Osama bin Laden used one of his wives as a human shield during the firefight with U.S. forces at the compound in Pakistan where he was killed, the White House’s counterterrorism chief said Monday.
The woman died along with bin Laden, one of his sons and two other men in a daring U.S. raid that John Brennan described as one of the “gutsiest calls” by a president in recent memory.
Mr. Brennan, President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, said officials monitored the 40-minute operation in real time but wouldn’t say if they were watching video of the event.
“The minutes passed like days,” he said, describing the raid as “probably one of the most anxiety-filled periods” in the lives of Mr. Obama and his national security team.
The Sunday operation took out the world’s biggest terrorist target, who was hiding in a fortified compound in Pakistan, setting off celebrations across the country as Americans cheered the death of the man who orchestrated the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Addressing the nation late Sunday night, Mr. Obama called the news “a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people.”
In a briefing with reporters Monday at the White House, Mr. Brennan said one of bin Laden’s wives was used as a human shield to protect the al Qaeda founder. Both were killed in a shootout, and bin Laden was later buried at sea.
“Here is bin Laden, who has been calling for these attacks, living in this million-dollar-plus compound, living in an area that is far removed from the front, hiding behind women who were put in front of him as a shield,” he told reporters. “I think it really just speaks to just how false his narrative has been over the years.”
Mr. Brennan said U.S. forces were prepared to take bin Laden alive if he did not pose a “threat” but killed him when he resisted capture.
As for the burial of the terrorist leader at sea, Mr. Brennan wouldn’t offer many details but insisted it was done in accordance with Islamic law. He said officials had discussed ahead of time what they would do with bin Laden’s body if he were killed in the operation and burial at sea was determined to be the best way to ensure he was buried within 24 hours, as Islamic law requires.
The administration is still in the process of deciding whether to release additional proof, such as photos of the corpse, to convince skeptics that bin Laden is in fact dead, Mr. Brennan said.
“We are going to continue to look at the information that we have and make sure that we are able to share what we can, because we want to make sure that not only the American people but the world understand exactly what happened,” he said.
Mr. Brennan likened the death of bin Laden to “decapitating the head of the snake” that is al Qaeda and said officials hope to capitalize on the achievement by exploiting fractures among bin Laden’s successors wtihin the infamous terrorist network. Still, he stressed that the fight against terrorism continues.
“It may be a mortally wounded tiger that still has some life in it,” he said.
The decision to act on the intelligence was not without risk, Mr. Brennan said, given that even as officials were certain that the high-value-target living within the compound was indeed bin Laden, it couldn’t be confirmed until he was killed or captured.
U.S. officials are “pursuing all leads” to determine what kind of benefactors and support system that bin Laden had in Pakistan and whether any members of the troubled country’s government were complicit in keeping his whereabouts under wraps, Mr. Brennan said. He refused to speculate at this point but said it’s suspicious that bin Laden was found outside of a major city.
“I think people are raising a number of questions - understandably so,” he said.