I'm standing atop a hill somewhere in the deserts of Libya, M4 rifle in hand, scanning the horizon for any sign of Alain Khalid, AKA "The Desert Rat." It's weird to think that out of all the video games in the world, at some point, someone who lived in hiding with Osama bin Laden likely sat in front of a computer and hunted for Khalid as well.
Khalid, an arms smuggler, terrorist, and cartel leader, is the antagonist of Delta Force: Xtreme 2, a military first-person shooter released in 2009. I've eliminated every enemy patrol in the area and cleared out a number of outposts, but Khalid is nowhere to be found. I walk around and retrace my steps for the better part of an hour, and it's starting to drive me nuts.
It's so unclear where I'm supposed to find Khalid that I start to wonder if I've encountered a weird bug, where the game failed to trigger a sequence that spawns him into the level. Frustrated, I turn to Google in search of a guide that might explain what I'm missing, which is when I'm reminded why I started playing this overall pretty shitty game in the first place.
According to the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), a "Delta Force Extreme [sic] 2 Videogame Guide," perhaps the kind I was looking for, was found on Osama bin Laden's bookshelf in his compound in Islamabad, Pakistan, where he was discovered and killed in 2011.
The strangest thing about someone in bin Laden's compound playing Delta Force: Xtreme 2 is that it's a game about hunting down a very bin Laden-like bad guy.
It's impossible not to compare any terrorist bad guy in a video game after 2001 to bin Laden, but Khalid's elusive nature, dodging Delta Force as he runs from country to country, and his nickname—Desert Rat, which evokes bin Laden's notorious cave hideout in Tora Bora—is a better fit than usual. One mission briefing also says that Khalid is waging a "personal war against the West," and that he hopes to spark a global war by hitting Western targets around the world.
Why would a guide for a game like that be in bin Laden's compound?
The ODNI's official Bin Laden's Bookshelf page files it under"Documents Probably Used by Other Compound Residents," where it also lists a "Game Spot [sic] Videogame Guide." The page doesn't specify what the GameSpot guide is for, but GameSpot's cheats and guides website, GameFAQs.com, doesn't have a guide for Delta Force: Xtreme 2.
In fact, though some sites reported that the "Delta Force Extreme 2 Videogame Guide" was a strategy guide or "walkthrough" of the kind that explains how to beat the game, I could find no such text online, from dedicated players or commercial strategy guide publications like Prima.
The only guide I could find was the very short, official instruction manual ("Quick Start Guide"), which would also come with a physical copy of the game. My best guess is that this is the guide that was found on bin Laden's compound, which would probably be necessary since the game does a terrible job explaining how it's played.
Whatever the guide was, it would suggest that someone at the compound was playing Delta Force: Xtreme 2, though the game isn't listed among the software found there. Perhaps someone had a copy of the game installed on a computer there at some point, but not when it was seized. Why else would you have a guide?
As the Bin Laden's Bookshelf page suggests, the guide was probably used by someone other than bin Laden, and I can think of no other purpose it would serve other than entertainment. It could have belonged to one of the kids who stayed at the compound.
Though the game comes with an editor that allows players to create their own levels, the suggestion that bin Laden might have used the game to train terrorists seems comical. Delta Force: Xtreme 2 was horribly outdated for a first-person shooter released in 2009.
When the first game in the series, Delta Force, was released in 1998, it was a revelation. It was a game inspired by modern warfare at a time when most first-person shooters shied away from anything that might look like the current conflicts we're involved with, preferring instead to imagine future wars or reenact World War II.
Delta Force: Xtreme 2 aimed for realism before it was in style, with just one or two bullets enough to take you or the enemies out, and the ability to lean around corners.
It also had an impressive online multiplayer mode that allowed up to 150 players to play on the same huge map, but that couldn't have been the appeal on bin Laden's compound, which had no internet connection.
The problem is that nothing changed or evolved between the first Delta Force in 1998 and Delta Force: Xtreme 2 in 2009. It's practically the same game. The textures are muddy, the environments are barren, and the enemy AI and scripting that triggers certain events in the level are often broken.
Which is why I wasn't sure if I just couldn't find Khalid or if I was encountering another bug.
Eventually I do what I should have done from the beginning: look up a walkthrough on YouTube. In one video, I see a player complete the mission by firing a rocket into a building, and when I try the mission again that's where I find Khalid.
He's a bald man with a beard, olive fatigues, and he's unarmed. I take out my pistol, put two bullets in his chest, and head to the extraction zone. It's an anticlimactic conclusion to the hunt. Khalid doesn't give a huge speech explaining his motives, there's no epic shootout, no catharsis.
It's surreal to consider the possibility that, at some point, some kid was killing Khalid in Delta Force: Xtreme 2 while bin Laden was in the other room. It's such a curious, bad choice for a game, and I wonder why the kids there couldn't have gotten their hands on the latest Call of Duty, for example.
But Khalid's and bin Laden's demise feel eerily similar. It's definitely an ending, but after all that searching, what you find is not as satisfying as you hoped.
All Fronts is a series about technology and forever war. Follow along here.