President Obama personally gave the order Friday that sent a small U.S. team by helicopter to the compound near Islamabad where American operatives killed Osama bin Laden, his adult son and three others, including a woman used as a human shield during the firefight, U.S. officials said this morning.
Pakistani officials were not told beforehand about the operation, which took less than 40 minutes Sunday, officials said. An American helicopter that malfunctioned had to be destroyed, but no Americans were harmed in the high-risk raid, officials said.
"In the end it was the matchless skill and courage of these Americans that insured the success of this operation," a senior intelligence official said, referring to the team that went in.
U.S. intelligence officials concluded Bin Laden and his family members were living at the high-walled compound after they identified its owners as a courier and his brother they knew were Bin Laden confidantes, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity. They found the property in August, and the CIA soon realized a high-value terrorist was being hidden there. Over months, analysts came to conclude that it might be Bin Laden.
"When we saw the compound where the brothers lived, we were shocked by what we saw," the official said.
Photos: Crowds celebrate Osama bin Laden's death
The brothers had "no explainable source of wealth," yet the property was valued at $1 million with extraordinary security features, a senior intelligence official said. Its 12- and 18-foot walls were topped with barbed wire. Internal walls provided extra security. It had no Internet or telephone connection. And its resident burned trash rather than dumping it.
It was officials said, exactly the kind of place that would harbor Bin Laden. In fact, they said, the U.S believed the compound was built precisely for that purpose five years ago, although it remains unknown when exactly Bin Laden and his family arrived there.
But they never knew for certain it was the Al Qaeda leader. The size of his family matched up -- and analysts ultimately had "high confidence" he was living there with his youngest wife and other family members.
A senior White House official said the goal of the mission was to kill or capture Bin Laden, but he was killed in the firefight that ensued when U.S. operatives stormed the compound in the early morning.
"Bin Laden did resist and he was killed in a firefight," one senior official said.
Bin Laden's body will be handled in accordance with Islamic practices, U.S. officials said.
The operation was conducted under intense secrecy. No other nation was notified, officials said. When intelligence analysts concluded, in February, that Bin Laden was likely within the compound, the president began chairing a series of intensified meetings with his national security team.
At 8:20 a.m. Friday EDT, Obama signed off on the operation before departing Washington to survey storm damage in Alabama. On Saturday, Obama met with his national security team throughout the day.
At 3:50 p.m. Saturday EDT, the president learned that Bin Laden had been tentatively identified within the compound. At about 7 p.m., he learned that the "high-value" target inside the compound had been Bin Laden.
The strike team, officials said, was in and out of the compound in under 40 minutes.
The two brother couriers, along with an adult son of Bin Laden, were killed in the raid.
Intelligence officials said they believed the death of Bin Laden was "the most significant achievement to date" in the war against Al Qaeda and that his death will put the organization on a "path to decline that will be difficult to reverse."
Peter Nicholas of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report