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Operation Neptune Spear and the Hunt for Osama Bin Laden a.k.a. “Jackpot”

Neptune Spear

The US Army hunted Osama Bin Laden for almost a decade, referring to him using the codewords “Geronimo” and “Jackpot.”

Osama Bin Laden comes close to the top of the American list of most hated people of all time. With Bin Laden joying such diabolical company as Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot, the nation was collectively out for blood following the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

It took almost ten years to satisfy that bloodlust. When Bin Laden was finally killed in a shootout with American Special Forces on May 2, 2011 in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, Americans felt vindicated and exhilarated. Celebrations broke out across the country. The most evil man on Earth was dead, and the countryhad finally closed one of the most tragic and humiliating chapters in its history.

The killing of Bin Laden was a clandestine operation, carried out under the strictest of secrecy and without the permission of the Pakistani government. The murky legal nature of the operation—it isn’t clear whether the operatives attempted to arrest Bin Laden or whether it was an overt assassination, and it also could be considered a violation of Pakistani sovereignty—have led many to call it into question.

But to the Obama administration and most Americans, those details aren’t important. They got their man after hunting him for a decade, and they’ll be damned if he should have been let go due to legal technicalities.

The Geronimo controversy

Save for a few spaced-out hippies and legalistic cranks, the vast majority of Americans certainly didn’t care about how the killing was done. Attorney General Eric Holder was merely tying up a loose end when he issued a statement declaring the killing to be legal. Shortly after the public announcement of Bin Laden’s death, however, a new controversy game to light.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta came forward with details surrounding the undertaking, codenamed “Operation Neptune Spear.” Upon killing Bin Laden and securing the premises, Special Forces operatives relayed the following message to Washington: “Geronimo EKIA” (enemy killed in action).

• The covert op to kill Osama Bin Laden was called “Operation Neptune Spear”
• Osama Bin Laden was hunted for almost 10 years
• He was given the fitting codename “Jackpot”

Throughout the planning and execution phases, the codename “Geronimo” was used in reference to the legendary Apache warrior who surrendered to US Army forces in 1886. Pundits and Native American leaders were livid at the fact that the name of Geronimo, a hero and symbol of bravery to many Native Americans, would be used to refer to Bin Laden.

While the Defense Department issued reassurances that the codename was chosen at random and was in no way intended to draw a link between Geronimo and the leader of Al Qaeda, the firestorm had already begun. Vernon Petago of the Jicarillia Apaches of New Mexico told the Minneapolis Star Tribune: “It’s insulting and hurtful…What were they thinking? They applied a respected Apache leader’s name to the most despicable terrorist in the world.”

Writer Lisa Balk King expressed even more intense contempt for the codename: “It is being interpreted aa slap in the face of Native people, a disturbing message that equates an iconic symbol of Native American pride with the most hated evildoer since Adolf Hitler.”

The man who was “Jackpot”

More details later came to light. While the name “Geronimo” was used to refer to the killing or capture of Bin Laden, the target’s actual codename was “Jackpot,” a more fitting moniker. This did little to assuage the dismay of Native American leaders, but it does accurately describe Bin Laden.

The hunt for Bin Laden was akin to seeking a jackpot at an American poker room or casino. The US Army and CIA scoured the earth for him, seemingly dropping into every cave along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. Some began wondering if he existed at all.

Numerous times they came close, but no cigar. In 2007, US and Afghani forces raided a cave in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan which they believed to be harboring Bin Laden. Dozens of Al Qaeda members were killed in the attack, but Bin Laden was nowhere to be found.

In hunting Bin Laden and fighting seemingly endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq the US government began to look like a gambler who can’t do math. He keeps putting money into a slot machine in the belief that eventually he will land that elusive jackpot. With the odds heavily stacked against him, that coveted payoff never comes.

What are the odds of landing a jackpot with a standard four-reel slot machine? 1 in 160,000 (20x20x20). With a five-reel they are even lower: 1 in 3,200,000 (20x20x20x20). Unlike games of skill such as poker and blackjack offered at land-based and online casinos in the US, playing slots can be like hunting for a needle in a haystack. And that’s exactly what the hunt for “Jackpot” began to feel like.

We’ll never know, but perhaps that is exactly the reason the Department of Defense gave Bin Laden the name of “Jackpot.”As elusive as Bin he had been, the gamble finally paid off on that Sunday morning when Obama received the fateful transmission: “Geronimo EKIA.”

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