WASHINGTON – Eric Holder was the nation’s acting attorney general in January 2001 while President George W. Bush’s nominee for the post, John Ashcroft, was awaiting confirmation during the transition following the Clinton administration. Holder was preparing to return to private life after serving as deputy to Attorney General Janet Reno.
At the same time, almost 12,000 miles away in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden was attending his 17-year-old son Mohammed’s wedding to the daughter of al-Qaida’s military chief, Mohammed Atef. Bin Laden’s mother, several Taliban politicos and about 400 others listened as bin Laden recited poetry about the USS Cole bombing.
On Oct. 12, 2000, a suicide bomber attacked the Navy destroyer in the Yemeni port of Aden. Seventeen sailors were killed and 39 more injured. It was the deadliest attack against a United States Naval vessel since an Iraqi fighter jet attacked the guided missile frigate USS Stark in 1987, killing 31 sailors.
Back in Washington, Holder was still simmering about the Cole incident and bin Laden’s penchant for attacking the U.S.
“He was a constant presence in my consciousness in some form or fashion,” Holder said during an exclusive interview in his Department of Justice office.
“Bin Laden,” he added with a heavy pause, “has been part of my life from before September 11th when I was deputy attorney general — (when) the embassy bombings occurred, the Cole was bombed.”
Just more than two years before the Cole attack — on Aug. 7, 1998 — bin Laden ordered attacks on embassies that killed more than 200 people and left more than 4,000 wounded. The attacks took place at the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya.
As Holder left office, bin Laden followed him, taunting the U.S. at every turn in speeches. His taunts culminated in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — attacks that Noman Benotman, a former bin Laden associate, warned against.
“I’m 100 percent sure they had no clue about what was going to happen,” said Benotman, who was head of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group in the summer of 2000. He was present at a meeting in Kandahar where the attacks were planned.
“What happened after the 11th of September was beyond their imagination,” said Benotman, adding that al-Qaida thought the U.S. was a “paper tiger.”
Meanwhile, after almost a decade of private life, Holder returned to the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building to lead the agency. And bin Laden was still taunting.
Holder says he trained his sights on bin Laden, and the U.S. national security community — which had honed its counterterrorism skills in the interim years — helped him sharpen his focus.
“I spend a substantially greater amount of my time on national security issues than I expected to, having been in the Justice Department as the deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration,” Holder said.
“I came back to a department that was much more focused on national security items. I probably spend 60 to 70 percent of my time dealing with national security issues, and I thought I might come back and spend 40 percent of it, maybe 50 percent.”
On May 1, 2011 that investment of time paid off.
“Good evening,” President Barack Obama said. “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-Qaida, and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women and children.”
Holder recalled the uncertainty of the day while the operation was under way.
“As the information was developed that we had a good lead on where he was and as the plans were developed for taking that ultimate action, I have to tell you, once I was told that these fights were gonna happen early that morning, that was one of the longest days of my professional life,” Holder said.
He said the moments dragged on and on as the president’s national security team gathered, “waiting, waiting, waiting to hear what the results were.”
Holder’s mind, constantly focused on bin Laden, was now flooded with questions.
“‘Did we get him?'” the attorney general remembered. “‘Are all of our people back?'”
At 7:01 p.m. on May 1, Obama was told that bin Laden had been killed with no loss of life for U.S. assets involved.
“And then when it went as well as it did,” Holder continued, “it was an amazing thing to hear that and then to watch the president come out and give that speech.”
The president’s remarks reactivated long-buried emotions for Holder.
“This guy, on a very personal level, had been such a part of my life for so long,” he said, “and to think the person who has done so much harm to the United States — not only here in New York, in Washington and in Pennsylvania, but in other parts of the world — was no longer somebody we were going to have to deal with.”
Celebrations erupted in front of the White House after the news of bin Laden’s killing, but Holder wasn’t prepared to go that far.
“I have to say that I’m not sure that ‘joy’ is the precise way in which you could express what I felt,” he said, “but there was certainly a great deal of satisfaction knowing that he had been brought to justice.”