Official offers details of bin Laden raid
After landing by helicopter at the Pakistani compound housing Osama bin Laden early Sunday, the U.S. special operations team on a mission to capture or kill the al-Qaida leader found itself in a furious gun battle.
For the next 40 minutes, the team of elite Navy SEALs went room by room to clear the two buildings within the compound in Abbottabad, 60 miles 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," a Pentagon official told the Los Angeles Times.
Bin Laden "resisted" and was killed by U.S. gunfire in the larger building toward the end of the operation. While a U.S. official said he fired on the assault team, other officials disputed that. A woman also was killed, but it was not bin Laden's wife, officials said.
After the firefight, the special-operations force gathered papers, computer drives and disks -- valuable intelligence on al-Qaida, officials said, and clambered back on helicopters, taking bin Laden's corpse with them.
"They cleaned it out," one official told Politico. "Can you imagine what's on Osama bin Laden's hard drive?"
The raid began ominously when one of the two Chinook helicopters carrying Navy SEALs from a base in Afghanistan malfunctioned as it approached the compound at about 3:30 p.m. Sunday, stalling as it hovered. The pilot set it down inside the walls, then couldn't get it going again.
It was a heart-stopping moment for Obama and members of his war cabinet. "Obviously, everyone was thinking about 'Black Hawk Down' and Desert One," a senior administration official recalled.
The team pressed ahead, exchanging fire with the courier and his brother, according to The Washington Post. Within minutes, both were killed. One of bin Laden's adult sons also was killed.
Shortly afterward, the SEALs burst into a room to find an armed bin Laden. Bin Laden was shot at least once in the head and died instantly, U.S. officials said.
But the woman was not bin Laden's wife and died after being caught in a crossfire between the raiding party and defenders in another part of the mansion, a White House spokesman later said. The wife of bin Laden was injured in the shooting that killed him.
The White House defended Brennan, saying the statements he made at briefing were based on earlier information that was updated and corrected as more people involved in the operation were interviewed.
After recovering bin Laden's body, the team put bombs on the crippled chopper and blew it up, then lifted off in a reinforcement craft just before 4:15 p.m.
Contrary to the intelligence community's long-held belief that bin Laden was in a lawless "no man's land" on the Pakistani border, he had been hiding in a three-story house in Abbottabad, a resort city about 35 miles north of Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.
The big break came when the United States discovered the compound by following one of the terrorist's personal couriers, identified by terrorist detainees as one of the few al-Qaida couriers who bin Laden trusted.
"They indicated he might be living with and protecting bin Laden," a senior administration official told reporters. "Detainees gave us his nom de guerre, or his nickname, and identified him as both a protégé of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of September 11th, and a trusted assistant of Abu Faraj al-Libbi, the former No. 3 of al-Qaida who was captured in 2005."
Officials didn't learn the courier's name until 2007. Then it took two years to find him and track him back to this compound, which was discovered in August 2010.
The White House's original plan had been to bomb the house, but Obama ultimately decided against that.
"The helicopter raid was riskier. It was more daring," an official told Politico. "But he wanted proof. He didn't want to just leave a pile of rubble."
Officials knew there were 22 people living there, and Obama wanted to be sure not to kill civilians unnecessarily.
The Navy SEAL commandos picked for the mission had trained for weeks, practicing daily at such a precise replica of the compound that they came to know every wall and external feature, as well as where every occupant was likely to be found. The rehearsals also covered a range of scenarios, including the possibility that bin Laden would surrender.
So the team members practiced how to take him prisoner, according a military official briefed on the plan. Using Arabic commands, the insertion team would offer bin Laden a chance to give up, and would fire only if he resisted.