Sunday afternoon’s raid by U.S. forces that killed Osama bin Laden was the “culmination of years of careful and highly advanced intelligence work,” senior administration officials said in a conference call, describing the genesis of an operation that sounded like it was right out of a “Mission Impossible” movie.
Some time after Sept. 11, detainees held by the U.S. told interrogators about a man believed to work as a courier for bin Laden, senior administration officials said. The man was described by detainees as a protégé of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and “one of the few Al Qaeda couriers trusted by bin laden.”
Initially, intelligence officials only had the man’s nickname, but they discovered his real name four years ago.
Two years ago, intelligence officials began to identify areas of Pakistan where the courier and his brother operated, and the great security precautions the two men took aroused U.S. suspicions.
Last August, intelligence officials tracked the men to their residence in Abbottabad, Pakistan, a relatively wealthy town 35 miles north of Islamabad where many retired military officers live.
“When we saw the compound where the brothers lived, we were shocked by what we saw,” a senior administration official said.
The compound was eight times larger than any other home in the area. It was surrounded by walls measuring 12 feet to 18 feet that were topped with barbed wire. There were additional inner walls that sectioned off parts of the compound and entry was restricted by two security gates. And the residents burned their trash instead of leaving it outside for pickup. There was a three-story house on the site, with a 7-foot privacy wall on the top floor.
While the two brothers, the couriers, had no known source of income, the compound was built in 2005 and valued at $1 million. That led intelligence officials to conclude that it must have been built to hold a high-value member of Al Qaeda.
Further intelligence gathering found that there was another family who lived on the compound which had a size and makeup that matched the bin Laden members who would have most likely been with Osama.
After exploring every angle for months, they concluded that all signs pointed to this being bin Laden’s residence.
President Obama was made aware of the compound when it was discovered last year. By mid-February, the intelligence was solid and since mid-March, Obama led five meetings with the National Security Council regarding the issue.
Intelligence officials worked with the U.S. military to plan the operation and a small team accepted the risk and began to train for it.
On April 29, this past Friday, Obama gave the final go ahead.
The U.S. team conducted a helicopter raid of the compound Sunday afternoon. It was described as a “surgical raid” that took less than 40 minutes, during which time the team did not encounter any local authorities.
In addition to bin Laden, the team killed three men, believed to be the two couriers as well as Osama’s adult male son. One woman was killed when she was used as a shield by one of the male combatants. All other non-combatants were removed safely.
One of the helicopters was lost in the raid due to mechanical failure, but the team escaped in the other helicopter.
No other country, not even Pakistan, was informed of any of this intelligence until after the raid to protect operational security.