WASHINGTON — The nail-biting moment, the period when absolute disaster loomed, came at the very start.
About two dozen Navy SEALs and other U.S. commandos were supposed to rope down into a Pakistani residential compound from a pair of specially modified Black Hawk helicopters in the predawn hours Monday, race into two buildings, and capture or kill Osama bin Laden. One chopper stalled as it hovered between the compound's high walls, unable to sustain its lift, and thudded into the dirt.
Half a world away in the White House Situation Room, the president and his war council crowded around a table covered with briefing papers and keyboards and watched nervously as video feeds streamed in. The special forces team needed a rescue chopper. Gunfire was blazing around them. No one wanted another "Black Hawk Down" debacle.
"A lot of people were holding their breath," recalled John Brennan, the president's counter-terrorism advisor.
The extraordinary drama surrounding the killing of Bin Laden encompassed the White House, the CIA and other arms of America's vast national security apparatus. The tale is part detective story, part spy thriller. But the decade-old manhunt for the Al Qaeda leader ultimately came down to a three-story building on a dirt road in the Pakistani army town of Abbottabad, north of Islamabad.
If the raid went wrong, President Obama would bear the blame. He had vetoed a plan to obliterate the compound with an airstrike. Obama wanted to be certain he had Bin Laden, and there was no guarantee that a smoking crater would yield proof. He had asked for a bolder plan, one that would allow the U.S. to take custody of Bin Laden or his body. It posed far more risk.
As reports flowed into the White House, the commando team methodically swept through the compound. Bin Laden and his family lived on the second and third floors of the largest structure, U.S. intelligence indicated. Officials said that when the commandos found him there, he was armed and "resisted." They shot him in the head and chest.
There were conflicting reports Monday about whether Bin Laden had fired at the Americans, or whether he had tried to use a woman as a human shield. His wife, who called out Bin Laden's name during the fight, was wounded in the leg during the battle and may have tried to interpose herself between the troops and her husband, but Bin Laden was not hiding behind her, a senior U.S. official said.
Within 20 minutes, the fighting had ended. In 20 more, the military had flown in a backup helicopter. The commandos questioned several people in the compound to confirm Bin Laden's identity, detonated explosives to destroy the crippled Black Hawk and then departed. As they flew off, they carried with them the bloodied corpse of the tall man with a thick beard.
In addition, the raiding party took "a large volume of information" from the compound, a U.S. official said, "so large that the CIA is standing up a task force" to examine it for clues. The material, which includes digital and paper files, could be a treasure trove of new intelligence about Al Qaeda, the official said. Among other things, officials hope the information will lead them to Al Qaeda's other leaders.
They left behind the bodies of four other people killed in the raid -- a courier they had been tracking for years, his brother, one of Bin Laden's sons and an unidentified woman.
The Pakistani government, which had not been informed of the raid in advance, scrambled aircraft in response to the firefight, but the low-flying U.S. helicopters quickly flew out of Pakistani airspace.
Within hours, Bin Laden's remains had been given funeral rites designed by the military to be consistent with Muslim practices and dropped into the northern Arabian Sea from the hangar deck of the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson. The FBI quickly slapped "Deceased" on its Internet posters for the world's most wanted terrorist.
Bin Laden had vanished after the Sept. 11 attacks of 2001. U.S. military commanders had failed to close the noose around his Afghan stronghold in Tora Bora, and the Al Qaeda leader and his aides somehow hiked across the rugged border region into Pakistan.
Once or twice a year, Bin Laden popped up on a new video or audio recording, mocking America's leaders and urging his faithful to follow his path. They did so with bombings in London, Madrid, Bali and elsewhere.
The CIA knew that Bin Laden had stopped using cellphones and other electronic or digital communications long ago to evade U.S. intelligence. He relied on human couriers instead to get his videos and other messages out to underlings and followers.
Find the courier, the thinking went, and they'd ultimately find Bin Laden.
Interrogators at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay were pushed to ask Al Qaeda suspects in custody about possible couriers. The information came in pieces, a U.S. official said, and it took years.