A senior U.S. intelligence official described Osama bin Laden’s compound with two words that are rarely spoken together: “opaque windows.” Once the U.S. became aware of the compound, a closer look made them even more curious. “The walls around the compound were up to 18 feet high,” a senior U.S. intelligence operative said Monday. “The balconies had seven-feet-high privacy walls. There were, in addition to wall heights, barbed wire along the top of the walls.
“The residents of the compound burned their own trash. There were two gates at the compound, as well, and opaque windows,” he continued. “So once we came across this compound, we paid close attention to it because it became clear that whoever was living here was trying to maintain a very discreet profile and was practicing a great deal of operational security, and, you know, the compound was designed to obscure lines of sight from multiple directions.”
The White House summed it up more tersely. “It had the appearance of sort of a fortress,” said John Brennan, President Obama’s homeland security chief.
Military options broke into two basic categories: a standoff option, using GPS-guided bombs or missiles, or a riskier mission that put U.S. troops inside the compound. Ultimately, Obama opted for the second option because he wanted bin Laden, dead or alive, and felt U.S. boots on the ground was a surer route toward achieving that goal. “The options were narrowed down until the President decided that this was the best option because it gave us the ability to minimize collateral damage, ensure that we knew who it was that was on that compound as opposed to taking some kind of strike there, and also as a way to do what we could to respect the sovereignty of Pakistan and also to allow us to engage with them immediately after the fact, as opposed to some type of ordnance that might be dropped in on it,” Brennan said.
Even though bin Laden’s presence at the compound was a deduction, certainty that it was the correct deduction grew as more evidence accumulated. “We weren’t certain in August of 2010 that bin Laden was there,” a senior U.S. intelligence official said. “Earlier this year, our confidence level grew much higher…you do worry that they may not be there when you arrive. But, you know, we developed good information on how life at the compound was carried out, and we were very confident at the end of the day that we had bin Laden identifiable at this compound and that he would most likely be at the compound when the raid was undertaken.”
Despite those opaque windows, the slow-motion accumulation of intelligence pertaining to the Abbottabad dwelling gave U.S. Navy SEALs crystal-clear vision as the raid unfolded. When they fast-roped from the back of their CH-47 chopper into the compound and killed all five people in bin Laden’s living quarters, they knew what — and who — to expect.
“There wasn’t perfect visibility on everything inside the compound, but we did have a very good understanding of the residents who were there, in terms of the number there and in terms of who the males were, and the women, and children,” the senior U.S. intelligence official told reporters Monday. “Over time, we were able to identify a family at the compound that, in terms of numbers, squared with the number of bin Laden family members we thought were probably living with him in Pakistan.”
Obama’s stepped-up drone strikes may have played a role in pushing Osama to Abbottabad. “The reason he was living there is Obama and his increase in the drone strikes — three to four a week instead of a third of that — the whole goddamn border,” said a retired Army general. “It pushed him inland to some of the bigger cities.”
The strike force apparently consisted of a pair of specially modified CH-47 and a pair of UH-60 choppers; one of each approached the compound and about 24 SEALs fast-roped to the ground; a total of about 80 U.S. personnel took part, either in the air or on the ground. The CH-47 lost lift because of the compound’s high walls, which upset its supporting airflow, forcing it to make a hard landing.
While no one was hurt, the SEALs elected to destroy the helicopter instead of trying to recover it: time was running out. Midway through the 40-minute mission Pakistani military forces began scrambling to investigate the attack and U.S. officials did not want a clash between the U.S. troops and their kept-in-the-dark Pakistani allies. “Thankfully there was no engagement with Pakistani forces,” Brennan said. “This operation was designed to minimize the prospect, the chances of engagement with Pakistani forces. It was done very well, and thankfully no Pakistani forces were engaged.”
The SEALs fired hundreds of rounds as they blasted their way through the compound, clearing it room by room, until the top two floors of the main three-story building — where bin Laden was living with his family — were the only things left to be cleared.
Bin Laden was killed near the end of the U.S. troops’ 40 minutes inside the compound, which was filled almost the entire time with gunfire. “The bin Laden family was on the second and third floor,” a senior Pentagon official said. “And so, without getting into operational details, those areas were cleared last.”
Brennan said the U.S. was prepared to take bin Laden alive, but that possibility ended when he fought the SEALs. “He was engaged in a firefight with those that entered the area of the house he was in,” Brennan said. “Whether or not he got off any rounds, I quite frankly don’t know.”
A woman, in some accounts believed to be one of bin Laden’s wives, perished in the endgame. “She fought back when there was the opportunity to get to bin Laden,” Brennan said of the lone woman who died in the raid. “She was positioned in a way that indicated that she was being used as a shield, whether or not bin Laden or the son or whatever put her there or she put herself there…she met her demise, and my understanding is that she was one of bin Laden’s wives.”
As the SEALs moved through the compound, their superiors sweated back in Washington. “It was probably one of the most anxiety-filled periods of time, I think, in the lives of the people who were assembled here yesterday,” Brennan said Monday. “The minutes passed like days…it was clearly very tense, a lot of people holding their breath. And there was a fair degree of silence as it progressed as we would get the updates. And when we finally were informed that those individuals who were able to go in that compound and found an individual that they believed was bin Laden, there was a tremendous sigh of relief.”
There was a bit of U.S. amazement at what had just happened. “The American team engaged in a firefight, and as indicated last night, Osama bin Laden did resist,” a senior Pentagon official said. “He had been living in a mansion that was eight times the size of any other structure in the neighborhood, living rather comfortably. He and some other male combatants on the target certainly did use women as shields.”
The Navy SEAL team had spent much of April at their Afghan base, practicing the mission on replicas of the compound. “When they hit that compound,” Brennan said, “they had already trained against it numerous times.” Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence kept a nervous eye on the compound to monitor arrivals and departures and make sure no one of interest escaped. The Obama Administration did not want its own Tora Bora.
The bin Laden trail had grown ever colder since he escaped from Tora Bora on the Afghan-Pakistan border in December 2001. “Prior to our coming across this compound in August of 2010,” a senior U.S. intelligence official said, “precise locational information on bin Laden’s whereabouts hadn’t been known for several years.”
Several women and children who had been in the compound during the operation were moved away from the crippled helicopter shortly before SEALs left. “The noncombatants were moved to a safe location at the end of the operation, as the damaged helicopter was detonated,” a senior Pentagon official said, “to ensure their safety.”