Arduous journey

Bin Laden raid capped two-year operation

By Bryan Bender
Globe Staff / May 3, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Dramatic details emerged yesterday of how American commandos cornered and killed Osama bin Laden in his Pakistani hideout, and President Obama pronounced the world a “better place’’ without the Al Qaeda leader.

Praise poured in from both political parties and from around the world for the decisive action in a wealthy suburb of the Pakistani capital, a raid that marked a key achievement in the battle against terrorism. Administration officials said it was evidence of the president’s resolve to remove the leadership of the terrorist network that killed nearly 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001.

“I think we can all agree this is a good day for America,’’ Obama said at the White House yesterday. “The world is safer.’’

The raid by helicopter-borne Navy SEALs was the culmination of years of interrogations of captured Al Qaeda operatives at the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, nearly constant surveillance from satellites and aircraft, and the steady effort of spies and intelligence analysts to chase down leads and draw a clearer picture of his activities.

The early morning assault was considered so important — and risky — that US military officials built a full-scale mock-up of the compound at an air base in Afghanistan so they could conduct practice assaults last month, in preparation for the attack, according to US military officials. It was also done without the advance knowledge of the Pakistani government, which scrambled fighter jets as the helicopters carrying the commandos were leaving the country.

“They had no idea about who might have been out there, whether it be US or somebody else,’’ John O. Brennan, the White House counterterrorism chief, told reporters. “Thankfully there was no engagement with Pakistani forces.’’

The several dozen commandos arrived at bin Laden’s hideout after midnight and moved methodically through the compound during the 40-minute operation. A gun battle almost immediately ensued. Eventually, the 54-year old Al Qaeda leader was cornered in the compound’s main, three-story house where he was living on the upper two floors with family members, according to detailed information provided by the administration throughout the day.

Bin Laden resisted capture, using a woman thought to be one of his wives as a human shield as he fired back, several officials told reporters. Ultimately, he was shot in the head above the left eye and died almost immediately. (Reuters news service later reported that the White House was backing away from the story, with an unidentified official saying the woman was not his wife and was not used as a shield.)

The woman was also killed, as were his son Khaled, and two lieutenants, both of whom were not identified. Other women and children were taken to safety and left behind as the team departed by helicopter, the officials said.

James Clapper, the director of national intelligence and the nation’s top spy, yesterday called the operation an example of “seamless collaboration and sheer professional magnificence.’’

President Obama monitored the operation early yesterday — Sunday afternoon in Washington — via a live communications link from the White House situation room.

The atmosphere was tense, Brennan recounted, especially when the commandos’ helicopter experienced a malfunction after inserting the team and could not take off. A backup helicopter was used to extract the team, along with bin Laden’s body, and the disabled aircraft was destroyed by US forces using explosives.

Bin Laden’s corpse was identified by a preliminary comparison of his DNA with the tissue of family members, two senior defense officials told reporters. It was quickly transported to the USS Carl Vinson, an aircraft carrier. There, according to Islamic tradition, his body was washed, wrapped in a white shroud, and given burial rights. The body was “eased’’ into the North Arabian Sea, said one of the defense officials, who spoke on the condition he not be identified by name.

Officials said that no country was expected to accept bin Laden’s remains in time to meet the Islamic requirement to bury the body within 24 hours of death. The burial at sea also prevented a burial site, in bin Laden’s native Saudi Arabia or elsewhere, from becoming a shrine for followers.

Senior Obama administration officials, who like the others were not authorized to speak publicly, said yesterday they were debating whether to release photos of the dead terrorist. Doing so, several asserted, would help quell any doubts about whether the United States really killed him. But the images were said to be gruesome, showing a bloody head wound.

A senior intelligence official who also briefed reporters said the SEALs seized computers and other equipment that they found at the compound and were beginning yesterday to study the materials to learn more about bin Laden’s activities and possibly those of other operatives.

The death of bin Laden came after years of setbacks in the most high profile manhunt in history. In December 2001, when he was pinned down in a cave in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, bin Laden wrote his last will and testament, expecting to die in the American bombing launched weeks earlier, according to US investigators. But after he slipped across the border from Tora Bora into Pakistan unharmed, he virtually disappeared. What followed were years of dead ends, misinformation, and no solid leads on his whereabouts.

As late as 2009, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates said “it has been years’’ since the United States had good intelligence on bin Laden’s location. Most officials, meanwhile, were working under the assumption that he was hiding in western Pakistan, possibly slipping back into Afghanistan as US airstrikes on Al Qaeda safe houses intensified in recent years.

US intelligence officials pieced together bits of information gleaned through interrogations of top terrorism suspects, including Abu Faraj al-Libbi, a senior Al Qaeda figure who was captured and imprisoned in Guantanamo in 2005. The investigation led them to one of bin Laden’s most trusted couriers, who they believed was helping him communicate with his followers.

Surveillance of the courier, who was first identified more than two years ago, led US officials last summer to the compound in Abbottabad, about 35 miles northwest of Islamabad. Records showed the compound had been built in 2005.

They began monitoring the site day and night with pilotless surveillance aircraft and other tools. What they found increasingly led them to believe that a high-level terrorism target was living there. The triangular compound, far larger than the surrounding homes, was surrounded by walls as high as 18 feet, topped with barbed wire. The main living quarters had opaque windows and a separate, seven-foot privacy wall.

But despite the compound’s relative opulence, it had no telephone or Internet service, a sign that its residents did not want their communications monitored. And they burned their trash, unlike their neighbors, who had regular trash pickup.

Indeed, the location of bin Laden’s demise raised new questions about the role of Pakistan, a US ally, in the war on terrorism. The fact that bin Laden had been hiding in a wealthy suburb of Islamabad where retired military officers reside — and not, as many predicted, in the rural tribal region near the border with Afghanistan — prompted some officials to wonder if elements of the Pakistani government were protecting him.

One senior intelligence official told reporters there was no evidence of such collusion. And the Pakistani government yesterday praised the US achievement.

But Brennan said the support network of bin Laden is being investigated.

“I think it’s inconceivable that bin Laden did not have a support system in the country that allowed him to remain there for an extended period of time,’’ Brennan said. “I am not going to speculate about what type of support he might have had on an official basis inside of Pakistan. We are closely talking to the Pakistanis right now, and again, we are leaving open opportunities to continue to pursue whatever leads might be out there.’’

Bender can be reached at