How the Bin Laden Raid Went Very Wrong Before It Went Right

The crashed helicopter radically changed the SEALs' plans

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New details about the U.S. raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, unearthed today by the Associated Press, reveal just how badly the much-celebrated mission started out. While it's been widely reported that one of the Black Hawk helicopters sent to bin Laden's compounds made a hard--and loud--landing, the new report by the AP says this forced the SEALs to completely change their plans for a stealthy surprise assault. The AP's report contains other revelations as well. We also learn that the White House decided to launch the operation on the moonless May night that it did because too many American officials had been briefed on the plan and a press leak could foil the entire operation, and that the U.S. knew the raid was a "one-shot deal" since fallout in Pakistan would prevent a second attempt.

U.S. officials briefed on the operation tell the AP that had everything gone to plan, some SEALs would have slid down ropes into the compound's courtyard from a helicopter hovering overhead while others would have touched down on the roof from a second helicopter. The two SEAL teams would have run a "squeeze play" on bin Laden in a matter of minutes by sneaking into the compound from the roof and ground floor simultaneously, their weapons silenced, just as they had practiced in two training models of the compound.

That's not how it happened, though. On a night that was hotter than expected--and the specially modified Black Hawk carrying extra weight--the helicopter hovering over the compound "skittered around uncontrollably in the heat-thinned air," the AP explains. As the pilot tried to land, the tail and rotor got caught on one of the compound's 12-foot walls. The pilot finally "buried the aircraft's nose in the dirt to keep it from tipping over," and the SEALs leapt out into an outer courtyard. Instead of hovering, the other helicopter unloaded its team of SEALs outside the compound.

The downed helicopter left the SEALs with no choice but to burst into the ground floor and storm the house floor by floor with explosives until they came face-to-face with bin Laden in a hallway outside his bedroom on the third floor, at which point, recognizing the al-Qaeda leader instantly, they pursued him into the room (accounts given by White House Press Secretary Jay Carney and The New York Times previously suggested that the commandos first encountered bin Laden in the room itself). According to the AP, one SEAL pushed two women trying to protect bin Laden out of the way while another shot bin Laden in the chest and the head. The raiders found an AK-47 rifle and a Makarov pistol on a shelf in bin Laden's room as they were photographing his body, but he "hadn't touched them," the AP adds.The Times reported earlier this month that the commandos saw bin Laden "with an AK-47 and a Makarov pistol in arm's reach" when they first entered his room.

The SEALs blew up the damaged Black Hawk before leaving the compound, and Pakistan just agreed to return the helicopter's tail to the U.S. during a visit by Senatory John Kerry. Shortly after the operation, Pakistani intelligence officials had said China was interested in the tail.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.