Former CIA Agent's Hunt for bin Laden in Pakistani Badlands
Art Keller, a blond, blue-eyed CIA agent, sits inside a decrepit building deep
inside al-Qaeda territory, staring at his computer screen. He is forbidden
by his Pakistani minders from venturing out into the badlands of Waziristan
to help to find and kill the world’s most wanted man.
He is sick and exhausted, and suffering from food poisoning. Back home in the
US his father is dying of cancer. The plumbing is basic, the heat intense —
the generator has failed again. He pores over cables looking for any scrap
of information — an intercepted phone call, an aerial photograph — that
might finally end the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
The fruitless search has essentially been outsourced by the US to a network of
Pashtun spies run by the Pakistani intelligence services.
Mr Keller was one of an estimated 50 to 100 CIA agents and special operations
officers whose mission for the past eight years has been to find and kill
bin Laden and other top al-Qaeda leaders in the hostile and forbidding
Pakistani border region, where he is believed to be hiding.
Mr Keller, 39, volunteered for the bin Laden team and was sent in 2006 to
become acting chief of one of the CIA’s bases in the heart of al-Qaeda and
Taleban territory in Waziristan. It was an experience that leaves him
wondering today if the al-Qaeda leader will ever be found.
Mr Keller was not an obvious choice for the job — he spoke no Middle Eastern
languages, and was not an expert on al-Qaeda or Pakistan. Yet in 2006, with
many resources diverted to Iraq, the CIA was desperate for agents to join
Today this is changing. The agency is bringing back CIA retirees — a group
known as The Cadre — many of whom are veterans who worked with the Afghan
Mujahidin during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.
Mr Keller’s replacement when he left Shawshank — the nickname given to his
base in Waziristan because it resembled the prison life depicted in The
Shawshank Redemption — was one such man, a grey-haired, CIA veteran, 65,
who speaks Pashtu.
“Some of these guys have been hunting bin Laden for years,” Mr Keller says.
His replacement, whom Mr Keller believes is still in Pakistan, has spent
eight months a year since the September 11 attacks working out of these CIA
safe houses looking for the top al-Qaeda leadership.
“One of the things the agency has done is to bring back these old hands,” Mr
Keller says, men who despite their age “are willing to spend many months in
conditions most people would say is akin to prison”. Mr Keller, who has
retired from the CIA and is now a freelance writer in New Mexico, adds: “The
divorce rate is very high — it’s through the roof. Yet it’s part of the
allure that keeps on driving them back. A lot of the time you are just
sitting there reading stuff but you are also in the right area, it’s the big
show — you are at retirement age but are you really going to sign up for the
The hunt for bin Laden is largely run by the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence
service, an organisation for whom many CIA officials harbour deep mistrust
because of its historical ties to the Pashtuns of Waziristan.
Mr Keller says the nerve centre of the hunt is in Islamabad but the ground
operation is run from decrepit bases such as Shawshank. The hub of the
operation was the communications room, from where he worked alongside
officials from other branches of the US intelligence agencies.
Here they would pour over intelligence collected from electronic intercepts,
aerial photographs taken by unmanned drones, and human intelligence
collected by Pashtun spies. CIA agents were rarely allowed to leave the
compound by the Pakistanis.
One reason was that blond-haired agents such as Mr Keller would be targets for
assassination. The other is that the Pakistanis like to have control of the
hunt. Any spying was done by local Pashtuns, and under the watchful eye of
the Pakistani authorities.
“Our role in the hunt was done entirely from in front of a computer inside the
base,” Mr Keller says. When he wanted to follow up a lead, he would get in
touch with a local Pashtun proxy to ask him to travel to a certain area to
It is dangerous work. In 2005 the CIA recruited a local mullah to go into
Waziristan to report back on any Arabs in the area — a sign that bin Laden,
a Saudi, could be near by. Days later the mullah was found on a roadside,
beheaded, a message tucked into his shirt that this was the fate of spies.
When a senior al-Qaeda figure was identified and located — Mr Keller said that
it would take weeks, often months, to build a case for an airstrike by a US
Predator drone — and even if the go-ahead was finally given by CIA
headquarters in Langley, Virginia, the Pakistanis still had to approve.
“Since 9/11, with 99 per cent of these strikes, the Pakistanis were
consulted and they have to approve them,” he said.
There has not been one credible lead on bin Laden in years. His nickname among
some CIA hunters is Elvis because of all the bogus and fanciful sightings.
The CIA has been successful in killing many of the senior al-Qaeda over the
years but bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are different cases.
Mr Keller believes bin Laden moves from village to village in Waziristan. He
communicates perhaps just once a month, and by courier. He never uses a
telephone. Mr Keller believes that bin Laden arrives in each village with a
small group of bodyguards, when he will sit and talk to the local tribal
leader. A large bribe is paid.
Bin Laden is then the guest of the village, where under Pashtun custom, he
must be protected. The main obstacle in finding him, Mr Keller says, is that
even if someone wanted to betray him — and collect the $25 million (£15
million) reward — there is no one to turn to. The local police know bin
Laden is there. “If you report bin Laden’s location there is a good chance
you will get killed,” Mr Keller says.
“People in a position to give information can’t get it to anyone.” Morale is
still good among the hunters, he says, because many top al-Qaeda officials
have been killed. So will bin Laden be caught? Mr Keller lets out a deep
breath. “I don’t know.”