With a model of the Pakistani villa where he lived and a video of former US president Barack Obama explaining his hesitancy about approving the raid, a new exhibition details the operation that killed 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden.
Revealed: The Hunt for Bin Laden, which opens on Friday at the September 11, 2001 attacks museum in New York, plots the ten-year search for the brains behind the single deadliest attack ever on the US.
“It’s like being in the front row of history,” said Alice Greenwald, president and chief executive of 9/11 Memorial Museum.
“We get an insider’s view into . . . how the raid was actually conducted from the people that were there,” she added.
The US intelligence services-led manhunt culminated overnight on May 1 and 2, 2011 with operation Geronimo, the commando raid that left Bin Laden, the orchestrator of the atrocity that killed almost 3,000 people and destroyed the Twin Towers, dead.
The exhibition, which will run until May 2021, contains no shattering revelations, such as possible collaboration between American and Pakistani spies.
But using around 60 objects, including some seized in the villa, and dozens of photos and videos, visitors can see the work of the intelligence services as they try to find the Al-Qaeda leader.
The timeline includes bin Laden’s departure without a trace from the Tora Bora mountains in Afghanistan in late 2001 and the key identification of his messenger Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti and his jeep in Peshawar in 2010.
Al-Kuwaiti would lead US agents to the quiet garrison city of Abbottabad, 80km from the Pakistani capital Islamabad and the villa where a mysterious figure would take a few steps inside the compound every day, like a prisoner.
The Americans nicknamed him “Pacer” before becoming convinced over time that he was the man they had been looking for – bin Laden.
The exhibition focuses on the “human” story of the operation through multiple interviews: from senior officials who validated the assault to Navy Seal commandos who invaded the villa.
Anonymous agents explain how they understood that to find bin Laden they had to follow people who were likely to help him.
“The gravity of that decision-making and the burden of that decision-making really comes across in this exhibition,” said Greenwald.
“I think it is a reminder of how decisions that are so momentous actually get made,” she added, referring to dilemmas about whether to attack the residence when it puts lives at risk.
After 9/11, rivalries between the various branches of the US intelligence services were blamed for not sharing information that might have thwarted the attacks.
The exhibition celebrates their renewed unity, tenacity and courage.
It displays a cap worn by an agent who suffered head injuries when a bomb triggered by a double agent exploded at a meeting that they hoped would lead to new information about bin Laden.
Clifford Chanin, deputy director for programmes at the museum, said the exhibition is the result of over three years of discussions with government agencies, during which he wondered “how much of the story would they let us tell because it’s a classified mission”.
“We don’t know what we weren’t able to get because we don’t know what it is. [But] in terms of the artifacts loaned to us and the access we got to people for interviews, we got much further into this story than anybody,” he said.
The death of bin Laden, announced by Obama just before midnight eastern US time on May 1, 2011, was celebrated across the US and particularly in New York, where there were spontaneous rallies in Times Square and at the World Trade Centre site.
For many Americans the exhibition is a moment to savour that night again.
“It’s awe-inspiring to me to see the amount of work and effort, commitment done on behalf of our loved ones, by the military and intelligence division,” said Patricia Reilly, whose sister died on the 101st floor of one of the towers.
“It just brings back that feeling of gratefulness that I felt on the day that the president announced that they had killed bin Laden. We had waited so long for justice,” she added.