This story was first published on Oct. 5, 2008. It was updated on July 11, 2009.
Shortly after 9/11, the Pentagon ordered a top secret team of American commandos into Afghanistan with a single, simple order: kill Osama bin Laden. It was America's best chance to eliminate the leader of al Qaeda. The inside story of exactly what happened in that mission, and how close it came to its objective has never been told until 60 Minutes and correspondent Scott Pelley reported this story last fall.
The man you are about to meet was the officer in command, leading a team from the U.S. Army's mysterious Delta Force - a unit so secret, it's often said Delta doesn't exist. But you are about to see Delta's operators in action.
Why did the mission commander break his silence after seven years? He told 60 Minutes that most everything he'd read in the media about his mission is wrong and he wants to set the record straight.
"Our job was to go find him, capture or kill him, and we knew the writing on the wall was to kill him because nobody wanted to bring Osama bin Laden back to stand trial in the United States somewhere," the mission commander tells Pelley.
In 2001, just 10 weeks after 9/11, he was a 37-year-old Army major leading a team of America's most elite commandos. Even now, 60 Minutes can't tell you his name or show you his face. 60 Minutes hired a theatrical make up artist to take this former Delta officer through a series of transformations to disguise him. He calls himself "Dalton Fury," and is the author of "Kill Bin Laden," a book out this week.
Dalton Fury is used to disguises. In fact in 2001, his entire team transformed themselves in Afghanistan. "Everybody has their beard grown. Everybody's wearing local Afghan clothing, sometimes carrying the same weapons as them," he explains.
"The idea was that if this all worked out Osama bin Laden would be dead, and no one would ever know that Delta Force was there?" Pelley asks.
"That's right," Fury says. "That's the plan. And that always is when you're talking about Delta Force."
And there was no mission more important to the United States. "We'll smoke him out of his cave and we'll get him eventually," President Bush had vowed.
But the administration's strategy was to let Afghans do most of the fighting. Using radio intercepts and other intelligence, the CIA pinpointed bin Laden in the mountains near the border of Pakistan. Following the strategy of keeping an Afghan face on the war, Fury's Delta team joined the CIA and Afghan fighters and piled into pickup trucks. They videotaped their journey to a place called Tora Bora.
Fury told 60 Minutes his orders were to kill bin Laden and leave the body with the Afghans.
"Right here you're looking at basically the battlefield from the last location that we had a firm on Osama bin Laden's location," Fury explains to Pelley, looking at a ridgeline with an elevation of about 14,000 feet.
Asked how tough it would be to attack such a position on a scale of one to ten, Fury tells Pelley, "In my experience it's a ten."
Delta developed an audacious plan to come at bin Laden from the one direction he would never expect.
"We want to come in on the back door," Fury explains. "The original plan that we sent up through our higher headquarters, Delta Force wants to come in over the mountain with oxygen, coming from the Pakistan side, over the mountains and come in and get a drop on bin Laden from behind."
But they didn't take that route, because Fury says they didn't get approval from a higher level. "Whether that was Central Command all the way up to the president of the United States, I'm not sure," he says.
The next option that Delta wanted to employ was to drop hundreds of landmines in the mountain passes that led to Pakistan, which was bin Laden's escape route.
"First guy blows his leg off, everybody else stops. That allows aircraft overhead to find them. They see all these heat sources out there. Okay, there a big large group of Al Qaeda moving south. They can engage that," Fury explains.
But they didn't do that either, because Fury says that plan was also disapproved. He says he has "no idea" why.
"How often does Delta come up with a tactical plan that's disapproved by higher headquarters?" Pelley asks.
"In my experience, in my five years at Delta, never before," Fury says.
The military wouldn't tell 60 Minutes who rejected the plans or why. Fury wasn't happy about it but he pressed on with the only option he had left, a frontal assault on bin Laden's dug-in al Qaeda fighters. The Delta team had only about 50 men. So the mission would depend on the Afghan militia as guides and muscle. Their leader was a warlord and self-styled general named Ali.
"Ali told us after about 30 seconds of discussion, he kind of listened to me ramble on and then the first thing he said was, 'I don't think you guys can handle it. You can't handle Al Qaeda in these mountains,'" Fury remembers.
Ali met with a CIA officer and accepted millions of dollars in cash from the agency. In short order, his Mujahideen fighters were escorting Delta Force into the mountains.
"Paint the picture for me of these Afghan Mujahideen troops," Pelley asks.
"They range anywhere from maybe 14 up to maybe 80. Various dress. Basically, we would probably consider it rags, which is the standard dress for a Mujahideen warrior," Fury explains.
There is a video of the top secret mission, which has never been seen by the public before. It was recorded by the Delta commandos themselves. Dressed like Afghans, the Americans maneuvered up the mountains, calling in air strikes on al Qaeda. By day they would advance, but at night they soon discovered their Afghan allies went home.
"Well, I have to assume that if you started up the hills of Tora Bora, and you and the Mujahideen took territory, they didn't abandon that at night?" Pelley asks.
"Oh yes they did," Fury says.
He says they gave it up to the enemy. "The Mujahideen would go up, get into a skirmish, firefight, lose a guy or two, maybe kill an al Qaeda guy or two, and then they leave. It was almost like it was an agreement, an understanding between the two forces fighting each other. Almost put on a good show and then leave."
Four days after arriving in Tora Bora, Dalton Fury was faced with a fateful command decision: three of his men were in trouble behind enemy lines, and at the same time the CIA had been listening to bin Laden's radio transmissions and had a breakthrough.
"And this is where it gets complicated. At about the same time, the CIA, George, comes into our room and he says, 'Guys, I got a location for Osama bin Laden.' That's probably the best locational data we've had on Osama bin Laden ever."
It was night, so Fury was without his Afghan allies. Still, he rescued his men and then found himself approaching bin Laden's doorstep. "We're about 2,000 meters away from where we think bin Laden's at still. From where we're at. Now we have to make a decision," he remembers.
Fury had two choices: advance his small team with no Afghan support, or return to camp and assault in the morning. He was under orders to make the Afghans take the lead, and intelligence said there were more than 1,000 hardened fighters protecting bin Laden.
"You write in the book 'My decision to abort that effort to kill or capture bin Laden when we might have been with 2,000 meters of him, about 2,000 yards, still bothers me. It leaves me with a feeling of somehow letting down our nation at a critical time,'" Pelley quotes.
Asked why he feels that way, Fury says, "Had we gone up that ridgeline towards that location, Osama bin Laden might have been 500 meters way. We might have run right into him. So there's always that doubt that we might have run into him. We also might got up there and found nothing. It wasn't worth the risk at that particular moment to go up there and play cowboy. It was better to be cautious, refit, go up there with the entire force the next day and play the battle out as we had planned."
In the morning, bin Laden was on the radio. The CIA, Delta, and their Afghan allies were listening.
How did the Afghans react when they heard from bin Laden on the radio?
"Osama Bin Laden is [to] many a Muslim's hero," Fury says. "These guys in my opinion were more in awe of Osama Bin Laden than they were willing to kill him. When they heard him talking on the radio they would gather around the individual that held that hand held transistor. He would hold it up in the air, almost as if he didn't want the connection to break, almost like they could see the ridge line Osama bin laden happened to be talking from, like if they could almost see him and feel his presence and they just stood there with wide eyes and somewhat in awe that here is the leader of the jihad, the leader of al Qaeda and they're actually hearing his voice over the radio."
"And these were the men who were supposed to help you capture or kill him? Some allies," Pelley remarks.
"Some were better than others," Fury says.
The radio intercepts gave Delta a fix on bin Laden's location. And one of the Delta soldiers narrated his own video.
"This top hill. The very top up there. That's supposedly where Bin Laden is hiding out….We've seen movement along this saddle right here. We don't know if it's friendly or not so we haven't been able to call fire on it," the soldier said on the video.
And then something extraordinary happened: Fury's Afghan allies announced they had negotiated a cease fire with al Qaeda, something the Americans had no interest in. When Fury's team advanced anyway, his Afghan partners drew their weapons on Delta. It took 12 hours to end the bogus cease fire, precious time for al Qaeda to move.
Fury says their assumption was that bin Laden was heading for a valley at that time.
Bin Laden had changed direction, and the tone of his radio calls. "Clearly under duress. Clearly hurting. Clearly caring for his men," Fury says.
In a notebook, Fury wrote down the translation of bin Laden's words as his team listened on the radio. "Quote, 'Our prayers were not answered. Times are dire and bad. We did not get support from the apostates, who are our brothers. I'm sorry for bringing you here. It is okay to surrender,' end quote," Fury reads.
Fury says that when he heard that, he thought it was almost over.
Soon after that intercept, a Delta team called "Jackal" radioed that they had bin Laden's entourage in sight.
"The operation Jackal team observed 50 men moving into a cave that they hadn't seen before. The Mujahideen said they saw an individual, a taller fellow, wearing a camouflage jacket. Everybody put two and two together, 'Okay, that's got to be Osama Bin Laden egressing from the battlefield.' They called up every available bomb in the air, took control of the airspace. And they dropped several hours of bombs on the cave he went into. We believe, it was our opinion at the time, that he died inside that cave," Fury says.
Bin Laden's radio went silent. And Dalton Fury believed the bombs had killed him. Six months later, American and Canadian forces came back for proof. They checked al Qaeda fighting holes and used explosives to try open up collapsed caves. They hoped to find bin Laden's body in an al Qaeda graveyard rising from the opium poppies.
The troops dug up bodies, removed fingers for forensic analysis, but, there was no luck. In October 2004, bin Laden released a video and Fury knew his team had failed.
Today, based on intelligence, Fury believes he knows what happened. He says that bin Laden was wounded in the shoulder by shrapnel from an American bomb, and was then hidden a town next to the al Qaeda cemetery. "We believe a gentleman brought him in - a gentleman, him and his family were supporting al Qaeda during the battle. They were providing food, ammo, water. We think he went to that house, received medical attention for a few days then, and then we believe they put him in a vehicle moved him back across the pass," Fury says.
"It's my understanding they believe he got into a vehicle. He moved as far as he could and then got out and walked across or was carried across into Pakistan. Free and clear," Fury says. "When this is all over and this all dies down, and once we finally do grab Osama Bin Laden, I think the fact that we lost him in Tora Bora will move out of my memory so to speak. I'm looking forward to those days."
Produced by Shawn Efran
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