While the story of the raid in which bin Laden was killed is widely known in quite a lot of detail, the timeline leading up to it is not, since much of it is classified. That makes it hard to answer the question of how accurate Zero Dark Thirty is, since most of the movie focuses on the intelligence work leading up to the discovery of bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. But the last part of the film, which shows the raid itself, is quite accurate, right down to including a dog in the raiding party. A lot is obviously left out, but what is shown matches up with accounts in the news.
So what about the bulk of the movie: the intelligence-gathering aspect? Few people know the answer to that for sure, but it looks like it’s also pretty accurate. The character of Maya is based on a real CIA analyst around the same age, who has the same give-’em-hell attitude, who worked on catching bin Laden for almost a decade, and who was the lone champion for exploiting his courier network. In fact, the Washington Post reported that “Maya’s” combative personality cost her a promotion from GS-13 to GS-14 — even though most CIA insiders agree that the attitude is not only needed to be successful at her kind of job, but also that it’s not exactly rare inside the agency. Still, she got a cash bonus for catching bin Laden, and the CIA’s highest medal, not involving combat. But, a few other agents also got other awards, so then this happened:
“She hit ‘reply all’ ” to an e-mail announcement of the awards, a second former CIA official said. The thrust of her message, the former official said, was: “You guys tried to obstruct me. You fought me. Only I deserve the award.” — from The Washington Post article
And that sounds exactly like Maya. (The agent’s real name is obviously something else.) The writer and director based the movie on first-hand accounts: they talked to a lot of people at the CIA, including the woman Maya is based on, so they probably got a decent reading of her. Given that they got to know her well enough to portray her personality accurately, it stands to reason that the rest of what she told them — the history of the mission — is also accurate.
From Washington Post
The New Yorker has an extremely interesting article, written in vivid detail, about the raid in which Navy SEAL Team Six flew into Pakistan and killed Osama bin Laden. It’s a great read — and hopefully will be made into a movie soon, — but since it’s so detailed and long, here are the many highlights:
First, some interesting background info:
- Navy SEAL Team Six is officially called DEVGRU — Naval Special Warfare Development Group
- DEVGRU is made up of about 300 people, divided into four squadrons. One of them is Red Squadron.
- The name of the raid was Neptune’s Spear
- The raid was a CIA mission, but manned mostly by Navy SEALs
- At least three SEALs from the raiding party had been part of the sniper rescue operation of the captain of the Maersk Alabama from Somalian pirates
- Up to that point, DEVGRU had been involved in 10-12 raids inside Pakistan, only one of which was widely reported. But Neptune’s Spear was much farther inside Pakistan than any of the rest.
- Special operations have conducted thousands of night missions in Afghanistan, and on the night of the bin Laden raid, there were also about a dozen others going on.
- bin Laden’s code name was Crankshaft. Geronimo on the other hand, was part of a series of Native American codewords to signify different aspects of the mission, in this case that Crankshaft was found.
- The Black Hawk helicopters had been modified to be stealthy with respect to heat, sound and radar, and were flown by crew from a Special Operations unit called The Night Stalkers
- Besides the main two Black Hawks, there were an additional four backup Chinook helicopters: two stayed inside Afghanistan, by the border, and two landed outside the city, in the middle of nowhere. These latter two were armed with heavy machine guns and ready to fight their way out of Pakistan. One of them had extra fuel for the Blackhawks.
- Typical SEAL gear included desert camouflage, a Sig Sauer P226, an M4 rifle, extra ammo, a CamelBak to keep hydrated, energy gel shots, a medical kit, a noise-cancelling headset, a map of the compound and photos and descriptions of the suspects inside
- The helicopter that crashed, “helo 1”, did so because the warm temperatures and the closed walls of the compound created a silo in which the helicopter had no lift.
- The only video feed available at the White House was from a drone flying at 15,000 feet. There were no helmet cameras or anything else.
- The SEAL dog’s name is Cairo, and he’s a Belgian Malinois.
A Belgian Malinois, like Cairo
Timeline leading up to the raid:
- October 2008: In one of the Presidential debates, McCain called Obama’s stance on hunting bin Laden in Pakistan foolish and naïve, so had the election gone differently, this raid probably would not have happened.
- August 2010: The CIA began tracking bin Laden’s courier.
- Late 2010: Obama ordered the CIA to start exploring options for a raid on bin Laden’s compound.
- January 2011: the order was given to an officer “Brian”, a former DEVGRU deputy commander, to come up with a raid plan.
- March 14: Obama gave the order to plan the raid.
- “Brian” invited DEVGRU’s Red Squadron commander (hopefully they call him Red Leader) “James” and the chief master petty officer, “Mark”, to plan the raid.
- Besides roping down from helicopters, “Brian” and his planning team explored tunneling into the compound, and also landing the helicopters outside the city and assaulting the compound on foot.
- March 29: the raid plan was presented to Obama. Defense Secretary Gates opposed it, citing the similarity to the failed rescue of hostages in Iran in 1980; he supported an airstrike, but Obama went with the raid because the airstrike would’ve required so much ordnance that it would’ve leveled a large part of the city.
- April 10: Brian, James and Mark picked about two dozen people from the Red Squadron for the raid. Initial training for the raid took place in North Carolina for five days, at a replica of bin Laden’s compound
- April 18: the raid team moved to Nevada, to train in the desert, at the same elevation as the compound. They flew nightly raids in two helicopters over the same distance they would have to in reality. Twelve SEALs in “helo 1” and 11 in “helo 2”, along with a dog and a translator.
- April 23: the SEALs flew back to their base in Virginia.
- Tuesday, April 26: the SEALs flew from Virginia Beach to Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, by way of Germany.
- Wednesday, April 27: the SEALs went to Jalalabad, which is close to the border with Pakistan.
- Thursday, April 28: in the late afternoon, the national security team met with the President because for there would be no moonlight over the target area for the next few days, making the conditions for a raid optimal. Confidence in the CIA’s analysis of the intelligence ranged from 40-60%. Obama said he would sleep on it.
- Friday, April 29: Obama gave the go-ahead on the raid, which was planned for Sunday, May 1st, because there was too much cloud cover on Saturday.
White House Situation Room during the raid
Timeline of the raid on May 1st — all times are approximate and in Eastern time, 8:30 behind Afghanistan time:
- 11 am: officials began gathering at the White House Situation room.
- 2 pm: Obama returned to the White House from playing golf.
- 2:30: the helicopters left Jalalabad.
- 4:00: helicopters arrived at their destination in Abbottabad.
- 4:01: “helo 1” crash landed outside the compound and a distress call was sent to one of the Chinook helicopters standing by.
- All SEALs from both helicopters landed outside the compound.
- 4:05: the 12 SEALs from helo 1 entered the compound by blowing up the gates.
- The translator, the dog, and four SEALs closed off a perimeter around the house.
- bin Laden’s courier was the first one to die in the compound.
- 4:15: due to the noise, some locals approached the perimeter, but the translator said it was a security operation and that they should go back in their houses, which they did.
- 4:18: SEALs made their way into bin Laden’s bedroom after killing the courier’s brother and his wife, as well as bin Laden’s son. Osama was there with two of his wives; a SEAL shot one in the calf and then pushed them out of the way with a bear hug in case they were wearing explosive vests. A second SEAL shot bin Laden first in the chest, then in the head.
- Over the next 20 minutes, they cuffed everyone with zip ties and assembled them outside the compound, bagged bin Laden’s body, and gathered all the electronics and media they could find.
- The rescue Chinook helicopter arrived and a medic took DNA samples: two from the bone marrow, and more with cotton swabs.
- The downed Black Hawk was smashed, wired with explosives and blown up.
- 4:38: the helicopters took off for Afghanistan.
- The remaining Black Hawk was refueled just inside the Pakistan border for about 25 minutes.
- 6:30: helicopters arrived back at Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
- bin Laden’s body was photographed and roughly measured his height using a SEAL, since they had no tape measure.
- 8:30: the body was loaded on a helicopter/plane, and taken to an aircraft carrier off the Pakistani coast. They had to cross Pakistani airspace again, since Afghanistan is landlocked.
- After performing the Islamic burial rituals, bin Laden was pushed out into the Arabian Sea, in a white, weighted shroud inside a bag, from a height of 20-25 feet.
The USS Carl Vinson, from which bin Laden was buried at sea
After the raid:
- On May 6th, President Obama, Vice-President Biden and a bunch of other dignitaries met the DEVGRU unit in Ft. Campbell, KY, where they are based.
- Obama gave the team the Presidential Unit Citation, and the team gave him a flag that had been on board the rescue Chinook. It was signed by them on the back, and has an inscription on the front that reads “From the Joint Task Force Operation Neptune’s Spear, 01 May 2011: ‘For God and country. Geronimo.’ ”
- The President never asked who actually shot bin Laden, and the SEALs didn’t volunteer it.
From The New Yorker, via NPR
According to The Christian Science Monitor, all those flash drives that the Navy SEALs took from bin Laden’s mansion contained a lot of emails. Apparently, bin Laden would type up emails offline, in his Internet-less compound, save them to a USB flash drive, then hand them to a courier like the one that accidentally led the CIA to the mansion. The courier would go some far distance to an Internet cafe, plug in the USB drive, send the emails bin Laden saved on it, get new incoming emails and save them on the flash drive, then go back to the compound. This went on for years, and provides more proof of his insanity: his effective download speed must’ve been slower than the 2400 baud modems in the early 90s; it would’ve driven any sane person nuts. Just imagine if he tried to do the same thing with his social media accounts… he wouldn’t see the “likes” on his status updates for days!
From CS Monitor, via Slashdot
The new Galactic Empire Times looks exactly like the New York Times and has exactly one story: “Obi-Wan Kenobi Is Dead, Vader says“:
“For over two decades, Kenobi has been the Jedi rebellion’s leader and symbol,” the Lord of the Sith said in a statement broadcast across the galaxy via HoloNet. “The death of Kenobi marks the most significant achievement to date in our empire’s effort to defeat the rebel alliance. But his death does not mark the end of our effort. There’s no doubt that the rebellion will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must and we will remain vigilant at home and abroad.”
The story’s a good read, and the comments are even better:
This is just a hoax to distract us from the real issues! Why doesn’t Lord Vader show us his Birth certificate? Would his birthname hint towards his hidden Jedi agena?
Can anybody explain to me why in some publications his name is spelled “Obi-Wan” and in others it is spelled “Ubi-Wan”?
From Galactic Empire Times via Laughing Squid
On it’s Flickr page, the White House put a couple of photos of its Situation Room taken during the raid on bin Laden’s compound yesterday.
From Flickr via NPR
The Guardian made this map showing the exact location of where bin Laden has been hiding out for the past few years, and pointed out the military compounds around him. In the picture below, his house is in yellow, and the green forts are an army college and a military academy. Click on the image to go to the Google Map.
Google Map from The Guardian
One guy in the town where bin Laden was killed was tweeting during the raid, obviously unaware of what was going on.
Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event).
Go away helicopter – before I take out my giant swatter :-/
A huge window shaking bang here in Abbottabad Cantt. I hope its not the start of something nasty :-S
Since taliban (probably) don’t have helicpoters, and since they’re saying it was not “ours”, so must be a complicated situation #abbottabad
The abbottabad helicopter/UFO was shot down near the Bilal Town area, and there’s report of a flash. People saying it could be a drone.
Two helicpoters, one down, could actually be the training accident scenario they’re saying it was >> http://bit.ly/ioGE6O
and now I feel I must apologize to the pilot about the swatter tweets :-/
Interesting rumors in the otherwise uneventful Abbottabad air today
Report from a taxi driver: The army has cordoned off the crash area and is conducting door-to-door search in the surrounding
I guess Abbottabad is going to get as crowded as the Lahore that I left behind for some peace and quiet. *sigh*
I need to sleep, but Osama had to pick this day to die :-/
Uh oh, now I’m the guy who liveblogged the Osama raid without knowing it.
and here come the mails from the mainstream media… *sigh*
From ReallyVirtual via NPR