The nearly flawless, 40-minute covert military raid that killed Osama bin Laden began with an intelligence breakthrough in August that helped pinpoint the compound where the terrorist leader was suspected of hiding.
The early morning airborne commando strike carried out Sunday was the culmination of an ultra-secret operation that lasted nearly nine months, used testimony from many different types of sources - captured terrorists, human spies, spy satellite data, electronic intercepts - and finally ended the massive 10-year manhunt for the world’s most-wanted terrorist.
A Navy SEAL-led counterterrorist commando team from the Naval Special Warfare Development Group in Virginia - a team that included CIA officers - launched the multi-helicopter assault from a base in Afghanistan and flew to Abbottabad, 35 miles from Islamabad and about 100 miles from the Afghan border, for the raid.
The facility was built at an estimated cost of $1 million in a wealthy neighborhood that is close to Pakistan’s main military academy and is known for residences of former Pakistani military leaders - all points suggesting official Pakistani complicity in bin Laden’s presence.
After reaching a walled compound, some two dozen commandos entered it in darkness. One helicopter made a hard landing and was later destroyed.
Shooting began immediately as the SEALs battled armed security guards. After some 30 minutes, the commandos reached an upper room in a three-story building where bin Laden was sleeping.
According to John Brennan, White House counterterrorism coordinator, the SEALs first tried to capture bin Laden but he resisted and used a woman, initially thought to be one of his wives, as a human shield as he fired shots at the attacking commandos.
Bin Laden took a shot to the head and a shot to the chest and died, while the woman survived a wound to the leg. Several women and children at the compound were wounded, and one of those other women was killed after she too was used as a human shield by a gun-firing guard.
Survivors were left at the facility. No U.S. commandos were hurt.
White House watching
The one flaw in the mission caused a brief moment of tension for President Obama and senior officials as they watched the operation unfold in real time Sunday afternoon at the White House, Mr. Brennan said.
One of the helicopters broke down and had to be destroyed by the commandos. The resulting explosion, along with shooting from the compound, set off alarms at a nearby Pakistani military base, and the Pakistanis, who were not told of the raid in advance, began moving air and ground forces in response.
Ultimately, however, no Pakistani jets or troops interfered with the quick-strike operation.
Mr. Brennan said the operation also was risky because it was launched on the basis of “circumstantial evidence” that bin Laden was living in the Abbottabad compound.
“It was clearly very tense, a lot of people holding their breath,” Mr. Brennan said. “And when we finally were informed that those individuals who were able to go in that compound and found an individual that they believed was bin Laden, there was a tremendous sigh of relief, that what we believed and who we believed was in that compound actually was in that compound and was found.”
Regarding bin Laden using a woman as a shield, Mr. Brennan said “it really just speaks to … the nature of the individual he was.”
According to U.S. officials, Sunday’s operation had its roots in a major intelligence breakthrough last summer.
One defense official said a captured al Qaeda trainee Ahmed Siddiqui was arrested in July and disclosed to U.S. interrogators in Afghanistan that bin Laden was hiding in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Siddiqui also disclosed an al Qaeda plot to carry out a Mumbai-style terrorist assault on Europe, a scheme authorities thwarted last year.
Other U.S. officials said the electronic intercept in August of one of the al Qaeda couriers talking on his phone led to the location of the compound.
Satellite and human surveillance of the compound was stepped up during the fall and ultimately led intelligence analysts to conclude the complex was built specifically for a “high-value target” whom intelligence officials suspected was bin Laden, a senior administration official said.
In addition to bin Laden, the dead included two al Qaeda couriers who were brothers, bin Laden’s adult son, and the woman used as a human shield by the guard, administration officials told reporters Sunday night.
“People have been referring to this as hiding in plain sight,” Mr. Brennan said. “Clearly, this was something that was considered as a possibility. Pakistan is a large country. We are looking right now at how he was able to hold out there for so long and whether or not there was any type of support system within Pakistan that allowed him to stay there.”
Mr. Brennan said that “people at the compound there were working on his behalf, and that’s how we ultimately found our way to that compound.”
The senior administration official said the CIA began focusing on bin Laden’s inner circle after the Sept. 11 attacks and specifically one of the two couriers he used to communicate with subordinates.
Captured terrorists identified some details of that courier, a protege of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, and Abu Faraj al-Libbi, the former No. 3 al Qaeda leader captured in 2005, the senior official said.
“They indicated he might be living with and protecting bin Laden,” the official said. “But for years, we were unable to identify his true name or his location.”
Then four years ago, the identity of the courier was learned and “about two years ago, after months of persistent effort, we identified areas in Pakistan where the courier and his brother operated,” the official said.
The exact location of the courier could not be learned due to extensive secrecy employed by the courier and his brother. According to the official, however, that type of secrecy “reinforced our belief that we were on the right track.”
The official then said that in August 2010, “we found their residence, a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.”
“The area is relatively affluent, with lots of retired military,” he said. “It’s also insulated from the natural disasters and terrorist attacks that have afflicted other parts of Pakistan. When we saw the compound where the brothers lived, we were shocked by what we saw - an extraordinarily unique compound. The compound sits on a large plot of land in an area that was relatively secluded when it was built. It is roughly eight times larger than the other homes in the area.”
According to a classified Pentagon report on al-Libbi made public by WikiLeaks last month, Abbottabad was the area where al-Libbi was sent by bin Laden after 2003 to work in “collecting donations, organizing travel and distributing funds to families in Pakistan.”
The document, labeled “secret,” identified the trusted and designated bin Laden courier who contacted al-Libbi in 2003 as Maulawi Abd al-Khaliq Jan. It is not known if he was one of the couriers killed in Abbottabad on Sunday.
According to Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, about 12 of the 20 most senior al Qaeda leaders are known to be in Pakistan at least temporarily.
Mr. Rogers said he was briefed in January on the compound and its suspected use as a bin Laden hide-out, noting that the intelligence was sketchy.
“But over time, they kept building the case,” he said.
The operation showed the value interrogations of captured terrorists. “I do believe it is a great example of how important interrogations are, wherever they happen,” Mr. Rogers said.
The intelligence was held closely.
“They wanted to keep this as close as they possibly could, given that any release of that information, knowing their operational security, would jeopardize and could accelerate his packing up and leaving,” Mr. Rogers said, noting that the $50 million reward offered for the capture of bin Laden will not be paid.
Pakistan kept in dark
According to the intelligence official, Pakistani government, military and intelligence officials were not informed about the operation because of concerns it would be disclosed to al Qaeda.
The official said the “Pakistanis … did not know of our interest in the compound, but they did provide us information that helped us develop a clearer focus on this compound over time.”
The intelligence official said the one-acre compound, with two main buildings, was designed as a fortress, with walls up to 18 feet high, balconies with seven-foot-high privacy walls, and barbed wire along the top of the walls. The residents, unlikely to be mere neighbors, burned their trash as a security measure and it was equipped with two gates with opaque windows.
Mr. Obama was first made aware of the Abbottabad compound in September and ordered action against it “as soon as he concluded that the intelligence case was sufficiently strong,” this official said. “A range of options for achieving the mission were developed, and on Friday he authorized the operation.”
“Our best assessment, based on a large body of reporting from multiple sources, was that bin Laden was living there with several family members, including his youngest wife.”
Another clue was the fact that Mohammed and al-Libbi had been arrested in the settled areas of Pakistan, the official said.
The final assessment was that a “high-value” al Qaeda target lived in the compound and it was a “strong possibility” it was bin Laden, the official said.
A senior intelligence official said Monday that both visual identification at the scene and later DNA tests confirmed bin Laden was killed. His body was buried at sea from the USS Carl Vinson around 2 a.m. Monday in the north Arabian Sea.
c Eli Lake contributed to this report.