Inside Bin Laden's Lair With SEAL Team Six
WASHINGTON -- So much could have gone wrong as SEAL Team Six swept over Pakistan's dark landscape, dropped down ropes into a compound lined by wall after wall, exchanged gunfire and confronted "Geronimo" face to face. The vital things went right.
Just about every contingency the 25 commandos trained for came at them, rapidly, chaotically and dangerously, in their lunge for Osama bin Laden.
They had acted on the best intelligence the U.S. had ever had on bin Laden's whereabouts since he slipped away in the mountains of Tora Bora just under a decade ago. But it was guesswork, too, with the commandos' lives, a president's reputation and a nation's prestige riding on the outcome.
Was the man once seen pacing the compound's courtyard really bin Laden, as it appeared to American eyes? That was just one unknown.
In short, the U.S. had no direct evidence that bin Laden would be there during the assault - or indeed had ever been there. Obama put the raiders in motion on the "pretty good chance" they would find their man, as CIA Director Leon Panetta, who was overseeing the operation back in Washington, put it.
Days after the attack, the administration has fleshed out a reconstruction that is probably more accurate than its initial, flawed telling. More information has been gleaned from the commandos themselves, now back at their home base outside Virginia Beach, Va. Some dust has settled.
But there remains no independent or competing account to the administration's story as yet. The reconstruction comes largely from Panetta, White House spokesman Jay Carney and Obama's counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan. Some of their early details proved unreliable.
The only other direct witnesses are the compound's occupants, now in Pakistani custody and, for now, out of reach to everyone else.
Information gaps exist in the official account. Among them: how many armed defenders the raiders encountered, who shot at whom, why none of the compound's survivors was taken away by the Americans, and how many commandos stormed bin Laden's room. It may never be known which commando, or two, killed bin Laden with shots to his head and chest.
The question of exactly what the unarmed bin Laden did to prompt the SEALs to kill rather than capture him has not been settled. However, officials speaking anonymously told The Associated Press that bin Laden appeared to be lunging for a weapon in a room that contained his trademark AK-47 assault rifle and side arms. Still, to some in government and intelligence circles, the operation bore the hallmarks of a pure kill mission despite statements from officials that bin Laden would have been taken alive if he had surrendered.
On one point, however, there has been no inconsistency, revision or challenge: The raiders of Team Six made good on their "pretty good chance" and got safely away in a bold mission accomplished.
Late last week, Panetta got the word from the White House that Obama was giving the green light for the raid. Other options, including the idea of "just blowing the place up" from a B-2 bomber, had been discarded, he said. The president's order soon followed.
Obama directed Panetta to proceed under Title 50, meaning this would be a covert operation.
Operational control fell to Adm. William McRaven, head of the Joint Special Operations Command, who is stationed in Afghanistan. Panetta said: "My instructions to Admiral McRaven were, `Admiral, go in and get bin Laden. And if he's not there, get the hell out.'"
Team Six was ready.
Its members had rehearsed the assault many times - two or three times a night in Afghanistan, Panetta said. The U.S. had a strong sense for at least several months that bin Laden might be at the compound, which Americans had been monitoring for months longer than that.
Intelligence officials watched so closely that they saw a family's clothes on the third floor balcony and, at one point, a man resembling bin Laden out in the courtyard, Panetta said. They surmised bin Laden and his "hidden family" lived on the second and third floors, because his trusted courier - who had unwittingly drawn the U.S. to this unlikely hideout - occupied the first floor, with his brother in a guesthouse.
When two Black Hawk helicopters carrying the commandos left Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, stopping in Jalalabad before crossing over into Pakistan on their way to Abbottabad, the operation invited its first risk. Pakistani authorities, kept in the dark about the U.S. mission in their territory, might spot the choppers and engage them.
But the strong Pakistani military presence in Abbottabad, a garrison city with a military academy near the compound, provided a cover of sorts for the Americans. No one would be particularly surprised to hear choppers flying at night.
Reaching their target, the raiders suddenly had to improvise.
Their plan to place a rappelling team on the roof with a second team dropping into the courtyard was jettisoned when one of the helicopters, its blades clawing at hot, too-thin air, had to put down hard. Both choppers landed in the courtyard, behind one ring of walls with more to go.
That was just one of the split-second decisions the SEALs had to make in the lair of al-Qaida's leader.
Gunfire erupted, as the 25 commandos on the ground surely had expected and might even have started.
But the compound was also populated with more than two dozen children and women, according to the U.S. The raiders faced life-and-death calls - their own lives and those of the compound's inhabitants - about who was lethal and who was just in their way. That line was not obvious. The SEALs went in with the assumption that some of those they encountered might be wearing explosive suicide vests.
Back at the White House and at a CIA command center, officials including Obama had monitored the operation to this point, apparently on TV monitors although the administration won't say. Special forces are typically outfitted with video.
But when the strike force actually entered the compound, Panetta said, 20 or 25 minutes elapsed when "we really didn't know just exactly what was going on."
A violent melee was going on, key details still largely a mystery.
The raiders trying to get into the house breached three or four walls, Panetta said, not specifying whether they scaled them or blew holes.
On the first floor, the SEALs killed the courier and his brother, and the courier's wife died in crossfire. They shot open some doors.
They then swept upstairs and burst into a third floor room, entering one at a time, said Carney. There all the U.S. intelligence, the surmising and the guesswork paid off.
Bin Laden's wife charged at the SEALs, crying her husband's name at one point. They shot her in the calf. Officials told AP that one SEAL grabbed a woman, fearing she might be wearing a suicide vest, and pulled her away from his team. Whether that was bin Laden's wife has not been confirmed.
Also in the room were bin Laden and a son.
The first bullet struck bin Laden in the chest. The second struck above his left eye, blowing away part of his skull.
It is not confirmed whether the shots came from one commando, two or in a spray of gunfire.
The son was shot dead in that room, too.
After the nerve-wracking, nearly half-hour gap in information from the scene, Washington got word that "Geronimo" was killed in action.
The raiders' work was not done.
They quickly swept the compound, retrieving possibly crucial records on the operations of al-Qaida.
They destroyed the chopper that gave them trouble. This renewed worries that Pakistani authorities would discover the mission prematurely. Neighbors certainly noticed.
"We had to blow the helicopter," Panetta said, "and that probably woke up a lot of people, including the Pakistanis."
The non-combatants, their hands bound with plastic ties as the operation unfolded, were left for Pakistani officials to round up.
About 10 days before the raid, Obama was briefed on the plan. It included keeping two backup helicopters just outside Pakistani airspace in case something went wrong. But Obama felt that was risky. If the SEALs needed help, they couldn't afford to wait for backup.
He said the operation needed a plan in case the SEALs had to fight their way out. So two Chinooks were sent into Pakistani airspace, loaded with backup teams, just in case. One of those Chinooks landed in the compound after the Black Hawk became inoperable.
The raiders scrambled aboard the remaining Black Hawk and a Chinook, bin Laden's body with them, and flew to the USS Carl Vinson in the North Arabian Sea. The ground operation had taken about 40 minutes.
Only after the Americans left the area was Pakistan informed of what had happened on its territory.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen called Pakistani Army chief Ashfaq Kayani to tell him that an operation he had not known about was complete, a U.S. official told AP. Panetta called his Pakistani counterpart shortly afterward.
Mere hours after the operation, before most of the world knew bin Laden was found and killed, his body was buried at sea.
Associated Press writers Matt Apuzzo, Adam Goldman and Kimberly Dozier contributed to this story.
Details are continuing to emerge regarding Osama bin Laden's top-secret Abbottabad compound, but the discovery of some high-strength marijuana plants just yards from the home has set the blogosphere aflame with speculation.
ABC News reports:
A new bulletin issued tonight by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security and obtained by ABC News describes the terror organization's chilling desire to derail a train.
"As of February 2010, al-Qa'ida was allegedly contemplating conducting an operation against trains at an unspecified location in the United States on the 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001," the document reads, using an alternate spelling for bin Laden's terror group. "As one option, al-Qa'ida was looking into trying to tip a train by tampering with the rails so that the train would fall off the track at either a valley or a bridge."
HuffPost Blogger Tom Engelhardt writes:
Back in the 1960s, Senator George Aiken of Vermont offered two American presidents a plan for dealing with the Vietnam War: declare victory and go home. Roundly ignored at the time, it’s a plan worth considering again today for a war in Afghanistan and Pakistan now in its tenth year.
As everybody not blind, deaf, and dumb knows by now, Osama bin Laden has been eliminated. Literally. By Navy Seals. Or as one of a crowd of revelers who appeared in front of the White House Sunday night put it on an impromptu sign riffing on The Wizard of Oz: “Ding, Dong, Bin Laden Is Dead.”
|@ BreakingNews : Info from bin Laden raid shows al-Qaida considered attacking US trains, mass transit hubs - NBC News|
The article cites Jason Reed, a White House photographer for Reuters, recounting in a separate post how this was done.
“As President Obama continued his nine-minute address in front of just one main network camera, the photographers were held outside the room by staff and asked to remain completely silent,” Reed wrote. “Once Obama was off the air, we were escorted in front of that teleprompter and the president then re-enacted the walk-out and first 30 seconds of the statement for us.”
NBC News reports that President Barack Obama plans to privately thank members involved in the operation against Osama bin Laden on Friday.
The official said Obama met at the White House on Wednesday with Vice Adm. William McRaven, the overall commander of the bin Laden mission, NBC News reported.
"The president met with Admiral McRaven at the White House yesterday to thank him personally in the Oval Office and will have the opportunity to privately thank some of the special operators involved in the operation tomorrow at Fort Campbell," the official said without elaborating.
The official said Obama will meet "special operators" involved in the mission but was not specific about whether members of the SEAL team would be among them.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said in an interview for ABC's "Subway Series" with Jonathan Karl that he believes senior Pakistani officials knew where Osama Bin Laden was located.
"At high levels, high levels being the intelligence service ... they knew it." Levin went on to say he has "no doubt" they know the location of other top terrorists.
The team that was deployed to take down bin Laden included one dog.
Most likely a Belgian Malinois (though officials say it could also have been a German Shepherd), there was one non-human member of the SEAL team that raided Osama bin Laden's compound, according to The New York Times. The heroic pooch was strapped to a Navy SEAL as they were lowered from a hovering helicopter.
Though the dog began making headlines Wednesday, Pet Adviser actually picked the nugget of information out of an NY Times article on Monday.
Read more here.
In this video clip from President Barack Obama's interview with 60 Minutes, he says about Osama bin Laden's burial, "Frankly we took more care on this than obviously bin Laden took when he killed 3,000 people. He didn't have much regard for how they were treated and desecrated."WATCH:
ABC News offers different, or perhaps additional, information of the interrogation of one of Osama bin Laden's wives:
Pakistani intelligence agents today are interrogating three women -- all wives of Osama bin Laden -- who were captured during the U.S.-led raid on Sunday.
The wives, including the youngest -- 29-year-old Yemeni Amal Ahmed Abdul Fatah -- were all living with bin Laden inside the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
According to one of the women, bin Laden confined himself to two rooms in the house, including the bedroom where he was killed. He never left those rooms, she claims, for the five years he was hiding there.
CNN reports that, according to a Pakistani military spokesman, Osama bin Laden's wife has told interrogators she didn't leave the compound for five years:
The wife, who was wounded in the raid, said she lived in the compound in Abbottabad with eight of bin Laden's children and five others from another family, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas told CNN. All of them have been in Pakistani custody since the pre-dawn U.S. commando raid that killed bin Laden and will be returned to their country of origin, Abbas said.
Abbas said he wasn't sure from her questioning how long bin Laden had lived there himself or whether he had ventured outside.
|@ CBSNews : AP: Obama to meet SEAL team members from bin Laden operation at Fort Campbell on Friday. DEVELOPING|
Global Post reports that Pakistani officials have told the news organization that the Pakistani army knew, and playing a role in, the operation that led to Osama bin Laden's death:
The statements run counter to the public position taken by officials in both Pakistan and the United States who have so far downplayed the role Pakistan’s military and intelligence community had in the attack, saying that it was limited to a small amount of information sharing.
One senior military official, who asked not to be named because he is not permitted to speak to the press, said that Pakistani army troops were in fact providing backup support when the United States began its operations inside the compound where bin Laden had been staying, including sealing off the neighborhood where the compound was located.
This report strongly opposes the TIME piece with CIA Chief Leon Panetta's statement, “It was decided that any effort to work with the Pakistanis could jeopardize the mission."
More from the Global Post article here.
HuffPost's Sam Stein reports:
WASHINGTON -- White House Press Secretary Jay Carney reiterated on Thursday that the killing of Osama bin Laden would not alter the president’s policy with respect to the war in Afghanistan.
Speaking to reporters en route to the president’s Ground Zero visit, Carney said that strategy regarding the Afghan war “remains unchanged.”
James Warren writes in The Atlantic:
There's a rich coincidence to that intimate photo of President Obama and his national security team monitoring the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound -- and a lesson about a conceit of political pundits.
Not only does it recall the 1986 photo of President Reagan and top aides as they viewed a replay of the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion -- and, as with Team Obama, one doesn't know what they're watching at that moment --but it's taken by the same person, my former colleague Pete Souza.
Read the full article here.
In this image provided by The Associated Press, "President Barack Obama pauses after laying a wreath at the National Sept. 11 Memorial at Ground Zero in New York, Thursday, May 5, 2011."(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
Tony Karon writes for TIME that while Pakistan may be an unreliable ally to the U.S., their relationship will not be broken:
...U.S. intelligence has long suspected that at least some among its Pakistani counterparts were maintaining ties with Qaeda-linked figures.
The U.S. has known this for years, but that hasn't forced a break in U.S.-Pakistan relations. That's unlikely to change, now, even if it turns out that elements in the Pakistani security hierarchy had been aware of Bin Laden's presence all along.
To understand why, you only have to look as far as Damascus. That's right, Damascus. Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is Iran's only ally among Arab heads of state; he is a key patron of Hizballah and Hamas, and is still formally at war with Israel. His regime is accused by the IAEA of trying to build a secret nuclear program (before the facility was bombed by Israel) and he has sought to suppress an unprecedented protest movement against his authoritarian rule by sending in tanks and ordering his security forces to fire repeatedly on unarmed demonstrators, killing hundreds. Yet, you're unlikely to find a serious foreign policy hand in the corridors of power in Washington -- or, for that matter, even in Jerusalem -- who is willing to advocate for a policy of overthrowing Assad.
View The Huffington Post's live updates on President Barack Obama's Ground Zero visit here.
President Barack Obama is currently meeting and hugging the family members of 9/11 victims. Earlier, he participated in a silent prayer.
In this image provided by The Associated Press, "President Barack Obama meets with firefighters and first responders at Engine 54, Ladder 4, Battalion 9 before visiting the National Sept. 11 Memorial at Ground Zero in New York, Thursday, May 5, 2011."(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
An ABC Live Video shows President Barack Obama thank firefighters in New York, as he says, "You will always have a president who has got your back."
ABC's RIck Klein tweets comments from Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR):
|@ rickklein : Sen. Pryor: "I'm not convinced that we're getting what we need" in help from Pakistan in war on terror. "divided loyalties." #TopLine|
Reuters offers a report on the concern that al Qaeda and its allies may have been able to reach Pakistan's nuclear arsenal:
During his time at a fortified compound, did the world's most wanted man manage to sneak supporters into Pakistan's nuclear sites to gain the ultimate weapon for global holy war?
That's a question that could haunt some policy makers in Western capitals for many years.
The answer among experts is a resounding no, but bin Laden's stay here is fueling concern about Pakistan's overall stability, vital for securing its nuclear weapons.
Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, said the fact that bin Laden had managed to evade capture for so long in Pakistan should not raise additional red flags about the security of the country's nuclear arsenal.
The Hill's Mike O'Brien tweets:
|@ MPOTheHill : Boehner on bin Laden photos: "I support the decision of the president that they should not be disclosed."|
|@ BreakingNews : Obama visits New York City firehouse that lost 15 men on 9/11, says 'When we say we never forget, we mean what we say' - NBC|
The Associated Press provides a video of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offering remarks on Pakistan and the photo from the Situation Room. Clinton says on Pakistan, "it is not always an easy relationship, you know that, but on the other hand it is a productive one for both of our countries."WATCH:
|@ RumsfeldOffice : Heading to the Pentagon w/ Joyce this afternoon to honor our colleagues lost on 9/11.|
Reuters reports that although Osama bin Laden is dead, "Pakistan remains a haven for militants with both ambition and means to strike overseas":
Worse, there are signs that groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Pure), nurtured by Pakistan's spy agency to advance strategic interests in India and Afghanistan, are no longer entirely under the agency's control.
Even if the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), under intense pressure following the discovery of bin Laden in a Pakistani garrison town, sought to roll up the groups, it may not be able to do so without provoking a major backlash.
In Lashkar's case, according to experts, it is not even certain if it is under the control of its own leadership, with many within pushing for greater global jihad. Several others are spinning off into independent operatives which makes it harder for security agencies to track down.
Tony Dokoupil writes for The Daily Beast about America's newfound interest in the Navy SEALs:
"Navy SEAL training,” followed closely by “Navy SEAL workout,” were the only bin Laden-related search terms in the Top 10 on Wednesday, narrowly beating “Jesse James” (who opened up about his ex, Sandra Bullock) and “Flowers Online” (note: Mother’s Day is Sunday). Surely, this says something unflattering about the national id, or at least American Web-surfing habits. But since inquiring minds want to know…
SEAL training is the most ferocious workout in the free world, according to Navy memoirs and other published reports, a bone-wrenching, spine-rattling affair that takes about two years, and overwhelms most men who attempt it. Those who pass go on to restock the 2,500-man rotation of active-duty SEALs. The best are eventually tapped for the elite Seal Team Six—the squad that got bin Laden. And as perhaps goes without saying, the average Googler wouldn't survive the pre-training requirements: 50 sit-ups and 42 pushups (in under two minutes each), a mile-and-a-half run (at sub seven-minute-mile pace), a 500-yard swim (in less than 13 minutes). There are no women allowed.
Politico reports that the dramatic photo with Secretary of State Hilary Clinton holding a hand over her mouth may not have in fact been a dramatic pose, but rather allergies:
"Those were 38 of the most intense minutes," Clinton said, the AP reports. "I have no idea what any of us were looking at at that particular millisecond when the picture was taken."
Clinton also didn’t give much thought to her hand over her mouth. “I am somewhat sheepishly concerned that it was my preventing one of my early spring allergic coughs,” she said.
She added, “So, it may have no great meaning whatsoever.”