Details from the Raid: How the U.S. Killed Bin Laden

Several news outlets have published gripping accounts of the raid

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In his address to the nation late last night on the death of Osama bin Laden, President Obama explained how he first learned that bin Laden might be hiding in a Pakistani compound in August, how he obtained enough intelligence to authorize a raid last week, and how U.S. forces killed the al-Qaeda leader and seized his body after a firefight.This morning, several news outlets are filling in the details about how the most critical counterterrorism operation in American history went down. The various accounts, when strung together, read like a movie plot:

The story really begins in August, The New York Times tells us, when the U.S. military and intelligence community got its first big break in the bin Laden manhunt since American forces nearly captured bin Laden in 2001 during the Battle of Tora Bora in Afghanistan. Intelligence officials learned that an al-Qaeda courier who was serving as bin Laden's envoy to the outside world was living in a compound in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, near a Pakistani military academy and not far from the capital, Islamabad,

The Times and AP explain that as C.I.A. analysts pored over satellite photos and intelligence reports over several months, they became increasingly convinced that the compound was housing bin Laden, and that it had been expressly built for that purpose. The AP explains that the three-story, million-dollar compound was surrounded by 18-foot walls with barbed wire, with two guarded security gates serving as the only entrances and a third-floor terrace featuring a seven-foot privacy wall. "No phone lines or Internet cables ran to the property," the AP notes. "The residents burned their garbage rather than put it out for collection."

The Times and National Journal pick up the story from here. On March 14, as a possible government shutdown loomed, Obama held the first of five meetings with his top national security advisers to hammer out an operation to kill bin Laden, tapping an elite Navy Seals team to do the job. The Seals, according to National Journal, created a full-scale mock-up of the compound and spent most of April practicing the attack at a secret base in Afghanistan. The U.S. simultaneously kept bin Laden's compound under 24-hour surveillance. Then, this past Friday, Obama authorized the mission under the command of CIA Director Leon Panetta, without informing Pakistan or any other allies. 

On Sunday, Reuters explains, Panetta turned a conference room at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia into a command center and watched the operation in real time. Top advisers began gathering at the White House around 1 pm EST, National Journal reports, and Obama huddled with these officials to review last-minute plans around 2 pm.

The Times and the BBC provide some of the most thorough accounts of the raid itself, though details in all news accounts still remain murky. On Sunday afternoon in the U.S. (Monday morning in Pakistan), two or three helicopters landed in Abbottabad, with one helicopter crashing because of a mechanical failure, according to the Times. The BBC explains that once the aircraft landed, men instructed panicked locals in Pashto to turn off their lights and stay in their homes. In an operation that lasted about 45 minutes, American military and intelligence operatives engaged in a firefight at the compound, fatally shooting bin Laden in the head as he tried to defend himself, and killing the al-Qaeda courier, his brother, one of bin Laden's sons, and a woman who may have been used as a human shield as well. No Americans were hurt, and Pakistani troops soon moved in and seized the area. According to several news outlets, U.S. forces loaded bin Laden's body into a helicopter, flew it to Afghanistan, and buried the body at sea.

The AP tells us that when Panetta and his team learned bin Laden was dead, "cheers and applause" erupted in the conference room. According to National Journal, Obama learned that bin Laden had been "tentatively  identified" as dead around 3:50 pm, and received further confirmation around 7 pm after DNA and facial recognition tests had been conducted.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.