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40 minutes to capture or kill: Timeline, history of Osama bin Laden raid

The dramatic events early Monday, with a firefight that ended in Osama bin Laden's death in Pakistan, were preceded by years of intelligence gathering and extensive, painstaking planning.

May 02, 2011|By James Oliphant, Washington Bureau
(Pete Souza/White House )

Reporting from Washington — After landing by helicopter at the Pakistani compound housing Osama bin Laden early Monday, local time, the U.S. special operations team tasked with capturing or killing the Al Qaeda leader found itself in an almost continuous gun battle.

For the next 40 minutes, the team cleared the two buildings within the fortified compound in Abbottabad, north of Islamabad, trying to reach Bin Laden and his family, who lived on the second and third floors of the largest structure, senior Defense Department and intelligence officials said Monday.

"Throughout most of the 40 minutes, they were engaged in a firefight," said a senior Pentagon official, who characterized the operation as intense but deliberate.

Photos: Osama bin Laden dead

Bin Laden "resisted" and was killed by U.S. gunfire in the larger building toward the end of the operation. He fired on the assault team, a U.S. official said, and may have tried to use his wife as a shield. Other officials disputed that Bin Laden fired a weapon. A woman also was killed, but it was not Bin Laden's wife, officials said.

After the firefight, the special-operations force quickly gathered papers — valuable intelligence on Al Qaeda, officials said — and other materials in the two buildings and clambered back on helicopters, taking Bin Laden's corpse with them.

Before departing, the U.S. team blew up one of the helicopters, a Blackhawk, which had experienced mechanical problems, officials said.

No detainees were taken, and the women and children who survived the attack were left at the compound, Pentagon officials said.

"This wasn't an execution," one U.S. official later said. "The assessment going into it was that it's highly unlikely that's he's going to be taken alive, but if he decided to lay down his arms, he would have been taken captive."

Bin Laden's body was taken to the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson in the northern part of the Arabian Sea and buried at sea Monday at around 1 a.m. EDT.

Pentagon officials said the decision to bury Bin Laden at sea was made because no country was willing to take the body for burial. But it also seems clear that the United States wanted to avoid him being buried on land for fear that the location could become a shrine for Bin Laden's supporters.

The funeral was conducted using what a Pentagon official said were "traditional procedures for Islamic burials."

The body was washed and placed in a white sheet on a flat board as a U.S. military chaplain read remarks that were translated into Arabic. Then the board was lifted up, the official said, and the "deceased body eased into the sea." The funeral was conducted on the ship's hangar deck, not the flight deck, which is at the waterline.

The assault was quick, brutal, risk-filled — and ultimately a massive success, the product of months of careful planning and years of intelligence gathering.

Years of gathering intelligence

Before learning of the compound in Abbottabad last August, the U.S. had had little hard information about Bin Laden's whereabouts for many years, senior intelligence officials said Monday.

But after learning the identity of one of Bin Laden's couriers, they tracked him to the facility, which immediately raised suspicions because of its elaborate security and relative luxury compared with the surrounding neighborhood, the officials said.

Key information that enabled the Central Intelligence Agency to eventually identify the courier came from detainees held by the U.S., according to senior intelligence officials, and crucial information came from interrogations years ago of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, officials said. Mohammed had been subjected to waterboarding and other brutal interrogation methods.

"We were able to get pieces of information from detainees," the official said. "That took years, and these guys don't give it up all willingly."

The information enabled intelligence agencies to develop "a composite" of Bin Laden's courier network, which he used to smuggle out audiotapes and to communicate with underlings.

It took months to build a picture of who was living in the compound, but eventually the CIA concluded that one of the families matched intelligence suggesting that Bin Laden was living with several wives and children in Pakistan.

"There wasn't perfect visibility on everything inside the compound, but we did have a very good idea," as surveillance continued, of the number of people living there, including how many women and children were in one of the families, said one of the intelligence officials. The number squared with the number believed to be living with Bin Laden.

It wasn't until early 2011 that the intelligence agencies became more certain that Bin Laden might be hiding there, one of the senior intelligence officials said,

"Earlier this year, our confidence level grew much higher," the official said.

'Several possible courses of action'

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