The CIA had a target but now had to figure out how to proceed. It was not as simple as trailing him back to the compound, given the chance that even a hint that the courier was being watched would have sent bin Laden scurrying for cover. Rather than take that chance, the CIA set up a more “elaborate” surveillance regime, probably involving small, nearly silent drones and real-time satellite coverage.
Eventually, the courier led them to the compound in a quiet neighborhood of Abbotobad. From the start, the CIA knew it was on to something. The mansion was 8 times larger than any other house in the area, featured a 16 foot wall topped with barbed surrounding the property, and appeared to be heavily guarded.
According to the New York Times, the CIA had concluded by September, 2010 there was a “strong possibility” that Osama bin Laden’s hideout had been found. At that point, it became a matter of using all the tools of the trade to figure out how many people were living in the house, the layout of the compound and the house, and pursing confirmation of the presence of bin Laden.
It was discovered that there were three families living in the mansion: the courier, his brother, and a family on the third floor that fit the profile of who Osama bin Laden had taken into hiding with him. But the intelligence still wasn’t “actionable” because there were so many uncertainties involved.
Despite the most sophisticated technical means on earth, in the end, it came down largely to brute brainpower and human judgment. Over the next few months, analysts used multiple methods to analyze every angle, and what kept coming out of their gaming the scenarios was that it was a “high probability” that Osama bin Laden was located in the compound.
At this point — early March — SEAL Team 6 was activated and tasked with carrying out the operation. These warriors are probably the most elite unit in the US military. Officially called the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, but known as just DevGru, they got right to work constructing a mock-up of the compound and rehearsing the raid several times.
After 5 top level meetings of the National Security Council, President Obama gave a go-ahead for the mission on Friday night. On early Sunday morning, the SEALs took off from a base in Afghanistan and proceeded to the compound. CNN reports there were about 2 dozen commandos flying in 4 helicopters — quite possibly MH47E special operations aircraft, flown by another elite unit, “The Night Stalkers.”
The SEALs originally planned to rappel down to the ground but were forced to change plans when fire from the roof of the mansion made a “soft” crash landing necessary. The operation proceeded flawlessly with the SEALs making their way through the first floor, killing both couriers and one of Osama’s sons. Bin Laden was on the third floor. He was shot once in the head and then in the chest after he had gone down. The president and his advisers were able to watch the attack in real time in the situation room that Brennan characterized as “probably one of the most anxiety filled periods of time I think in the lives of the people who were assembled here yesterday.”
Perhaps not as big a coup as killing the terrorist, but the capture of several computer hard drives as well as a treasure trove of documents will no doubt contribute a great deal to our intelligence about al-Qaeda and perhaps their future operation plans. The SEALs are well trained to go through a house that size and pull out every possible relevant piece of intelligence and do it quickly. From start to finish, the operation took only 40 minutes.
We were able to confirm that the body was Osama bin Laden’s through a combination of facial recognition software and DNA analysis using samples from several of bin Laden’s close relatives. Also, the SEALs reported that bin Laden’s wife identified him. She was slightly wounded and along with her children, escaped from the house.
Near tragedy was averted when one of the copters suffered mechanical failure or was damaged in the attack and couldn’t take off. With Pakistan’s air defenses alerted and jets scrambled to intercept them, the SEALs calmly switched to “Plan B,” scooping up the occupants of the damaged aircraft and then destroying the copter to prevent its extraordinary technology from falling into the wrong hands. Once the SEALs were clear of Pakistan, President Zardari was informed of the assault.
In all, the feat was an incredible display of American military prowess, adding much moral clarity to an increasingly jaded, confused political climate. Every member involved in the operation — spanning administrations past and present — have certainly earned their bragging rights.
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