A little more than a month ago, with the anniversary of Sept. 11 approaching and fears of a new al Qaeda attack rising, some U.S. intelligence and military analysts thought they had found one of the world’s two most wanted men just where they last saw them six years ago.
For three days and nights — between Aug. 14 and 16 — U.S. and Afghanistan forces pounded the mountain caves in Tora Bora, the same caves where Osama Bin Laden had hidden out and then fled in late 2001 after U.S. forces drove al Qaeda out of Afghanistan cities. Ultimately, however, U.S. forces failed to find Bin Laden or his deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, even though their attacks left dozens of al Qaeda and Taliban dead.
One of the officials interviewed by NBC News, a general officer, admitted Tuesday that it was “possible” Bin Laden was at Tora Bora, saying, in fact, "I still don’t know if he was there."
Still, some in the special operations and intelligence community are telling NBC News that there was a lack of coordination particularly in the choice of support troops. But with intelligence limited on who was there, no one is willing to say that the lack of key units permitted Bin Laden or Zawahiri to escape.
When the operation began in early August there was no expectation that Bin Laden or Zawahiri would be there, say U.S. military and intelligence officials. Instead, there was intelligence of a pre-Ramadan gathering of al Qaeda including "leadership" in Tora Bora. Senior officials in the U.S. and Pakistan tell NBC News that planning for the attacks intensified around Aug. 10 once analysts suggested that either Bin Laden or Zawahiri may have be drawn to the conference at Tora Bora. (When U.S. forces attacked al Qaeda camps in August 1998, following the East Africa embassy bombings, Bin Laden was attending a pre-Ramadan conference of al Qaeda in the same general area of eastern Afghanistan).
While the intelligence did not provide “positively identification” that Bin Laden or Zawahiri were at the scene, there was enough other intelligence to suggest that one of the two men was there. Bin Laden and Zawahiri are not believed to have traveled together since mid-2003 for security reasons.
Another official said that intelligence analysts believed strongly that there was a high probability that “either HVT-1 or HVT-2 was there,” using U.S. intelligence descriptions — high value targets — for Bin Laden and Zawahiri. He added that while opinion inside the agency was divided, many believed it was Bin Laden rather than Zawahiri who was present. The reason: “They thought they spotted his security detail,” said the official, a large al Qaeda security detail — the kind of protection that would normally surround only Bin Laden, or Zawahiri.
Also, locals reported the presence of groups known to be part of Bin Laden’s security detail —Chechens, Uzbeks and other Arabs, men willing to die rather than surrender top al Qaeda officials.
The military operation included "several hundred" U.S. and Afghan ground forces, say officials. Elements from the 82nd Airborne blocked off escape routes through the mountains on the Afghanistan side of the border, while helicopters inserted U.S. Navy Seals at night. The Seals pinpointed enemy positions and called in air strikes; the 82nd came in and "mopped up."
On the other side of the border, a senior Pakistani official says the U.S. military helped thousands of Pakistani forces — including their elite commando units — set up a blockade to sweep up any al Qaeda fleeing Afghanistan.
Any operation to take down Bin Laden or Zawahiri would have been formidable.
“He's surrounded by the true believers,” reported Rick Francona, who worked with CIA and special ops teams in Iraq in the 1990s. “And they will fight to the death to protect him, they will probably even kill him before they allow him to be captured. So if you're going to go in that area, you have to go in there with enough force that you think you can accomplish this mission successfully and not lose all of your guys in the process.”
One senior military official said Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Peter Pace personally briefed the president on the specifics of the ongoing operation.
The operation closely parallels the killing of Abu Musab al Zarqawi last year. NBC News reported at the time that the U.S. military did not positively determine that Zarqawi was in the house that was bombed. Instead, they had surveillance on Zarqawi's spiritual adviser who led them to the house, and the decision was made to take the shot because they didn’t want to miss the chance to get Zarqawi. One general predicts, "That's the way we'll get Bin Laden." They may not have that positive ID, but there'll be enough intelligence to prompt an air strike and they'll find Bin Laden in the rubble.
What happened this time? Military officials admit there were unidentified "planning and coordination problems" even before it got to execution, “primarily between the operators and the generals who give the go-orders” added an intelligence official. A company of the 82nd Airborne was brought in since a Ranger team trained in special operations was not available. But the combination of the “dark side” — the SEALs — and the conventional — the 82nd Airborne — didn't work. "They didn't gel," said the military official. There was "a lack of responsiveness to the intelligence and a lack of aggressiveness."
Michael Sheehan, a former Army Special Operations colonel and counter terrorism ambassador, says he is not surprised.
“Our response is normally too big, too slow, too cumbersome and too risk adverse and those factors normally come from Washington,” said Sheehan.
“The operators normally want to go in much smaller, much more low profile in order to be able to get to the target without being identified and as those plans go up the chain of command they normally get much bigger and much more cumbersome.”
But the bigger part of the picture is the question of allocation of resources from Afghanistan to Iraq. All Delta Force and “dark side” Rangers were moved to Iraq, said a special operations officer involved in the Afghanistan operation. Left behind in Afghanistan were SEAL Team Six and some Rangers. But apparently in this case, not enough “dark side” were available. The 82nd, said a second special operations officer, “is a poor substitute … [it is] a blunder to use them on an op with dark side operators.”
Justin Balding is a Producer for Dateline NBC. Adam Ciralsky is a producer with the NBC News investigative unit. Robert Windrem is an investigative producer for NBC News special projects.