Bin Laden raid years in the making, minutes in execution

McClatchy NewspapersMay 2, 2011 

WASHINGTON — It took years for the U.S. military to track Osama bin Laden down, finding him not in a cave in the inaccessible tribal regions of Pakistan, but in a sumptuous luxury compound built just six years ago in the same city that is home to Pakistan's most prestigious military academy.

The raid that killed the leader of al Qaida lasted under 40 minutes, and his body was later given a burial at sea apparently to prevent his followers from turning his grave into a shrine.

The world’s most wanted terrorist was shot in the left eye during a firefight with U.S. Navy SEALs at the walled, palatial compound where he was holed up in a suburb of the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, close to the country’s premier military academy, according to senior Obama administration officials.

Also killed were bin Laden's most trusted courier, the courier’s brother and one of bin Laden's sons, as well as a woman one of the men tried to use as a human shield, they said. Their bodies, and women and children who also were living in the compound were left there.

“The only person taken out of the compound by U.S. forces was Osama bin Laden,” said a U.S. official, who requested anonymity like other U.S. officials who provided details of the operation.

Two women were injured in the raid and were being treated in a military hospital in Abbottabad, according to local Pakistani officials, who asked not to be further identified. They were believed to be one of Osama’s wives and a daughter.

Video aired by ABC News of the interior of the compound showed a ransacked room, its floor swathed in blood.

A comparison completed Monday of the DNA taken from the corpse with DNA from several of bin Laden’s relatives determined with “99.99 percent accuracy” that he was the dead man, said a U.S. official, who requested anonymity like other U.S. officials who provided details of the operation.

Initial identifications of the corpse on Sunday came from a participant in the raid, one of his wives and digital facial recognition technology that confirmed features like his nose and ears, the U.S. official said.

"Bin Laden was killed as our operators came into the compound," said one senior administration official.

Only U.S. personnel were involved in the raid, and Obama's decision to launch it wasn't shared with any other country, including Pakistan, whose most powerful intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, has long been suspected by U.S. officials of maintaining links to extremist groups close to al Qaida.

One senior administration official indicated that the U.S. was pursuing with the Pakistani government the question of whether any Pakistani officials were aware of bin Laden's presence.

"We are very concerned that he was inside Pakistan," he said.

Numerous experts said they doubted that bin Laden could have been living in the Abbottabad area, with its heavy concentration of military facilities and retired senior officers, without the knowledge of elements of the ISI and Pakistani military.

“There is no way the ISI couldn’t have known about this. No way. Zero. In that area, they are absolute masters of their domain,” said a former senior defense official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Abbottabad is inside a heavily concentrated air defense zone that includes Islamabad and the adjacent military headquarters city of Rawalpindi, requiring the U.S. to take special steps that allowed the helicopters to evade Pakistani radars, said one U.S. official, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified.

CIA Director Leon Panetta oversaw the operation from a special command center in his 7th floor conference room at CIA headquarters outside Washington, and then command of the operation was turned over to the SEALs commander once the “go order” for the raid was given, the U.S. official said.

“This was a no kidding, CIA and military operation,” said the U.S. official.

“The raid was the culmination of intense and tireless effort on the part of many dedicated agency officers over many years,” Panetta said in a message to CIA employees. “Our men and women designed highly complex, innovative, and forward-leaning clandestine operations that led us to bin Laden. One operation would yield intelligence that was carefully analyzed and then used to drive further operations.

The compound was uncovered after years of effort in which the CIA gathered leads on individuals in bin Laden's inner circle, including his couriers. Some of their names were provided by al Qaida members captured by the U.S.

"One courier in particular had our constant attention," said a second senior administration official, who declined to release his name, but described him as a "protege" of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged architect of the 9/11 attacks who was captured in Pakistan in March 2003 and is in U.S. custody at Guantanamo.

The CIA positively identified the courier four years ago and two years ago identified areas of Pakistan where the courier and his brother were operating. But because they employed such tight operations security, the agency was unable to pinpoint their residence until last August.

The captured al Qaida members only knew the courier's nom de guerre, but they told U.S. intelligence officers that he was "one of the few . . . trusted by bin Laden," and that the pair might be living together, he continued.

The courier and his brother were tracked to a massive, palatial compound built in 2005 at the end of a dirt road in an isolated and "affluent" suburb of Abbottabad favored by retired Pakistani military officers, said the second senior administration official, who added that it was believed that the residence was constructed specifically for bin Laden.

"We were shocked by what we saw," he said, describing the compound as being eight times larger than any of the area's other homes, surrounded by 12- to 18-foot walls topped by barbed wire. Different sections of the structure were walled off from each other.

The "extraordinary security measures" also included two electrified security gates. Trash was burned before being taken out for disposal, he said.

The compound was built at a cost of $1 million — a great deal for a residence in impoverished Pakistan — yet it had no telephone or Internet connections, and the third floor was surrounded by a "seven-foot privacy wall" for its occupants.

The courier and his brother, meanwhile, "had no explainable source of income," said the second administration official, who added that "we soon learned that more people were living at the compound" than just the two men and their families.

CIA analysts, working with the eavesdroppers of the National Security Agency and experts at the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Agency, which analyzes satellite imagery, concluded "with strong probability" that a third family — bin Laden, his youngest wife and several family members — also were living there, he said.

The compound's massive security, its isolated location and its size "was consistent with what our experts had expected bin Laden's hideout would look like," he continued. "No other candidate fit the bill as well as bin Laden did."

Months of planning went into the helicopter-borne operation, said a third senior administration official, who declined to provide many details, including how many personnel and aircraft participated. Obama met with a close circle of top national security aides five times since March 14 to review the intelligence assessment and plans for the operation before giving the final go-ahead.

The compound's high walls, security precautions, suburban location "and proximity to Islamabad made" the operation extreme risky, he said.

The third senior administration official described the operation as "a surgical raid by a small team designed to minimize collateral damage."

"Our team was in the compound for under 40 minutes," he said.

The senior administration officials said that the operation complied with U.S. and international law, and stressed that Obama had repeatedly put Pakistan on notice that the U.S. would act if it received actionable intelligence on the whereabouts of bin Laden or other terrorist threats.

A fourth senior administration official warned that "there may be a heightened threat" of terrorism against the U.S. homeland and Americans overseas as a result of bin Laden's killing.

The administration, he said, was taking "every possible effort" to detect and thwart any retaliatory terrorist strikes.

But he called bin Laden's death "the single greatest victory" in the long campaign to crush al Qaida.

As for bin Laden's body, it will "be handled in accordance with Islamic practice and tradition," which dictate that the funeral and burial be held within 24 hours of death, the fourth official said.

McClatchy Newspapers 2011

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service