In December 2001, a small group of U.S. special forces, aided by punishing air power and Afghan tribal militia, cornered Osama bin Laden and thousands of his followers at Tora Bora, the mountainous redoubt on the border with Pakistan.
Watch the season opener of The Fifth Estate, with host Bob McKeown, on Friday, Sept. 9 at 9 p.m., 9:30 p.m. N.L. "Truth and Lies: the Last Days of Osama bin Laden."
View the online interactive that will accompany the broadcast and allow you to follow a recreation of the raid and the decision-making that led to it.
See The Fifth Estate homepage for more on the bin Laden story and for additional viewing times.
It was a defining moment in the post-9/11 war against al-Qaeda.
"They were communicating with walkie-talkies, and the walkie-talkie communications were easily intercepted," John Kiriakou, a former CIA counterterrorism operative, told The Fifth Estate's Bob McKeown recently.
"We're hearing them and hearing bin Laden say: 'It was worth the fight. I'll see you in paradise!' They were crying. Bin Laden wrote out his last will and testament on Tora Bora. And they really believed it was over. We had them."
That was the last time Western intelligence had a true fix on bin Laden's whereabouts for almost nine years, until a shadowy Pakistani man, who turned out to be the al-Qaeda chief's elusive courier, led the CIA to an unusual, gated compound in the dusty military town of Abbottabad.
What happened at Tora Bora has been the subject of books, a highly partisan inquiry by a U.S. Senate committee in 2009 and intense, unabated finger-pointing over the years between the U.S. intelligence community and the U.S. military as to who let the side down.
What happened at Abbottabad — the well-garrisoned Pakistani equivalent of West Point — is almost certain to give rise to the same sort of intense scrutiny, as it has to a fresh round of international tension.
In its season opener on Friday, Sept. 9, The Fifth Estate and reporter Bob McKeown recreate the concluding chapter in the hunt for bin Laden, when the elite Seal Team 6 stormed an unusual compound deep inside Pakistan, not sure what they were going to find, and killed America's most wanted enemy.
"Yeah, many of us at the CIA believed from the very beginning that he was in Pakistan, rather than Afghanistan, for the reason that he knew that we largely had carte blanche to go anywhere in Afghanistan.
"So I think he believed that he was safer in Pakistan. Just because the policy of the government of Pakistan was to keep us at arm's length while co-operating with us on other issues."
- John Kiriakou, former CIA head of counterterrorism in Pakistan
"Truth and Lies: the Last Days of Osama bin Laden" is a complex tale that we are trying to bring to life in as complete a way as possible, through the power of a Fifth Estate documentary, accompanied by in-depth interviews and a structured online interactive to help you delve deeper into some of the questions that are raised by what took place.
- How certain was the intelligence that led to U.S. President Barack Obama's decision to send in the Seal team that night in early May?
- Did Pakistan's military know about the raid in advance and turn a blind eye — and deny it afterwards — out of fear of public reaction?
- And, of course, the big question: How could someone as notorious as bin Laden live for six years in an almost-suburban Pakistani town, a kilometre from the nearest police station and the country's main military training school, where he was joined by at least two of his wives and children, without anyone in authority knowing about it?
Jane Harman, head of the Woodrow Wilson Centre for International Scholars, and a former chair of the House intelligence committee, said she was just "stunned" when she heard about the hiding place in Abbottabad.
"This is a military garrison. He was a quarter mile away from the West Point equivalent. Hiding in plain sight, in a house that's bigger than every other house on the block, for six years. That's just not a normal event."
"A house which has women and children is not always a place to which people will go without reason. There are cultural sensitivities here.
"A family can say, 'You know we don't want outsiders intruding.' How many times have you actually gone and knocked at the door of somebody in your neighborhood just because, you know, it was an unusual house?"
- Husain Haqqani, Pakistani ambassador to the U.S.
In the immediate aftermath of bin Laden's death, many outsized things were said about the raid and the man himself: He was killed in a "firefight" with the Seals. He cowered behind a woman, one of his wives. His bedroom cabinets were full of "porn and Viagra" (well, a herbal supplement, as it turned out).
How true were these reports? Have we been victim of overzealous storytelling, to provide the U.S. with its feel-good moment?
Was bin Laden really just a self-absorbed and deluded madman with a huge family inheritance to spend on his jihadist schemes?
"We'd love to believe that he was a madman, which was always surprising to me because he made us look like asses for so long," says Michael Scheuer, who led the CIA team tracking the al-Qaeda founder from 1996 to 2004 and may know him as well as anyone.
"He clearly was a devout pious Muslim. He was a man who was deferential to his betters, whether they were clerics or political leaders. He was a man of personal bravery who was wounded and actually fought in combat.
"All of those things that we in the West wanted to dismiss and say, 'Well he's just a blowhard and a PR guy and a media man.'
"I would have been rather made an ass of by a smart guy than an idiot. But we wanted to portray him as we wanted him — mad, nihilistic and not religious in any way. And ultimately all of those things were proven to be wrong. He was what he seemed to be."