Even before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the CIA has had a special unit dedicated to tracking down Osama bin Laden. Now that the al-Qaida leader is dead, the missteps and milestones along the way are becoming chapters of a story that finally has an ending.
It was a question the U.S. intelligence community couldn't answer for years. Where was bin Laden?
"It goes back over three administrations," says former CIA director Gen. Mike Hayden. "The question wasn't anything but, 'Have we got him yet? Are we gonna get him?' "
The frustrating answer was usually no, not yet. The CIA set up a dedicated group in the late 1990s to track al-Qaida and bin Laden. It was called Alec Station, named after the son of one of the original members.
Who Was Bin Laden?
In the early years, Hayden says, they built a biography of bin Laden by asking very basic questions. What kind of car did he drive? Is he left-handed or right-handed? What was his mother's name, and where did he come from?
After Sept. 11, 2001, the drive to find bin Laden took on new urgency. George Tenet was the director of the CIA at the time. Hayden was the head of the National Security Agency, responsible for eavesdropping.
"George called me about 11, 11:30 on Sept. 11," Hayden recalls. "He said, 'Mike what do you got?' And I said, 'I got chatter that they're celebrating, George. We all know who this is.' He said, 'Yeah, yeah, I got it, Mike.' "
It was bin Laden.
At the time, the CIA had around 150 people working on counterterrorism. A few months later, that number had increased 10 times.
Meanwhile, the U.S. had launched an attack in Afghanistan. The U.S. tracked bin Laden to the mountains of Tora Bora. National security analyst Peter Bergen has written a lot about that battle.
"We can say definitively that bin Laden was there, and we can actually date it from about Nov. 25 to Dec. 14, when he left," Bergen says.
Bin Laden escaped and the trail went cold. Years passed.
A New Direction
"The focus on bin Laden was intense throughout this period, but it's about 2005 that we start to see al-Qaida morphing into something else," says John McLaughlin. Now at Johns Hopkins University, McLaughlin used to be the deputy director of the CIA.
As McLaughlin tells it, "Many of the affiliates in the Magrheb, Yemen, East Africa — we start to see them come into view, and we realize that we need to modify, somewhat, our view of the extremist world."
That meant focusing less on bin Laden and more on al-Qaida as a network. So in 2005, the CIA reorganized. Alec Station disbanded. Those analysts were folded into the larger counterterrorism unit. The search went on, and a new generation joined the CIA effort — people who grew up in a post-9/11 world.
"Those young men and women, they did nothing but try to pick up loose threads, pieces of information, develop and test hypotheses as to where is bin Laden, and how can we get our hands on him?" Hayden says.
More questions arose. What could they find out about his health? What kind of treatment did he need? What kind of prescription drugs? All questions that could indicate whether bin Laden was living in some remote cave or a city where he'd have access to medical care.
A Deadly Risk
Then, in December 2009, there was a setback.
"It was a stunning event for the entire agency," Hayden says.
The CIA had a source they thought could lead them to al-Qaida's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri. When the man came to the CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan, for his first face-to-face meeting with U.S. officials, he detonated a suicide bomb. Seven CIA employees were killed.
"This is a dangerous business," Hayden reflects. "Even in the face of ambiguity, that target was important enough that we took some risks. And unfortunately, it ended up the way it did. But what happened Sunday and what happened in Khost are part of the same epic."
The final chapter of that epic has now been written. The agency that took the risk at Khost that cost seven lives took another chance last week — only this time, it paid off.