US & Canada

Osama Bin Laden: Why Geronimo?

Geronimo, file picture 1887

The code name for the operation to capture Osama Bin Laden is thought to have been Geronimo. Why was it named after one of the best-known Native Americans?

Geronimo. The Apache warrior's name conjures up an image of the American Wild West, the world over.

In the best-known photograph of him - taken in 1887 - he glares defiantly into the camera, gripping a rifle. It was this fearless warrior that led the last band of Apache resistance to the white Americans.

The fact that Bin Laden had been killed by US special forces was reported to President Barack Obama on Sunday with the words "Geronimo EKIA" - Enemy Killed In Action.

But US officials have refused to comment on whether this was Bin Laden's code name, or the code name of the operation, or why the name Geronimo was chosen - and may never do so.

Old West reincarnated

It was back in 2001 that the narrative for America's hunt for the al-Qaeda leader became strewn with Wild West imagery.

George W Bush's call for Bin Laden to be caught "dead or alive" mimicked the posters of the old Hollywood westerns, while borderland Pakistan became the Old West reincarnated in the minds of many commentators.

Bin Laden was referred to by one as a "21st-Century Geronimo, trying to elude the US military somewhere in a dry mountain range that could easily pass for the American West".

Afghanistan's cave-laced mountains, were easy to imagine using the template of the Sierra Madre mountain range thousands of miles away, where the original Geronimo managed to elude US troops for so long in the late 19th Century.

Referring to US military possibilities in the tribal areas of Afghanistan's mountainous regions, Allan R Millet, a retired Marine Corps colonel and Ohio State University professor, said in 2001: "It's like shooting missiles at Geronimo... you might get a couple of Apaches, but what difference does that make?"

The real Geronimo was born in 1829 in what is modern day New Mexico. As one of the Apache leaders, he inherited a tradition of resisting colonisation by both Spaniards and North Americans.

According to Ron Jackson writing in The Oklahoman newspaper in 2009, Geronimo's "legend is rooted in real deeds of bravery and bloodshed."

Eluding capture

He gained early notoriety for his fearless raids against Mexican soldiers. Mexican troops had killed members of his family after storming his village, and his revenge was to kill as many of them as possible.

"By 1872, US government officials were keenly aware of Geronimo's fighting exploits when they corralled him and hundreds of his fellow Chiricahua Apache people onto an Arizona Territory reservation," writes Mr Jackson.

"Four years later, Geronimo led a large band of Apache dissidents off the reservation and into the Sierra Madre mountains of Old Mexico, where they staged raids on anyone unlucky enough to cross their paths.

"Military officials soon branded Geronimo a renegade. During the next decade, Geronimo repeatedly returned to reservation life in peace only to bolt with others for the refuge of the Sierra Madres. They often left a trail of blood. Hidden in the myriad mountain passes and caves, Geronimo and his followers embarrassed military officers by eluding them time and again, at one point with as many as 5,000 US soldiers on their heels."

It was Apache scouts that helped track Geronimo down in 1886. As a prisoner of war he became a celebrity, dictating his memoirs and taking part in President Theodore Roosevelt's inaugural parade in 1905. He died of pneumonia at Fort Sill in Oklahoma in 1909, after falling from his horse.

Image caption The hunt for Bin Laden was often portrayed with Wild West imagery

His struggle to resist the white Americans has led to him being depicted in a sympathetic light by many cultural historians.

Ironically, it is thanks to the Native American's legendary bravery that two of the US army's elite units have the regimental nickname "Geronimo".

The link to the parachute divisions' monikers and the tradition of shouting "Geronimo" while bailing out of a plane can be traced to Fort Benning in the state of Georgia.


According to reports, in 1940 soldiers from the parachute division were preparing to test a daring new manoeuvre, in which men jumped from the plane in rapid succession.

The night before the jump, a small group of soldiers left the base to watch film at the local cinema - a western featuring the fearless Geronimo. As the men later revealed their apprehension about the next day's jump, Pt Aubrey Eberhardt announced that he was going to shout "Geronimo" as he leapt from the plane to demonstrate his courage.

The story goes that as he jumped, "G-E-R-O-N-I-M-O" was clearly heard from the ground. The motivational yell was adopted other servicemen and quickly became standard practice for US army paratroopers - and the favoured cry for little boys performing a daring leap.

The word "Geronimo" was eventually discontinued by the army in favour of a parachute opening count - "one-thousand, two-thousand" - but by this stage it was already the name of the the army's first parachute battalion, the 501st Parachute Infantry Battalion.

The nickname Geronimo has also adopted by the 1st Battalion (Airborne), 509th Infantry Regiment, which has been operational in Iraq and Afghanistan. By adopting the tactics and techniques of al-Qaeda and the Taleban, they help to train other units to defend themselves.

The original Geronimo is buried at Fort Sill - but one branch of his descendants argue that he should be laid to rest in his tribal homeland of the Gila Mountains of New Mexico. Until the correct sacred burial rite is carried out there, they say, his spirit is still wandering.

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