Osama bin Laden raid took months to plan
BY LYNN SWEET Sun-Times Washington Bureau Chief May 2, 2011 7:16PM
President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and members of the national security team receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House on Sunday. | AP
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Updated: July 2, 2011 12:21AM
In the dark of night, some two dozen Navy SEALs slid down ropes from helicopters and dropped into a high-walled compound topped with barbed wire.
The elite troops , wearing night-vision goggles, came under almost immediate fire as they entered Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, a town 35 miles north of Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, U.S. officials said Monday.
The SEALs battled their way through the first floor. They made it to the upper floors, where they found the man who had eluded American forces for so long. The troops had orders to take bin Laden alive only if he posed no threat to American soldiers. But bin Laden refused to give himself up. That’s when he was shot in a bedroom ending a 10-year manhunt.
Bin Laden had been portrayed as an ascetic living in a remote cave, but in the end, he was hiding in plain sight in a million-dollar compound.
And when he came under fire from U.S. forces, the boastful Saudi son of privilege had a human shield, a woman, possibly his own wife.
Those were among the new details that came out Monday about the daring nighttime raid to kill bin Laden, a watershed U.S. victory in the war against terror.
President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and members of the national security team watched a live feed of the raid in the White House Situation Room, officials said.
“The world is safer. It is a better place because of the death of Osama bin Laden,” Obama said 12 hours after announcing the terrorist’s death.
The end of history’s greatest manhunt was the culmination of months of pain-staking intelligence work. It resulted from one of the “gutsiest calls” in recent White House history by a president to proceed with an attack based on compelling yet circumstantial evidence, said John O. Brennan, Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser.
Brennan said that it was “inconceivable that bin Laden did not have a support system” to live in the town about 35 miles north of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. The administration is exploring that issue with the Pakistani government, which has been a partner with the U.S. in fighting terrorism but was not informed of the operation beforehand, authorities said.
Husain Haqqani, the Pakastani ambassador to the United States, denied in an interview with CNN that his country knew where bin Laden was living.
“If the Pakistani government had known that Osama bin Laden was there, we would’ve got him, like we got Khalid Shaikh Mohammed,” he told CNN.
Also killed in the raid was one of bin Laden’s adult sons, two brothers who were harboring him and one of bin Laden’s wives. There were no U.S. casualties.
The town where bin Laden was living is Abbottabad, and his home was within walking distance of the Pakistan Military Academy, the West Point for the Pakistani Army. The town is also home to many current and retired Pakistani army officials, and analysts on Monday were questioning how such a well-appointed, secure facility as bin Laden’s home could be built in such a populated, militarized area without anyone in the Pakistani Army becoming aware of it.
The mission — so secret only a select few government officials knew about it — was like something out of a Hollywood movie, with even its own edge-of-the-seat moment after it began Sunday afternoon Chicago time.
One helicopter carrying members of the elite Navy SEALs Team Six stalled as it hovered in the darkness near the compound, but eventually landed safely. SEALs later destroyed the helicopter with their own explosives, rather than leave valuable technology behind.
The raid involved extensive planning with soldiers practicing inside mock-ups of the interior of the compound, according to news reports.
ABC News showed video Monday of what it said was the interior of bin Laden’s home, which included a shot of what appeared to be a blood-stained mattress.
The raid also uncovered a potentially valuable trove of documents that CIA officials were just beginning to sort through.
Bin Laden’s body was taken to an aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, and his burial quickly was done in accordance with Islamic custom. His corpse was washed, then wrapped in a white sheet and placed in a weighted bag, according to news reports. As a U.S. military chaplain read religious rites, which were translated into Arabic, the body was placed on a board, tipped up and dropped into the North Arabian Sea.
U.S. officials said the burial at sea was done because no country would accept his corpse. Saudi Arabia declined to take the body, the Wall Street Journal reported.
The burial at sea eliminated the possibility that any burial site on land could turn into a shrine for the architect of the 9/11 attack. The killing of bin Laden also removes the politically sensitive questions that would have arisen for the Obama Administration if bin Laden had been taken alive, including where he would have been imprisoned and how he would have been put on trial.
The president had reportedly insisted on a raid, rather than a bombing run, so there would be hard evidence of bin Laden’s death, rather than just rubble.
Authorities relied on several pieces of evidence to confirm it was bin Laden who was dead.
DNA testing showed that U.S. officials got the right man. The U.S. had samples for comparisons because they have collected DNA from bin Laden’s family for over a decade. Facial imaging as well as bin Laden’s 6-foot-4 height served as additional confirmation.
While there was no doubt among U.S. government officials that bin Laden had been killed, the administration was debating Monday whether to release photos of his corpse to the world.
Their release would confirm his death and tamp down skepticism, but the photos are gruesome because bin Laden sustained a large, bloody head wound above his left eye where he was shot, with exposed brain material, according to ABC News.
Also up for possible release is videotaped footage of bin Laden’s burial at sea.
Intelligence officials learned of the bin Laden compound in August thanks to one of bin Laden’s most trusted couriers.
The CIA had been hunting that courier for years, ever since terrorist detainees coughed up the courier’s nickname to interrogators and told them that he was so highly regarded that he might be living with bin Laden.
In the middle of last year, the courier slipped up and had a telephone conversation with someone who was being monitored by U.S. intelligence, according to an American official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive operation. The courier was located somewhere away from bin Laden’s hideout when he had the discussion, but it was enough to help intelligence officials locate and watch him.
The courier eventually led authorities to the compound, built at the end of a dirt road, swaddled in extraordinary security.
The compound, built in 2005, was just the kind of place to hide a notorious terrorist, and it greatly raised the suspicions of intelligence officials.
Enclosing the compound were walls as high as 18 feet, topped with barbed wire. Not one but two security gates blocked the sole entrance. A terrace on the third floor was shielded by a security wall that was seven-feet high.
Most residents in the area left their trash out for pickup, but in the bin Laden compound the garbage was burned.
By the middle of February, intelligence coming in from many sources provided a clear enough picture that Obama wanted to “pursue an aggressive course of action,” a senior administration official said. Obama led five meetings of the National Security Council over two and a half months, focused solely on whether bin Laden was in the compound and, if so, how to get him, the official said.
On April 29, Obama approved the operation to kill bin Laden before he left on a trip to witness the tornado damage in the South.
On Monday, the Obama national security team took the opportunity to reiterate the United States will never waver in its fight against terrorism.
“You cannot wait us out,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a direct message to bin Laden’s followers.
The terrorist’s death poses a new challenge to al-Qaida, since it will have to undergo its first transition to new leadership. That promises to be rocky as bin Laden’s No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has a history of clashing with colleagues and has not shown nearly the same leadership skills as bin Laden.
After bin Laden’s death, concerns about retaliation quickly arose. While law enforcement officials promised greater vigilance, there was no reports that an attack in the U.S. or abroad was imminent.
A spokesman for Chicago’s emergency management agency said that monitoring of the city’s vast video surveillance system has been stepped up following bin Laden’s death.
Contributing: AP, Sun-Times news wires