The helicopter carrying Navy SEALs malfunctioned as it approached Osama bin Laden’s compound at about 3:30 p.m. ET Sunday, stalling as it hovered. The pilot set it down gently inside the walls, then couldn’t get it going again.
It was a heart-stopping moment for President Barack Obama, who had been monitoring the raid in the White House Situation Room, surrounded by members of his war cabinet.
“Obviously, everyone was thinking about Black Hawk Down and Desert One,” a senior administration official recalled.
The SEALs disembarked.
“The assault team went ahead and raided the compound, even though they didn’t know if they would have a ride home,” an official said.
The special forces put bombs on the crippled chopper and blew it up, then lifted off in a reinforcement craft just before 4:15 p.m., capping an astounding 40 minutes that gave the United States a tectonic victory in the 10-year war on terror touched off by 9/11.
“ The world is safer. It is a better place because of the death of Osama bin Laden,” Obama said at the White House Monday.
The sick chopper turned out to be a tiny wrinkle in an astounding military and intelligence triumph. Bin Laden was shot in the face by the SEALs during a firefight after resisting capture.
Bin Laden’s body was taken to the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, and he was buried in the North Arabian Sea overnight — less than 12 hours after the raid, officials said. DNA from the remains provided certain confirmation that bin Laden was dead. He was 54.
Briefing reporters at the White House Monday, Obama’s counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said the special-ops team that went into the compound was prepared to take bin Laden alive, but he resisted. A woman – one of bin Laden’s many wives – was used as a human shield for bin Laden during the firefight, and was killed, Brennan said.
Brennan declined to describe exactly how White House officials monitored the firefight and said the confirmation that the man killed at the compound was bin Laden came in through the day, as the body was identified by various means. “There wasn’t one ‘A-ha’ when the DNA came in,” Brennan said. “It was building over time.”
As for convincing skeptics that the man killed was the Al Qaeda mastermind, Brennan said the White House is still considering what other evidence to release — including whether to release a photograph of bin Laden’s body. “We are going to do everything we can to make sure nobody has any basis to try to deny that we got Osama bin Laden,” Brennan said.
Here’s how the world’s most-hunted man was vanquished, as recounted by senior administration officials:
Contrary to the intelligence community’s long-held belief that bin Laden was in a lawless “no man’s land” on the Pakistani border, bin Laden had been hiding in a three-story house in a one-acre compound in Abbottabad, about 35 miles north of Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. Officials describe it as a relatively affluent community, with lots of residents who are retired military.
“Bin Laden was living in a relatively comfortable place: a compound valued at about $1 million,” a senior U.S. official told POLITICO. “Many of his foot soldiers are located in some of the remotest regions of Pakistan and live in austere conditions. You’ve got to wonder if they’re rethinking their respect for their dead leader. He obviously wasn’t living as one of them.”
Officials described the raid as the culmination of years of highly advanced intelligence work that included the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), which specializes in imagery and maps, and the National Security Agency (NSA), the “codemakers and codebreakers” who can covertly watch and listen to conversations around the world.
On June 2, 2009, just over four months into his presidency, Obama had signed a memo to CIA Director Leon Panetta stating “in order to ensure that we have expanded every effort, I direct you to provide me within 30 days a detailed operation plan for locating and bringing to justice” bin Laden.
In the biggest break in a global pursuit of bin Laden that stretched back to the Clinton administration, the U.S. discovered the compound by following one of the terrorist’s personal couriers, identified by terrorist detainees as one of the few al Qaeda couriers who bin Laden trusted.
“They indicated he might be living with and protecting bin Laden,” a senior administration official told reporters on a midnight conference call. “Detainees gave us his nom de guerre, or his nickname, and identified him as both a protégé of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of September 11th, and a trusted assistant of Abu Faraj al-Libbi, the former number three of al Qaeda who was captured in 2005.”
Officials didn’t learn the courier’s name until 2007. Then it took two years to find him and track him back to this compound, which was discovered in August 2010.
“It was a “Holy cow!” moment,” an official said.
The compound had been relatively secluded when it was built in 2005 — on the outskirts of the town center, at the end of a narrow dirt road.
“In the last six years, some residential homes have been built nearby,” an official said on the call. “The main structure, a three-story building, has few windows facing the outside of the compound. A terrace on the third floor … has a seven-foot privacy wall. … [T]he property is valued at approximately $1 million but has no telephone or Internet service connected to it.”
Everything about the compound signaled that it was being used to hide someone important.
“It has 12- to 18-foot walls topped with barbed wire,” the official said. “Internal wall sections — internal walls sectioned off different portions of the compound to provide extra privacy. Access to the compound is restricted by two security gates, and the residents of the compound burn their trash, unlike their neighbors, who put the trash out for collection.
For all their suspicions, U.S. officials never knew for sure that bin Laden was inside.
The White House’s original plan had been to bomb the house, but Obama ultimately decided against that.
“The helicopter raid was riskier. It was more daring,” an official told POLITICO. “But he wanted proof. He didn’t want to just leave a pile of rubble.”
Officials knew there were 22 people living there, and Obama wanted to be sure not to kill civilians unnecessarily. So he ordered officials to come up with an air-assault plan.
The SEALs held rehearsals of the raid on April 7 and April 13, with officials monitoring the action from Washington.
As the real thing approached, daily meetings were held of the national security principals, chaired by National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, and their deputies, chaired by Brennan, Obama’s counterterrorism adviser.
Over the past seven weeks, Obama had chaired numerous National Security Council meetings on the topic, including ones on March 14, March 29, April 12, April 19 and April 28.
“In the lead up to this operation, the President convened at least 9 meetings with his national security Principals,” a senior administration official e-mailed reporters. “Principals met formally an additional five times themselves; and their Deputies met 7 times. This was in addition to countless briefings on the subject during the President’s intelligence briefings; and frequent consultations between the [White House National Security Council], CIA, [Defense Department] and Joint Staff. The President was actively involved in reviewing all facets of the operation.”
At an April 19 meeting in the Situation Room, the president approved the air assault as the course of action. He ordered the force to fly to the region to conduct it.
Last Thursday, just after his East Room announcement that Panetta would succeed Robert Gates as Defense Secretary, the president held another meeting in the Situation Room, and went through everyone’s final recommendations.
Obama didn’t announce his decision at the meeting, but kept his counsel overnight.
In the White House Diplomatic Room at 8:20 a.m. on Friday, before flying down to view tornado destruction in Alabama, Obama informed Donilon that he was authorizing the operation. Also attending the meeting were Brennan, White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley and Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough.
Donilon signed a written authorization to Panetta, who commanded the strike team. Donilon convened a principals’ meeting at 3 p.m. to finish the planning.
The raid was scheduled for Saturday, the day when Obama and most of the West Wing was due at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. But weather pushed it to Sunday.
Top West Wing staff worked most of the day on the operation. Senior national-security officials stayed in the Situation Room beginning at 1 p.m.
The official’s e-mail gave this account of Obama’s day: “2:00pm the President met with the Principals to review final preparations. … 3:32pm the President returned to the Sit Room for an additional briefing. … 3:50pm the President first learns that UBL was tentatively identified. … 7:01pm the President learns that there’s a ‘high probability’ the HVT [high-value target] was [bin Laden]. … 8:30pm the President receives further briefings.”
Obama went golfing at Andrews Air Force Base on Sunday, leaving the White House at 9:42 a.m. and returning at 2:04 p.m.
In the Situation Room, the president was surrounded by Daley, Donilon, McDonough, Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and others.
Panetta was at CIA headquarters, where he had turned his conference room into a command center that gave him constant contact with the tactical leaders of the strike team.
With the team still in the compound, the commander on the ground told a remote commander that they had found bin Laden.
Applause erupted in Washington.
Three other adult males were killed with bin Laden, officials said.
“We believe two were the couriers and the third was bin Laden’s adult son,” an official said on the call. “There were several women and children at the compound. One woman was killed when she was used as a shield by a male combatant. Two other women were injured.”
U.S. forces took photographs of the body, and officials used facial-recognition technology to compare them with known pictures of bin Laden. Authorities matched the DNA to DNA from other members of bin Laden’s family.
It was him.
At 11:35 p.m., Obama stepped into the East Room and told the world: “Justice has been done.”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine