts, and he went to work. Within seven hours, the true value of the Gatekeeper was known. Encrypted and embedded within the CD was the hand-written note from UBL to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It can best be described as a senior leader’s strategic guidance to a field commander. The Gatekeeper was bringing the good and formal word to Zarqawi that Sheik Bin Laden had fully blessed him as his man on the scene—the official leader of al Qaeda in Iraq.
That al Qaeda body that had been shivering, rocking, and praying next to me a few days earlier was Hassan Ghul. Like many others, the excessive chorus of Drowning Pool’s “Let the bodies hit the floor” was too much for Ghul and he squealed. Every man has his limits. Ghul shared with his interrogators the name of the crown jewel, Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti, and contradicted earlier reports that he had died from wounds sustained at Tora Bora.
Hassan Ghul is one of several hidden and less notorious shadow figures in Zero Dark Thirty. Unlike the crown jewel al-Kuwaiti, Ghul, the gatekeeper, wasn’t given top billing in the film. However, without his eventual capitulation during interrogation and fingering of the crown jewel, UBL might still be thumbing the remote and enjoying reruns of his own video tapes inside his modest fortress accommodations in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
The hunt for Bin Laden was a long and dangerous joint effort by an untold number of servicemen and women, agents and operatives of the CIA, and even some help from several allies abroad. Thanks to those collective efforts, and ultimately SEAL Team 6 and the 160th Special Ops Aviation Regiment, at zero dark thirty hours on 2 May 2011, the most wanted body in the world, and that of his trusted friend, finally hit the floor.
DALTON FURY is the author of the New York Times bestseller Kill Bin Laden: A Delta Force Commander’s Account of the Hunt for the World’s Most Wanted Man and Delta Force Thriller series that chronicles the disgraced but resilient Kolt “Racer” Raynor. The series was launched with Black Site. Tier One Wild, the second book in the series, will be available October 2012.