POSTED: Monday, May 2, 2011 - 9:43am
UPDATED: Monday, May 2, 2011 - 9:52am
It started with an unnamed courier.
Senior White House officials said Monday that the trail that led to Osama bin Laden began before 9/11, before the terror attacks that brought bin Laden to prominence. The trail warmed up last fall, when U.S. intelligence discovered an elaborate compound in Pakistan.
"From the time that we first recognized bin Laden as a threat, the U.S. gathered information on people in bin Laden's circle, including his personal couriers," a senior official in the Obama administration said in a background briefing from the White House.
After the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, "detainees gave us information on couriers. One courier in particular had our constant attention. Detainees gave us his nom de guerre, his pseudonym, and also identified this man as one of the few couriers trusted by bin Laden."
In 2007, the U.S. learned the man's name.
In 2009, "we identified areas in Pakistan where the courier and his brother operated. They were very careful, reinforcing belief we were on the right track."
In August 2010, "we found their home in Abbottabad," not in a cave, not right along the Afghanistan border, but in an affluent suburb less than 40 miles from the capital.
"When we saw the compound, we were shocked by what we saw: an extraordinarily unique compound."
The plot of land was roughly eight times larger than the other homes in the area. It was built in 2005 on the outskirts of town, but now some other homes are nearby.
"Physical security is extraordinary: 12 to 18 foot walls, walled areas, restricted access by two security gates." The residents burn their trash, unlike their neighbors. There are no windows facing the road. One part of the compound has its own seven-foot privacy wall.
And unusual for a compound valued at more than $1 million: It had no telephone or Internet service.
This home, U.S. intelligence analysts concluded, was "custom built to hide someone of significance."
Besides the two brothers, the U.S. "soon learned that a third family lived there, whose size and makeup of family we believed to match those we believed would be with bin Laden. Our best information was that bin Laden was there with his youngest wife."
There was no proof, but everything seemed to fit: the security, the background of the couriers, the design of the compound.
"Our analysts looked at this from every angle. No other candidate fit the bill as well as bin Laden did," an official said.
"The bottom line of our collection and analysis was that we had high confidence that the compound held a high-value terrorist target. There was a strong probability that it was bin Laden."
That conclusion was reached in mid-February, officials said. Beginning in mid-March, the president led five National Security Council meetings on the plans for an operation.
On Friday, the president gave the order.
This information was shared "with no other country," an official said. "Only a very small group of people inside our own government knew of this operation in advance."
A senior U.S. security official told Reuters that it was a "kill operation," removing the option for the team to simply capture bin Laden.
The operation Sunday went smoothly except for a helicopter landing that was not part of the original plan. The choppers were only intended to hover over the scene, but due to a technical malfunction, one of them landed or fell — "not a crash," the official said — so the military dispatched a third "emergency" helicopter to the scene.
"This operation was a surgical raid by a small team designed to minimize collateral damage. Our team was on the compound for under 40 minutes and did not encounter any local authorities."
Bin Laden himself participated in the ensuing firefight, the officials suggested.
"Bin laden was killed in a firefight as our operators came onto the compound," an official said.
Did he fire?, a reporter asked.
"He did resist the assault force, and he was killed in a firefight," an official said. NBC News reported that he was shot in the left eye.
Citing officials speaking at a White House briefing, Bloomberg News reported U.S. intelligence officers determined there was a "strong probability" the al-Qaida leader was living there, but that the special ops team carrying out the mission was not certain if it even would encounter bin Laden in the compound until forces came face-to-face with him.
Four adult males were killed: bin Laden, his son, and the two couriers.
"One woman killed when used as a shield," and other women were injured, the officials said. The women's names were not given; it's not clear whether bin Laden's wife was among them.
The team blew up the disabled chopper upon their departure with bin Laden's remains, which resulted in a "massive explosion," the official told NBC.
Pakistan officials were unaware of the operation and scrambled fighter jets after getting reports of the explosion. But the U.S. helicopters were able to leave without further incident, the official said.
No U.S. personnel died. The officials would not name the type of helicopter or say how many U.S. personnel participated.
A U.S. official told NBC News that Obama was able to monitor the situation in real time from the Situation Room inside the White House.
Applause broke out in the room around 3:55 a.m. ET, when the team on the ground reported that the attack had killed bin Laden. Obama called his predecessors, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, to inform them of the news, senior administration officials told NBC.
Handling bin Laden's body
Early Monday, an official told NBC News that bin Laden's body had already been buried at sea — eliminating the possibility of a burial shrine.
Islamic tradition calls for a body to be buried within 24 hours, but finding a country willing to accept the remains of the world's most wanted terrorist would have been difficult, a senior administration official said.
The White House officials proclaimed bin Laden's death "the single greatest victory in the U.S.-led campaign against al-Qaida," as one called it.
The officials also said they expect attacks from bin Laden's loyalists who may step up the timing of previously planned operations.
"In the wake of this operation, there may be a heightened threat to the U.S. homeland. The U.S. is taking every possible precaution." The State Department has sent advisories to embassies worldwide and has issued a travel ban for Pakistan.
"Although al-Qaida will not fragment immediately," an official said, "the death of bin Laden puts al-Qaida on a path of decline that will be difficult to reverse."