Where are they now? Key players in the bin Laden raid

Published May 2, 2016
This file photograph taken on May 2, 2011, shows the hideout of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after he was killed by US Special Forces in a ground operation in Abbottabad. —AFP/File
This file photograph taken on May 2, 2011, shows the hideout of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after he was killed by US Special Forces in a ground operation in Abbottabad. —AFP/File

ISLAMABAD: Five years ago, elite United States forces shot and killed Osama bin Laden, ending a manhunt that began in earnest after his Al Qaeda operatives hijacked planes and flew them into buildings in New York and Washington in September 2001.

Here are short profiles of some of the key players in the raid.

Barack Obama

The unofficial slogan of President Barack Obama's victorious 2012 re-election campaign was stark in its simplicity: “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive."

This file photograph taken on May 2, 2011 shows s crashed military helicopter is near the hideout of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after a ground operation by US Special Forces in Abbottabad. — AFP/File
This file photograph taken on May 2, 2011 shows s crashed military helicopter is near the hideout of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after a ground operation by US Special Forces in Abbottabad. — AFP/File

Having originally come to office in the aftermath of global financial meltdown, Obama had put America back on track, extricated its forces from the “dumb war” in Iraq and had seemingly won the smarter war against Al Qaeda by ordering the mission to kill bin Laden.

Now — five years after that victory — Obama's second and final term is drawing to a close and the threat once posed by bin Laden's Al Qaeda has been eclipsed by the rise of the militant Islamic State (IS) and renewed warfare in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya.

US Navy SEALS

In November 2014, a retired SEAL named Robert O'Neill went public with his account of the infamous raid, revealing himself to be the triggerman who had killed bin Laden, shooting him twice in the head and a third time once he had fallen to the floor.

The revelation provoked a backlash from fellow SEALs, who call themselves the “quiet professionals” and pride themselves on performing risky missions in humble anonymity.

O'Neill said he had wanted to share his story to help give closure to the family of victims of the September 11 attacks.

Since his revelation, O'Neill has embarked on a new career as a public speaker and security expert, making appearances on Fox News as a military analyst. He has also started a charity to raise money and awareness for special operations troops transitioning into civilian life.

Ayman al-Zawahiri

Bin Laden's long-time deputy Ayman Al-Zawahiri took charge of Al Qaeda following his boss's death.

But the Egyptian doctor's tenure has coincided with a steady decline in the group's prominence as the rival IS group has conquered vast swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq, and carried out high-profile attacks in the West.

Read: Al Qaeda after bin Laden, still 'a dangerous threat'

Analysts believe he is hiding in the porous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, though, like his predecessor, the extent of his operational control over the network is unclear.

Pakistani author and analyst Ahmed Rashid says despite efforts to rebrand itself, and its putative ties with the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, the group's strength has dwindled in South Asia.

The brutality of IS and its savage oppression of the lands it controls, have made Al Qaeda appear moderate by comparison.

Bin Laden's wives

Bin Laden married five times, but by the time he fled to Pakistan around the spring 2002, he was accompanied by just three wives, including his youngest — and reportedly his favourite — Amal.

The Yemeni national was with her husband on the night of the US helicopter raid, according to a leaked Pakistani judicial commission report, which said they were awakened by what “sounded like a storm” after midnight.

Realising that a raid was under way, the family prepared to take their final stand. When Amal saw a SEAL pointing his weapon at the terror chief, she rushed at him as the man shouted “No! No!” and shot her in the knee.

All three widows were handed over to Pakistani authorities before being deported to Saudi Arabia a year later. Nothing has been heard from them since, though it is believed Amal was sent on to Yemen with her five young children.

Sohaib Athar

Pakistani IT professional Sohaib Athar became an overnight celebrity when he unwittingly live-tweeted the raid that killed bin Laden.

The 34-year-old was working on his computer in the early hours of May 2, when he heard the roar of rotor blades.

See: Bin Laden tweeter becomes Internet sensation

“Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1am (is a rare event),” he wrote — the first of many tweets that inadvertently broke the story to the world.

Athar's followers soared in the days that followed, peaking at over 100,000, and he was inundated with interview requests — both from journalists, and Pakistani intelligence services, who memorably asked him “What is Twitter?”.

Last month he moved his family once more, this time to Islamabad.

“Life has moved on,” he says. “I never wanted to make it part of my personality or life story."

Still, he adds, he has kept some memorabilia, including parts of a damaged Black Hawk helicopter abandoned by US forces.

“I've got a cable (and other things). They're in my store. They're lying there somewhere in a carton,” he said.

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