October 7th, 2011
06:05 AM ET

10 years of war: bin Laden dead, al Qaeda not so much

By CNN Pentagon Producer Larry Shaughnessy

Editor's note: This is the final installment of a five-part series on 10th anniversary of the start of the US war in Afghanistan. The series tracks key moments from the past decade.

The war in Afghanistan officially began for the U.S. military on October 7, 2001, 10 years ago Friday. In his speech to the nation that day, President George W. Bush said, "This military action is a part of our campaign against terrorism."

One major success in that campaign came, finally, nearly 10 years later, on May 1, 2011, when U.S. Navy SEALs stormed Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan and shot him dead.

In his speech announcing bin Laden's death, President Barack Obama was more blunt about the reason for the war.

"We quickly learned that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by al Qaeda - an organization headed by Osama bin Laden, which had openly declared war on the United States and was committed to killing innocents in our country and around the globe. And so we went to war against al Qaeda to protect our citizens, our friends, and our allies."

But was the secret mission that killed bin Laden really a major turning point in what has become America's longest war ever or just a symbolic victory?

Bin Laden had been living in Afghanistan for years before the September 11 terror attacks. It's where he ran the al Qaeda terror organization and trained his foot soldiers. Many believe several months after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, he moved across the border to the relative safety of the Pakistan mountains.

Nic Robertson, CNN's senior international correspondent, had been covering bin Laden for years. Thirteen days after the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, President Bill Clinton ordered a cruise missile attack on bin Laden's Afghanistan camp, America's first attempt to kill the al Qaeda leader.

Robertson covered that failed mission and said Bin Laden got away because "he supposedly had been tipped off by the Pakistanis." Accusations of Pakistan providing help to al Qaeda continue to this day.

Some officials believe the next opportunity to capture or kill bin Laden came during fighting in Tora Bora in late 2001, but again, bin Laden escaped into Pakistan.

Last May 1, word began trickling out of the White House that this time America had succeeded. Robertson remembers it was the night after his 20th wedding anniversary. "CNN woke me up and said, 'you'd better turn on the television.'" He and his wife dashed from Yorkshire, England, where they had celebrated their big day, to London, where he caught the first flight to Pakistan.

Less than 30 hours after President Obama told the world that bin Laden was dead, Robertson was reporting live from the Abbottabad, Pakistan, the town where the most wanted man in the world had been living.

"We parked up maybe half a mile from bin Laden's house and started walking through the area," he said. "The first thing about Abbottabad, is, it's not your teeming average Pakistani too-hot town, because it's slightly up in the mountains."

He said Osama bin Laden's compound was not drastically different from the other large villas in the area. "As we walked up to bin Laden's house it was, this is a little bit bigger than the others, it doesn't stick out. But, if you look at it closely, it does, because the walls are higher and there's some razor wire," Robertson said.

The nighttime SEAL raid that killed bin Laden included at least one so-called "stealth helicopter." But that doesn't mean the people who lived nearby slept through the attack on bin Laden's compound.

"They heard quite a lot, people were coming out to take a look. I don't think they really knew what it was. But they were certainly watching, I mean they saw the light show that was going on there," Robertson said. "In fact they told us, we were on the roof of the house that was the closest, and they told us they were watching."

Except for a helicopter that accidentally hit a wall and crashed, the mission went off as planned and the SEALS were gone before any of the neighbors figured out what was really going on. That may be, Robertson said, because they claimed they didn't know who lived in the big compound with high walls and razor wire.

"Like a lot of people over there, you don't stick your nose into other people's business when you think they might be bad, rich and powerful, which is what people were telling us they thought," he said. "They thought it was some kind of Afghan businessman slash narco-type business."

Bin Laden wasn't alone in emphasizing secrecy. A senior administration official told reporters the day after the raid that "we shared our intelligence on this bin Laden compound with no other country, including Pakistan. That was for one reason and one reason alone: We believed it was essential to the security of the operation and our personnel. In fact, only a very small group of people inside our own government knew of this operation in advance."

Still, Robertson has since learned that the whole mission was nearly compromised. An intelligence source told him that four days before the raid, a former senior Pakistani intelligence official "called the former head of an intelligence agency in the region and said, 'Hey, what do you know? What are the Americans doing? What's going on? Something is up."

Robertson said the former Pakistani intelligence official who was asking those questions would likely have spilled the beans if he had learned the answers. "He is exactly the sort of guy, maybe through a network or whatever, but he would have had a way, somehow, to get a message to bin Laden."

Evidently that never happened. Bin Laden's body was eventually taken to a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean where he was buried at sea.

As to it's importance in the 10-year history of the war in Afghanistan, Robertson said it may be too early to know.

"I think, when we look at this historically in another 10 years, we will be able to see it as a turning point of sorts, that this was a moment where the organization was forced into a fundamental shift."

Robertson said bin Laden's successor as the al Qaeda chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, represents "a shift to a leader that was not as popular or as charismatic and is a divisive figure, but the organization and the ideology had already been created and had been given ample fodder to continue."

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