It was the best kept and most closely guarded secret for the last nine months: a select handful of U.S. national security and administration officials tracked a high-value courier for Osama bin Laden to a dusty dirt road leading to a compound 35 miles north of Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital.
After months of intelligence gathering and meetings at the highest levels of the U.S. government, a small team of Navy Seals Sunday raided the compound, engaged in a firefight and ultimately killed bin Laden, the notorious leader of al Qaeda who had evaded capture and death since masterminding the 9/11 attacks that killed almost 3,000 people.
The CIA pinpointed the compound in August and first informed President Obama about the intelligence in September of last year. As evidence mounted in mid-February that bin Laden and his family were living in the compound, the President and the National Security Council began holding a series of “intensive” meetings about a covert military strike aimed at killing him, according to administration officials.
The NSC meetings, chaired by Obama, would continue through March and April, taking place on March 14, March 29, April 12, with the last occurring April 29, when Obama ordered a raid on the compound with the goal of killing the man who had been the United States’ most sought after enemy for well over a decade.
In the months and weeks before the raid, Obama and the administration and national security officials who knew about it told no one — not even the Pakistani or any other country’s government.
“This was a team effort — a model of seamless cooperation,” an administration official told reporters late Sunday night on a conference call. “Since 9/11, this is what the American people expected of us … and today, we were finally able to deliver.”
Oama and administration officials hailed the killing and successful raid as the culmination of years of effort on the part of the CIA and National Security Agency. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, in a statement applauded the CIA for providing the intelligence and the military for carrying out the covert, surgical mission.
Even though U.S. forces have possession of bin Laden’s body, the details about his death were still sketchy as of late Sunday night, and U.S. officials appeared reluctant to fill in the gaps. An administration official said only that Osama bin Laden was killed in a firefight in which he resisted. One woman was also killed after one of the targeted men tried to use her as a human shield during the raid, the official said. A mechanical failure downed one of the U.S. helicopters used in the raid, but no U.S. forces were injured or killed.
Osama bin Laden’s death was the result of “matchless skill and courage of these Americans who secured this triumph for the U.S. and the world,” an administration official told reporters Sunday night. “I am very thankful for the President and the courage he displayed for making the decision” to authorize the raid.
In March, Obama ordered the development of several military options — all aimed at killing bin Laden, including the bombing of the compound. Ultimately, the President decided to authorize the dangerous mission of penetrating the compound in the black of night with a small military team using helicopters.
In the period after 9/11, military detainees first flagged a series of individuals who had been providing support to bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri, long considered bin Laden’s chief lieutenant. The courier who eventually led U.S. intelligence authorities to the Pakistani compound was among those individuals, a trusted protege of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-declared chief plotter of the 9/11 attacks on the twin towers, according to administration officials.
Four years ago, U.S. intelligence officials uncovered the courier’s identity and tracked his and his brother’s movements within Pakistan, including to the compound where bin Laden was killed Friday.
The compound, 35 miles north Islamabad, is at the end of a narrow dirt road, surrounded by 12 to 18-foot walls topped by barbed wire with extra interior walls. Residents of the compound burned their trash, unlike other residents of the area who put their trash out for regular pick-up.
The property was valued at nearly $1 million, yet was not connected to the outside world by telephone or the Internet, a sign U.S. officials said helped confirm their suspicions.
U.S. intelligence officials determined that both the courier and his brother lived there, as well as a third family that included bin Laden’s youngest wife.
Obama gave the green light for the raid on Friday and it was executed Sunday afternoon, U.S. time, when a “small U.S. team” breached the walls of the compound. The operation took roughly 40 minutes. In that time, bin Laden was killed, along with three other males and the woman who administration officials said was thrust into the firefight as a human shield.
“Bin Laden was killed in the firefight as our operators came onto the compound,” said an administration official, declining to further elaborate. “He did resist the assault force…and was killed in the firefight.”
Congressional intelligence leaders were informed of the authorized raid over the weekend, according to one GOP source, and other leaders were told about bin Laden’s death about 9:30 PM Sunday evening, shortly before news broke, House and Senate aides said.
Sunday evening, before announcing the news to the public at large, Obama called former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton to tell them about bin Laden’s death first-hand.