The details remain foggy, but Osama bin Laden’s death early Monday local time began with a fleet of four helicopters slicing through the night skies over Pakistan from a U.S. base in northern Afghanistan. The mission, approved by President Obama on Friday, had been set for early Sunday local time but had to be delayed because of poor weather.
Unlike 1980’s doomed mission to rescue the American diplomats held hostage in Iran, by all accounts, the strike on bin Laden’s fortress in Abbottabad went smoothly. Navy Seal Team 6 — which reportedly played the key role in the assault — was created following the disaster that left eight Americans dead at Desert One. About two dozen Seals and CIA enablers swooped down on the compound in a pair of choppers, leaving the second pair lurking nearby in case they were needed.
The U.S. troops came under fire almost immediately, giving the U.S. forces all the justification they needed to amp up their firepower. Yet helicopters, as we saw in Black Hawk Down, are ungainly machines easily downed in a flurry of rocket-propelled grenades or even small-arms fire. That suggests that in addition to the choppers, heavier guns — perhaps AC-130 gunships or some other precision firepower — were on station early Monday over bin Laden’s lair and may have laid down some suppressive fire before U.S. troops went into the compound, most likely aboard specially outfitted CH-47 and UH-60 choppers.
“After midnight, a large number of commandos encircled the compound,” Nasir Khan of Abbottabad told Reuters. “Three helicopters were hovering overhead … All of a sudden there was firing toward the helicopters from the ground. There was intense firing, and then I saw one of the helicopters crash,” said Khan, who watched the scene from his roof nearby. (More on Time.com: See photos of the crowds, chaos and some closure at Ground Zero)
CIA director Leon Panetta and other top agency officials listened in from 7,000 miles away as the operation unfolded. Bin Laden was shot in the head when he fired at the Seals. One of bin Laden’s sons, the courier who led the U.S. to bin Laden, the courier’s brother and a woman who was allegedly used as a human shield by one of the men were also killed.
Applause erupted at both the agency and the Pentagon when confirmation came that bin Laden was history. Because U.S. officials had deduced bin Laden’s presence at the compound only through circumstantial evidence, there were tense hours of monitoring once the raid began, shortly after midnight local time, until his identity could be confirmed.
In the end, bin Laden was not found hiding in some cave deep in the mountains along the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier. “The attack on bin Laden did not occur in some remote area outside Pakistani control but in a compound in a city of some 100,000, and less than 100 miles from a major Pakistani population center like Islamabad, and one occupied by a brigade from the Pakistani army’s second division and the location of the army’s military academy,” Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said on Monday. “It was U.S. Seal teams that had to use helicopters to enter Pakistan and carry out the operation on the ground.” (More on Time.com: See pictures of Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan hideout)
Former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst John McCreary was gobsmacked when he learned where the al-Qaeda leader was found. “Bin Laden could not have lived in a compound in Abbottabad without official Pakistani government sustenance,” McCreary says. “Abbottabad is an upscale area and a garrison town, but not so large as to be impersonal. Bin Laden was living in protected luxury. Many people had to know that and probably will come forward in a little time.”
Senior Administration officials said they had been monitoring the compound since last August, ever since a courier known to be trusted by bin Laden, as well as the courier’s brother, began living there. “Everything we saw — the extremely elaborate operational security, the brothers’ background and their behavior, and the location and the design of the compound itself — was perfectly consistent with what our experts expected bin Laden’s hideout to look like,” one official said early Monday. “Our analysts looked at this from every angle, considering carefully who other than bin Laden could be at the compound. We conducted red team exercises and other forms of alternative analysis to check our work. No other candidate fit the bill as well as bin Laden did.”
Early discussion of bombing the compound was scrapped in favor of a snatch and grab — the U.S. wanted bin Laden’s body as evidence of his demise. Even in a bombing mission, U.S. or allied personnel would have had to go to the compound for evidence. It made more sense, although it was riskier, to raid the place and get bin Laden, dead or alive. “The men who executed this mission accepted this risk, practiced to minimize those risks, and understood the importance of the target to the national security of the United States,” a senior Administration official said. (More on Time.com: See a photo album of the bin Laden family)
The operation went off without a hitch, save for a mechanical snafu on a CH-47 that required the U.S. team to destroy it. “This operation was a surgical raid by a small team designed to minimize collateral damage and to pose as little risk as possible to non-combatants on the compound or to Pakistani civilians in the neighborhood,” another official added. “Our team was on the compound for under 40 minutes and did not encounter any local authorities while performing the raid.” Al-Arabiya television reported that two of bin Laden’s wives and four of his children were captured during the operation, a claim denied later Monday by a senior Pentagon official.
Having fled Afghanistan ahead of the U.S. troops who tracked him down in his mountain redoubt at Tora Bora in December 2001, bin Laden completed his round-trip back to Afghanistan aboard one of the helicopters that ferried his executioners to their fateful rendezvous. After acquiring DNA samples from bin Laden’s corpse, and confirming that they matched those of his sister, who died of brain cancer in Boston several years ago, according to ABC News, his body was buried at sea.
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