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Iraq war veteran Mike Bruggink on his recent trip to Afghanistan in pursuit of Osama bin Laden. Now that Mr. bin Laden has been killed, Mr. Bruggink has returned to the United States. (Mike Bruggink/Mike Bruggink)
Iraq war veteran Mike Bruggink on his recent trip to Afghanistan in pursuit of Osama bin Laden. Now that Mr. bin Laden has been killed, Mr. Bruggink has returned to the United States. (Mike Bruggink/Mike Bruggink)

War on terror, the do-it-yourself division Add to ...

Mike Bruggink was celebrating his 30th birthday when he found out that Osama bin Laden had been killed - and he was struck by a pang of regret. Just two weeks earlier, Mr. Bruggink, an American Iraq war veteran, had returned from Afghanistan, where he had gone with an ex-military buddy to track down the world's most-wanted man.

Armed with a borrowed AK-47 and fistfuls of privately raised cash, Mr. Bruggink reached the perilous border region near Pakistan on his vigilante journey. He was dealt false information, got shot at and ultimately returned empty-handed, save some video he shot of his ill-fated adventure. Sonia Verma asked him about his futile trip, the lessons learned and his next target.

When I first heard about your expedition, I thought you were crazy.

I've been all over the world. I know that as long as you can blend in, it's usually not as dangerous as people think.

So you thought you could actually blend in, in Pakistan and Afghanistan?

Amazingly, I think we blended in more than I expected.

When you heard Osama bin Laden had been killed, what was your reaction?

It was my 30th-birthday party. I thought my friend was playing a practical joke. Then everybody was raising their arms up in the air. It was amazing.

How did you feel personally?

There was one second where I thought, "Man, I really wanted to catch the guy." But I just wanted the guy caught, killed, whatever. So the fact that it happened is great. I cannot be disappointed.

Sept. 11 was a turning point. As soon as I saw the second tower go down, I said, "I'm joining the military."

You enlisted and found yourself in Korea, which isn't exactly what you wanted.

Korea was a bit of a disappointment. I was definitely not hunting bin Laden. I did my tour in Korea and then got deployed to Iraq.

What was that like?

It was better than Korea. I thought I was actually doing the job of a soldier. I was in the region when Saddam Hussein got caught. I thought the Iraqis would embrace us and that didn't really happen. Things just got worse. I did my year and got out.

After the army, there was a bit of an adjustment, going to college. It felt like going from a Formula 1 racecar driver to somebody driving bumper cars at the county fair. I started to think about what made me join the military all those years ago. I came up with the idea to go after bin Laden. I knew that was what I wanted to do.

Was this a PR stunt?

No. I believe we shouldn't leave it up to the government and just blindly sit by, while these people are willing to kill us just because we don't belong to their religion and we're Americans.

So you hooked up with another ex-military guy and raised money from your friends? What did your girlfriend say?

We broke up.

How much did you raise?

I saved up $35,000. A person in my building pledged $50,000. Another guy pledged $100,000. We're pretty well bankrolled.

What exactly was your plan?

This first trip was about gaining intel and seeing how close we could get.

How close did you get?

I couldn't get a visa to Pakistan. I don't think we got close, but we were in the general region. We ventured six hours north of Kabul to Kunar. It's a very dangerous place. You can't travel without an SUV.

An SUV? What did you wear?

The first few days we were wearing suits. And we had a guy walking around with us, armed with an AK-47.

You weren't exactly low-profile.

Not exactly, but surprisingly people really didn't seem to care.

Is it easy to buy weapons in Afghanistan?

I didn't buy weapons. I rented them.

How much does that cost?

It's hard to say because everything was kind of inclusive. I'd hire guards, interpreters, drivers, armoured vehicles. On average, I was spending more than $1,000 a day.

I would hire guards and say, "Give me the AK." Initially, they weren't too happy. Then they said, "Just take it."

What were people telling you?

[That]bin Laden had been crossing the border more frequently, which we later found out not to be the case.

I was never sure if the intel I was getting was any good.

But you were paying a lot of money for it. Do you feel like you were duped, paying for bad information?

Well, I wasn't paying for information that got me killed, so that was comforting.

Was I duped? Yeah. Maybe once or twice.

And how close to the border did you actually get?

Forty kilometres. I was in an observation post overlooking a town that was a Taliban stronghold. It was sort of like a foxhole. I was there on my own with an AK. I started to take small-arms fire. I shot 15 rounds and managed to get on my motorcycle and get the hell out of there.

Did you have the cameras rolling the whole time?

Yes.

What do you think the benefit of any of this was? You didn't get Mr. bin Laden.

I had a great adventure. It's possible to pull this stuff off. I don't think Afghanistan or Pakistan is the place for me. I don't really blend in too well.

Now that bin Laden's been caught, I can use these experiences to see what I want to do next.

What do you want to do next? Go after someone else?

Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines [an Islamist insurgent group known for its campaign of bombings and kidnappings] That's the next stop.

Don't you think what you do is disruptive to others, like the CIA and the military, in actually finding these people? In the end, the CIA did find Mr. bin Laden, whereas you just went there and got shot at.

Well, I called the State Department before I got on the plane. They said, "We can't stop you."

Are you jealous of the SEALs that caught bin Laden?

I would have liked to have been the guy who got him. I've wanted that for 10 years.

But jealousy is not really part of it.



Sonia Verma is a writer for The Globe and Mail. This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Follow on Twitter: @soniaverma

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