- When Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad in 2011, Navy SEALs recovered hard drives and computers from the al-Qaeda compound.
- Now, nearly a decade later, some of this data has been declassified and released to the public.
- In the National Geographic documentary Bin Laden's Hard Drive, which is currently available on DStv Now, content from the devices are revealed and analysed.
At 23:35 (EDT) on the evening of 1 May 2011, President Barack Obama addressed the world from inside the White House.
The East Room was lit up by elegant lamps and sparkling chandeliers as the world leader confidently walked on a red carpet towards the podium bearing the Seal of the President of the United States - an American flag was visible on his right before the camera zoomed in.
Dressed in a suit with a crisp white shirt underneath, a red tie, and the detailed finishing touch of a flag pin on his left lapel, Obama announced: "Good evening. Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda, and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children."
Nearly 10 years after the worst terrorist attack in the history of America the man behind the horrific events, that killed nearly 3 000 citizens, had been captured and killed by US Special Forces.
According to History, SEAL Team Six completed Operation Neptune Spear within nine minutes after they raided the al-Qaeda compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, killing Osama with a shot in the head, above the left eye.
A team of 23 Navy SEALs in two Black Hawk helicopters took part in the mission which nearly fell apart when one aircraft crashed near an animal pen. But the team adapted on the fly and soon left the compound with Osama's body as well as 10 hard drives, five computers, more than 100 storage devices and the 54-year-old's personal journal. The remaining helicopter was blown up and the whole mission was over before the Pakistani government even knew what had happened.
Osama's body was buried at sea within 24 hours to comply with Islamic law and the files retrieved were kept and fine combed for possible clues, information or inside intelligence.
Now, nearly a decade later, newly declassified hard drives taken from the compound have been released to the public. These include nearly 470 000 digital files, 250 gigabytes of data, more than 100 USB drives, DVDs and CDs, five computers, and multiple cellphones.
What is hidden on those drives? That's exactly what CNN's national security analyst Peter Bergen sets out to explore in the National Geographic documentary Bin Laden's Hard Drive which is currently available for streaming on DStv Now.
Together with various experts, Peter – who was the first journalist to ever get an interview with Osama in Afghanistan in 1997 – tries to put together a picture of what life looked like in those final months before the raid.
From seemingly normal files, like a copy of the Ice Age movie or the viral "Charlie bit my finger" video, to deeply disturbing footage of beheadings, children playing with the corpses of dead soldiers and lots of pornography.
With the help of Nelly Lahoud, a senior fellow in New America's International Security programme; Dr Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist and FBI consultant; Ali Soufan, a former FBI special agent who led investigations into al-Qaeda; and Dalia Mogahed, an American-Muslim scholar and Director of Research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, Peter analyses, unpacks, and decodes the mountain of data.
"The events of 9/11 are deeply etched in our memories. The Bin Laden's Hard Drive special presents new insights on the complex mind and intricate planning behind this event," said Evert van der Veer, vice-president, Media Networks, The Walt Disney Company Africa.
What the team discovers while working through the footage is a paranoid, narcissistic man hiding in a self-made prison without any contact with the outside world. In the final stage of his life, he was obsessed with security and wouldn't let anyone outside the walls of the compound unless it was a medical emergency. In a letter to one of his wives he writes about concerns over a tracking device that was possibly planted on her: "I was told that you went to a dentist in Iran, and you were concerned about a filling she had put in for you...The size of the chip is about the length of a grain of wheat, and the width of a fine piece of vermicelli."
He refuses to use the internet and makes use of a courier and USB drive instead to transfer files, videos, and other material. Coincidentally, it was through one of these couriers that the Americans finally tracked him down.
In some of the footage it's clear that Osama was obsessed with his appearance and how he was being portrayed. He relished in watching footage of himself being broadcast on the news and would spend hours in front of the TV with a remote in his hand watching news bulletins in which he would appear.
When he filmed his video messages, he'd retake them several times until it seemed flawless. Trying hard to portray himself as stoic and humble as a way of commanding power by mimicking these modest qualities - an act that would quickly dissipate once he was no longer performing to the world.
"Exploring these hard drives, it is clear that digital information can say a lot. Osama bin Laden's files left behind an imprint of a complex man, responsible for the murder of thousands of people. History will remember him for that but, in order to cut through the perception of this ascetic in a cave on a crusade, it is important for us to see how he crafted the videos that went out to his followers," Peter said about the documentary.
He adds: "It's important to read how his well-educated wives helped him write incendiary speeches. To watch as he inculcated his children and grandchildren into an ideology of hate, leading to acts of violence against animals and the recitation of jihadist poetry. Understanding him is vital in order to combat other potential Bin Ladens in the future."
In the end, Osama lived a peasant existence far away from his legacy of death and destruction. What his hard drives show is that the most wanted man on Earth's life ended with a whimper, not a bang.
Bin Laden's Hard Drive is currently available to stream on DStv Now.
(By Herman Eloff. Sources: The White House, History, The New York Times, National Geographic)