Zero Dark Thirty & Operation Neptune Spear

Vijayabharathi C
6 min readMay 8, 2021


May 2 2021 marks 10th year anniversary of Osama bin laden killing. In early May 1996, Ariana Airlines carrying special person called Osama bin laden, landed at Jalalabad of eastern Afghanistan. Decade back, western media praised him as a rebel leader for fighting against soviet union’s Afghanistan occupation. On arrival in Afghanistan, Local warlords who were aligning with Taliban, embraced him with open arms thinking him like a rebel philanthropist. These warlords were confident that the hardened Arab jihadi radicals he brought to Afghanistan, will aid his boss(mullah omar) in eliminating other splinter groups fighting against Islamic emirate of Afghanistan(Taliban), consolidating power in all regions of Afghanistan.

For US and its western allies, bin laden was migraine from late 80’s. From late 80’s, US intelligence was tracking osama bin laden for his role in multiple bombings related to US embassies, war ships in African countries. They were unsuccessful in neutralizing Osama bin laden. He moved swiftly as well as stealthy from Sudan, Egypt, Algeria, many other African countries, finally into Afghanistan. Only country which can give him asylum that time was Afghanistan. Destitute people & marauding warlords living that time in Afghanistan believed he is only billionaire who can give them gifts.

US got important opportunity in 1998 to assassinate him. But he escaped few hours just before, rain of 66 cruise missiles fell on his training camps in Khost. On US investigation it was found that, Pakistan intelligence agencies ISI had tipped off Osama on incoming missile attack from US. ISI was alleged to have played double agent role between CIA and al Qaeda. Enraged Osama wrote bloodcurdling poetry on peaks of Hindukush mountains warning US with more incoming violent attacks.

In 1999, highly radicalized, but tech savvy, elite English speaking Hamburg group members (including Mohammed atta) met & pledged his loyalty to Osama. Osama concluded from first meeting with Hamburg group that they are right choice for plane operations(9/11 attack). 9/11 attack happened in September 2011.More than 3000 civilians killed in the attack. For US, attack was worst after pearl Harbor attack in 1941. It was blot to US, challenging its world’s only super power status that time.

Furious America declared global war on terrorism, targeting mainly Osama and his organization. By September 2002, Osama who once stayed inside caves of tora bora mountains, silently disappeared into Pakistan tribal mountainous area via porous, undemarcated borders. From there he was in constant movement along mountainous towns lying in current Khyber pukhtwana province. Finally he moved to palatial mansion in Abbottabad near Pakistan army training center.

Tracking and eliminating Osama bin laden was not easy job for world’s most sophisticated intelligence(CIA) and its army. Fragments of information were collected for several years (starting from 2002). These information lead to the palatial house in Abbottabad where he was eliminated in May 2 2011. This time, US intelligence agencies kept this operation, completely unaware to Pakistan intelligence agencies. US intelligence didn’t disclose even titbit of information to ISI, fearing for leak of information leading to failure of operation.

Zero Dark Thirty

Film “Zero Dark Thirty portrays the Operation Neptune spear accurately in few instances. Operation Neptune spear planned by US intelligence and army to track and eliminate osama bin laden. This film has accurate depiction of few important events

1. Islamabad Mariott hotel bombing (2008) — Bombing which killed 54 people(45 locals and 9 foreigners), was one of earliest attacks inside Pakistan to target foreigners & CIA employees. Bombing is so intense that it created 20ft wide and 20ft depth crater near entrance of the hotel. Fortunately suicide bomber detonated the explosives at entrance of the hotel. If he had detonated at center of hotel, human losses have been unimaginable

2. Camp Chapmen Attack — In Khost province of Afghanistan, there was CIA base used during mid 2000’s, It was used for intelligence gathering for drone operations inside Pakistan. On penultimate day, a Jordanian man called Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, was to provide important intelligence related to Al-queda in Khost CIA office. He was believed to be trusted source. CIA officers were unaware that this man now a double agent working with Al-queda. His suicide bombing that day killed 12 CIA officers(Worst attack on CIA in last 40 years). Ramifications of this attack was huge, CIA base was closed indefinitely & intelligence inputs for tracking osama capture were stalled for long period.

One journalist wrote like this on this attack

“In an intelligence war, this is the equivalent of sinking an aircraft carrier in a naval war. The United States can’t afford this kind of loss.”

3. Leon Panetta portrayal — Leon Panetta was CIA director during osama bin laden elimination. Actor who portrayed Leon Panetta looked almost like him, his mannerisms almost mimicked leon Panetta

4. Waterboarding Torture and interrogation: Waterboarding torture was horrifically shown in film. But this horrific torture in 2005, yielded Khalid sheikh Mohammed to confess that he is chief architect of planes operations(9/11 attack), for which he gave blue print to Osama in 1995 and later executed in 2001. CIA still disagrees on this waterboarding treatment

5. Obama’s reluctance to go for operation: When CIA director informed of raid to capture or kill Osama, Obama was initially reluctant to approve the raid. One of reason for this reluctance was, as presidential elections are coming in 2012 , if something goes wrong, his fortune of returning again as president will go awry.

6. Women in intelligence operations: Last, but not least, In History, various female intelligent agents played important role in intelligence operations. Main protagonist of this film is CIA intelligence officer “Maya”, Female lead plays pivotal role in tracking Osama as intelligence analyst. She stands brave during gun attack in Islamabad embassy, Marriott hotel attack.

This is not first time that woman was shown as sharp intelligence woman. In early 1940's(during world war 2) English intelligence agents were struggling with German U-Boat warfare. Germans were using mysterious engima codes as method of communication between naval officers, coordinating u-boat attack on allied forces warships. One important intelligence officer, who stood tall and helped to crack this enigma machine cryptography was Joan Clarke


On fateful night of May 2 2011, Pakistan DGMO Nadeem called Pakistan COAS Kayani at 1AM. He informed kayani that, a enemy helicopter has crashed at Abbottabad. Nervous kayani asked “Is the crashed helicopter not ours?”, fearing for some outside enemy countries targeting Pakistan nuclear facilities. Within few hours, When the Pakistan airforce scrambled Pakistan F16 for shooting down remaining Blackhawk helicopters, US admiral mullen called kayani and informed important message.

Mullen told “ Congratulations Kayani, There is a good news, but there are issues with this also”. Mullen reminded kayani that US has agreement with Pakistan, so that any US president can act unilaterally whenever “Number one or Number two” was located, seeking justice for 3000 killed in 9/11.

Locating and killing osama bin laden deep inside their own land by US was national disgrace to Pakistan. Defense and political leaders felt deep scare after US breached their sovereignty with much ease. Generals who met on morning of May 2 2011, were in similar mood like in 1971(when Pakistan lost its war with India). Pakistan political parties unanimously passed resolution against US in its parliament for breaching Pakistan sovereignty.

There were so many invisible hands, protecting & transporting bin laden, his family inside Pakistan between 2002 to 2011. These invisible hands felt they were let down by Pakistan army, joining with infidels(US). Like second wave of any pandemic, second wave of cruel suicide bombings created havoc between 2011 and 2014, mainly inside Pakistan tribal regions.

Osama daughter once said in a interview that his father was very soft spoken and mild mannered man. She also defended that, he was acting as a buffer between hardliners and other negotiating government agencies, preventing al Qaeda from becoming more violent. As feared earlier, remnants of Al Qaeda switched to most hardline version of Jihad, becoming ISIS in Iraq and Syria in 2014, tying middle eastern region for another 5 years with counter terrorism operations. Still now ISIS exists and may resurrect again. Same Afghanistan may now have high chances of becoming a breeding house for global terror, as US announced its exit & its last troops will leave Afghanistan by September 2021

Sources: Directorate S, Ghost Wars, Wikipedia



Vijayabharathi C

Silicon Validation Engineer, Interested in Topics: Conflicts/Peace, Space science, Technology, World Cinema