“It Is What We Do”

Operation Neptune Spear was merely the conclusion of a vast and overarching mission that stood out as exceptional in a multitude of ways.  A nation’s desperate call for justice was answered in the early hours of May 2, 2011; Osama bin Laden met his end inside his Abbottabad, Pakistan, hideout in the form of two lethal rounds fired by an American commando.i

But the path to that moment was extensive, fraught with setbacks, and required that a litany of seemingly impossible problems be solved along the way.ii

In early 1996, for the first time in CIA history, a ‘station’ was opened with the sole intent of tracking a single individual.iii

That pursuit ratcheted up exponentially following September 11, 2001. The Agency pulled out all the stops in the hunt, employing unprecedented — even brutal — methods in its quest, so long as those methods provided even the slightest possibility of delivering results.iv Sophisticated new techniques were developed while proven-but-discarded ones were dusted off and put back into use.v

The CIA’s activities were complemented by those of the larger intelligence community. The NSA flirted with the boundaries of science fiction with ever-escalating electronic surveillance capabilities as the FBI redefined the meaning of “the long arm of the law.” In addition, a dozen other entities proved their increased relevance time after time.

Low orbiting spy satellites and the RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drone — the so-called “Beast of Kandahar” that had been little more than a bat-shaped rumor not long before — tirelessly peered down on the suspected safe house.vi The National Geospatial Agency analyzed the incoming data in an effort to determine if ‘HVT-1’ was truly on site.vii

Civilian and military leadership overcame the paralyzing tendency toward risk aversion despite knowing full well what a mission failure could mean for the nation — and their careers. After months of study, rehearsal, and deliberation, the green light was finally given to a bold operation that would covertly send American forces deep into the sovereign territory of a nominal ally with the intent of neutralizing bin Laden.viii

To pull it off, the bleeding-edge Sentinel drone glided silently above as the operation unfolded, transmitting real-time video that was sent via satellite to the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), who oversaw the mission from the Jalalabad staging base just on the Afghanistan side of the border. The live feed was also beamed to the Situation Room at the White House in Washington, DC, and a makeshift command center at the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, VA.ix The versatile Sentinel also simultaneously jammed Pakistan’s air defense systems to mask the heliborne infiltration and monitored Pakistani communications in order to provide early warning in the event of detection.x