Patriotic nutjob Gary Faulker wasn't the only Angeleno to strike out alone on a mission to find Osama bin Laden before last weekend's big Navy SEAL takedown. Marina del Rey resident Mike Bruggink was hot on his trail — the $25 million prize just within reach.
However, unlike Faulker, after years of military experience in Korea and Iraq, Bruggink says his approach was a bit more sophisticated.
“It takes a lot of courage; [Faulkner] did something that a lot of people would never even attempt to do,” says Bruggink. “But walking around with a sword and a ball of hash and Christian literature in his pocket — it seems like it was poor execution.”
So here's what he did instead:
Last month, for two weeks, Bruggink and a friend — a former infantryman who had been to Iraq twice — high-tailed it to Afghanistan on a boar-hunting scholarship, where they tapped local sources for intelligence and sniffed through the desert for traces of the al Qaeda frontman.
“For the first week, I was basically dealing with contacts, finding out tips,” he says. “The second half I was pretty much on my own with an AK-47 and a motorcycle … climbing through caves looking for Bin Laden. Things got a little bit hairy. I was starting to feel like people were onto us.”
(If only he'd gotten a hold of the UCLA report, released in 2009, that predicted Bin Laden was hiding on a Pakistani compound. Heh.)
Just like the UCLA kids, though, Bruggink did have an inkling that Bin Laden was on the neighboring border of Pakistan, not in Afghanistan. Thing is, Pakistan is much stricter about granting visas — especially, uh, to ex-soldiers with AK-47s. So Bruggink flew back to L.A. and spent the remainder of April collecting $100,000 in donations for a return trip.
This time, the Bin Laden hunter planned to arrive gunless and slip into Pakistan through the one spot where travelers can still pass somewhat easily: the Korakoram Highway, an old silk-trading route from China.
However, just days before his departure date, as Bruggink celebrated his 30th birthday on his Marina del Rey rooftop, he got a call from his friend: Bin Laden was dead.
“I thought it was a joke at first,” he says.
And we have to ask: Might he have felt the tiniest bead of bitterness?
“You know, there was a split second where I thought, 'I really wish I was that guy,'” he says. “But then I thought of the bigger picture. I'm just so overwhelmed, really, and thankful that he's gone.”
We're sure the numerous bounty hunters deployed by security companies to bring back the $25 million turban couldn't avoid a faint “dangit” that night, either.
Like many young men, Bin Laden was the reason Bruggink joined the army in the first place: Back in November 2001, pent up and stir-crazy in the wake of the World Trade Center's fiery tumble, Bruggink felt he couldn't just sit around the house any longer.
But now that the al Qaeda posterboy is chilling at the bottom of the ocean with some deep-sea creature camped out in his eye hole, Bruggink is freed up to dream about all the subordinates that still roam free.
Specifically, the ones in the Philippines, on the southeastern island of Mindanao.
“You have to use your strengths, and use what you know,” he says. See, it just so happens that, between his time serving our country in Iraq and setting off on a solo hunt for Bin Laden, Bruggink attended film school in Asia for five years. (Feel like a slacker yet?)
“My network in the Philippines is quite extensive,” he says — and “a lot of insurgents with al Qaeda ties have a safe haven there.”
Bruggink maintains that he's not in it for the money, but, at the same time, is very much aware that there are still “many al Qaeda leaders with multimilllion dollar rewards.” Including one in the Philippines, named Zulkifli Abdhir, who's worth $5 million.
So why not just re-join the military?
“You realize, when you start off an enlisted man, you dont have the freedom to execute ideas on your own,” Bruggink says. “You're not in a position to take matters into your own hands.”
He suggests that Bin Laden's capture may have taken so long because of old-fashioned, cumbersome WWII tactics still employed by the U.S. Army, and the fact that terrorists know exactly where the large packs of soldiers are stationed.
Plus, as the anonymous Navy SEAL heroes who took down Bin Laden learned the hard way, $25 million rewards are not available for those just doin' their job. How much more glamorous is a wild solo trek through terrorist lands, hunting down enemies in the name of peace and freedom?
If only for the (multimillion-dollar) story.
Watch additional interview footage of Bruggink at NBC LA.