WASHINGTON – Helicopters descended out of darkness on the most
important counterterrorism mission in U.S. history. It was an
operation so secret, only a select few U.S. officials knew what
was about to happen.
The location was a fortified compound in an affluent Pakistani
town two hours outside Islamabad. The target was Osama Bin
Intelligence officials discovered the compound in August while
monitoring an al-Qaida courier. The CIA had been hunting that
courier for years, ever since detainees told interrogators that
the courier was so trusted by bin Laden that he might very well
be living with the al-Qaida leader.
Nestled in an affluent neighborhood, the compound was surrounded
by walls as high as 18 feet, topped with barbed wire. Two
security gates guarded the only way in. A third-floor terrace
was shielded by a seven-foot privacy wall. No phone lines or
Internet cables ran to the property. The residents burned their
garbage rather than put it out for collection. Intelligence
officials believed the million-dollar compound was built five
years ago to protect a major terrorist figure. The question was,
The CIA asked itself again and again who might be living
behind those walls. Each time, they concluded it was almost
certainly Bin Laden.
President Barack Obama described the operation in broad
strokes Sunday night. Details were provided in interviews with
counterterrorism and intelligence authorities, senior
administration officials and other U.S. officials. All spoke on
condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive operation.
By mid-February, intelligence from multiple sources was clear
enough that Obama wanted to "pursue an aggressive course of
action," a senior administration official said. Over the next
two and a half months, Obama led five meetings of the National
Security Council focused solely on whether bin Laden was in
that compound and, if so, how to get him, the official said.
Normally, the U.S. shares its counterterrorism intelligence
widely with trusted allies in Britain, Canada, Australia and
elsewhere. And the U.S. normally does not carry out ground
operations inside Pakistan without collaboration with
Pakistani intelligence. But this mission was too important
and too secretive.
On April 29, Obama approved an operation to kill bin Laden.
It was a mission that required surgical accuracy, even more
precision than could be delivered by the government's
sophisticated Predator drones. To execute it, Obama tapped a
small contingent of the Navy's elite SEAL Team Six and put
them under the command of CIA Director Leon Panetta, whose
analysts monitored the compound from afar.
Panetta was directly in charge of the team, a U.S. official
said, and his conference room was transformed into a
Details of exactly how the raid unfolded remain murky. But
the al-Qaida courier, his brother and one of bin Laden's
sons were killed. No Americans were injured. Senior
administration officials will only say that Bin Laden
"resisted." And then the man behind the worst terrorist
attack on U.S. soil died from an American bullet to his head.
It was mid-afternoon in Virginia when Panetta and his team
received word that bin Laden was dead. Cheers and applause
broke out across the conference room.