What a Top Terror Tracker Learned About Osama bin Laden

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Salah Malkawi / Getty Images

A video still of Osama bin Laden at an unspecified location, from a tape that aired on al-Jazeera on Sept. 10, 2003

Dalton Fury is the nom de plume of a Delta Force commander who led U.S. troops into Afghanistan's Tora Bora mountains at the end of 2001, when Osama bin Laden was in full flight. Fury's new book, Kill Bin Laden: A Delta Force Commander's Account of the Hunt for the World's Most Wanted Man, is a riveting account of one of the most important — but also least understood — battles in the war on terror. It tells of the bravery of the men under his command, but also of the intelligence failures that allowed bin Laden and many top al-Qaeda leaders to escape from the mountains. (Read "Why Can't We Find Bin Laden?"

Fury, who can't use his real name because of security concerns, is now a private citizen. He spoke with TIME world editor Bobby Ghosh on the phone from an undisclosed location. Excerpts:

TIME: When you hear a U.S. presidential candidate saying "I promise we'll kill Osama bin Laden," what runs through your mind?

Dalton Fury: What runs through my mind is that it doesn't really matter who is going to go in the White House next year. If there's no intelligence on where [bin Laden is] located, then you can have Mickey Mouse in the White House. If they had good actual intelligence now, they would have hit him a Hellfire missile, or even potentially sent a special team in there. But it's just not as easy as saying, "When I get elected, I'll kill him," because if we knew where he was now, we would have already made the attempt.

Are we getting better intelligence now?

I think we're always improving. We're trying to build a better mousetrap, but you know, it's hard to fight [al-Qaeda] with conventional weaponry. The answer isn't always money. You can buy a thousand more Predator drones and put them over there and clog the airspace, but they're not stupid — they know when the Predators are up there. So yeah, we're going to make them fly higher and have more powerful cameras and all that stuff, but I think that because [al-Qaeda leaders] live in mud huts and they're barely washing and bathing themselves ... that we somehow treat them as if they are inferior human beings.

How aware were they of your abilities, the abilities of the Delta Force?

I'd be naive to say that they weren't aware of it. I think they're smart enough and have shown a propensity to understand how the Internet works and how to get around being discovered by using various means.

The view that exists in the U.S. is that bin Laden is living in a cave somewhere, that he's cut off from the rest of the world.

Bin Laden garners a lot of support from people because he has the ability and the willpower to live in austere conditions, to live like the average Afghani or the average Pashtun — without a lot of creature comforts. It's hard for a Western mind to realize that bin Laden is perfectly comfortable with a couple of meals a day of flat bread and some rice, as long as he can read the Koran and put out his audio and videotapes when he sees fit. It's hard to imagine anybody, any leader in the West, to have the ability to do that, but he's shown that he can certainly do that.

What have you learned about him, his personality or his lifestyle that surprises you?

My book talks about him surrounding himself with individuals of his blood type, which I thought was very interesting. If he's wounded, then he has a guy with the same blood who can give him a transfusion. But that's completely counter to the legend that bin Laden's bodyguards have been ordered to kill him if he is wounded in a battle. If that was true, in my personal opinion, he would have stayed in Tora Bora and not ran. That surprised me very much. I really thought he would stay and fight as he advertised.

The other thing that surprised me was that [during the fighting in Tora Bora] he actually told his women and children to arm themselves and come out of the caves and fight the Americans. For a man of bin Laden's stature, who puts so much credence in the Koran and the afterlife and paradise, it seemed like he reduced himself to an actual human being, with actual fears and concerns for his own health, his own survival. In his sermons and tapes, he appears above those concerns, yet here he was, asking the women and children to do the fighting for him.

When detectives track a serial killer for a long time, they can sometimes get in his head — and they can anticipate his next move. Do you feel the same way about bin Laden?

I don't think we know that much about his personality, to tell you the truth. He's obviously been very evasive over the years, and you're not getting a lot of people walking in with information.

What is it that people in the U.S. still don't get about bin Laden that you think they ought to?

I think they don't get how powerful this Islamic religion is and how powerful the Koran can be to a very small percentage, a minute percentage, of the Muslim community — people who will, in the name of bin Laden or in the name of jihad or like al-Qaeda ideology, strap on a suicide bomb or get into a bomb-laden vehicle, and blow up a hotel or a checkpoint — all in the name of bin Laden.

I think that he has such enormous magnetism that you almost have to respect it. No American is going to strap a bomb to himself and go kill someone in the name of Barack Obama or John McCain — that's not going to happen.

Many Americans think, Hey, come on, we're offering a reward of $25 million. We've been looking for this guy for seven years — so come on, what's the big deal? How hard can it be? But when you actually get around those people [who shelter the al-Qaeda leaders], you see how honorable they are, how independent they are, how hospitable they are, all according to their religion. It's much different than communism, you know. We never faced that in the Cold War. This truly is a different enemy here.

Where did you come up with Dalton Fury? It's a great name.

Simple Google search: it wasn't taken. It's pretty far from my true name.

What's next for you?

I have no idea. I'm a private citizen, and I think I'll just spend family time and watch the news and see when we finally grab bin Laden. I hope it's a violent death. I hope he doesn't die of old age or health reasons. Personally, I think he needs to die the same way that 3,000 individuals died on 9/11.

You don't want to see him being tried first?

I don't want to see him be tried, no. I don't think anybody does. I think it would be a circus. With Saddam Hussein, it was probably a good idea that he was tried because millions of [Iraqis] hated him — he terrorized the majority of the country. No one in Afghanistan or Pakistan really hates bin Laden, so you don't have those millions of enemies that Saddam had.

Killing him, it might make him a martyr, that's O.K. I think [the terrorists will] soon forget about it. I think they'll lose their stomach for the fight when they see the mighty bin Laden was vulnerable and was finally taken out. I don't think they'll have an easy time replacing him. I know the other top tier [al-Qaeda leadership] can barely get along as it is, they all don't particularly like each other. I don't think there's anybody that can bring the following out like bin Laden can.

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