Countdown bin Laden

Twenty years ago this morning, our hearts crumbled simultaneously with New York’s Twin Towers. Osama bin Laden orchestrated an attack that would scar the face of the Earth and change history forever. After the heartless attacks that left 2977 people dead and countless families grieving, it was inevitable that the terrorist leader would be brought to face justice.

In his new book, Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace offers the gripping story of this historic manhunt and the commendable sacrifices made by those who planned and executed it over a period of 9 months.

In the same manner he wrote his authoritative Countdown 1945, the renowned journalist (with Mitch Weiss) details the nitty-gritty of what will certainly be remembered as one of the most famous and consequential special operation in the history of warfare in Countdown bin Laden: The Untold Story of the 247-Day Hunt to Bring the Mastermind of 9/11 to Justice. Tremendous sacrifices were consented by these intelligence officials who sacrificed their family lives. SEAL Team 6 operators faced their own mortality as they were ordered to descend in the Devil’s Den at the Abbottabad compound where bin Laden had taken refuge between 2005 and May 1st, 2011.

More than the military aspects of the mission to bring back OBL dead or alive, what impressed me most in this book was the decision-making process of the operation. It is easy to associate the warlord tag to President George W. Bush for his decision to launch a war against Al Qaida in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. His successor, Barack Obama, appears as a more dovish character, at least in the public’s perception.

Right off the bat, Chris Wallace informs the reader that “Obama authorized more deadly drone strikes against high-value targets than President Bush ever did. He also put pressure on Panetta to find bin Laden.” Forget the peacenik affiliation then. In the same manner as Bob Woodward- but in a much more engaging style – the author details what we could call the “Obama Method”. In a nutshell, the commander-in-chief was “the smartest intelligence consumer” who “read every word of every report”, “carefully analyzed everything before making a decision” and “didn’t make big decisions on the fly”. Finally, he “was a night owl. He usually worked late into the evening in his Treaty Room office.”

I always think that a book’s impact is about what you learn from it and, potentially, how it changes your perspective on a subject. In that regard, Countdown bin Laden has tremendously enriched my appraisal of the 44th President of the United States. While not a sanguine military enthusiast, Obama also green-lighted Operation Neptune’s Spear even though “no one could say, for sure, that The Pacer (the nickname given to OBL by the CIA) was bin Laden.” And he ordered Admiral McRaven – who oversaw the raid on Abbottabad – to “fight your way out if ever Pakistani police and/or armed forces arrived on site to confront the SEALs.

The other truly fascinating character in the book is CIA Director Leon Panetta.

May 1, 2011 – on what was probably the most intense day of his life – the renowned effective bureaucrat “reached into his pocket and fingered his rosary.” Some might think of it as an oddity, but the role of faith in the daily exercise of power is not just an idiosyncratic phenomenon. Barack Obama also “pulled out a crucifix” on that occasion, but I digress.

Panetta is a larger than life and attaching personality, whose life story has not only played a crucial role to help America come full circle on bin Laden’s role on 9/11, but whose drive must serve as a lesson to all. It must be stressed that perseverance was the key ingredient in finding and neutralizing the terror mastermind. And that is probably Leon Panetta’s main quality. The following passage about his younger years offers a powerful lesson in how to achieve success:

“But Panetta had no political connections, so he took an unconventional step. He wrote a letter to Joseph Califano Jr., an attorney in President Lyndon Johnson’s administration. Panetta appealed to Califano as one ambitious young Italian to another. To his surprise, Califano answered. He said he’d introduce Panetta to people in Washington.”

Only a shrewd observer of power can detail such a character-building anecdote and how it contributes to how history is made.

For anyone looking for a captivating, informative and powerful page-turning book to walk behind the scenes of military and political history, look no further than Countdown bin Laden. This is one of the best books I have ever read in that genre.

Much like people of an older generation like to say that they will always remember where they were and what they were doing when JFK was assassinated on November 22, 1963, I will never forget that tragic September day. My heart goes out to all those who were and still are affected by what happened that Tuesday morning.

The good will always prevail against evil. Rot in hell bin Laden.


Chris Wallace (with Mitch Weiss), Countdown bin Laden: The Untold Story of the 247-Day Hunt to Bring the Mastermind of 9/11 to Justice, New York, Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster, 2021, 368 pages.

I would like to express my gratitude to Mr. Gil Cruz of Avid Reader Press for providing me with an electronic version of this crucial book.

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