“The world is safer,” President Barack Obama triumphantly declared Monday, following the stunning take down of al-Qaida boss Osama bin Laden in a violent shootout in Pakistan. But getting there was no easy task.
Details emerged Monday that a major counterterrorism break, long-term surveillance, a final bold call by Obama and a precision ground attack from U.S. operatives led to the demise of the world’s most wanted terrorist.
“The minutes passed like days,” John Brennan, Obama’s chief couterterrorism adviser, said of the drama that unfolded Sunday in the President’s war room as top U.S. officials breathlessly watched and awaited the outcome of operation “Geronimo.”
“It was probably one of the most anxiety-filled periods of time in the lives of the people who were assembled here,” Brennan said.
The top-secret raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, a wealthy military town in Pakistan, was made possible after Guantanamo prison camp detainees four years ago identified a courier who worked for bin Laden. Last August, authorities traced the courier to the $1 million fortress-like complex where intelligence suggested bin Laden was hiding, according to reports.
At a White House briefing Monday, Brennan said that top advisers were debating on how to wipe out the compound, which had been monitored by the CIA using satellite images. Some supported a ground strike, while others pressed for a helicopter attack to keep soldiers out of harm’s way. Obama ultimately decided on the riskier ground raid to ensure that it they got bin Laden, his body would be identifiable.
“The president ... made what I believe was one of the most gutsiest calls of any president in recent memory,” Brennan said.
On Sunday, Blackhawk helicopters carrying NAVY Seals swooped over the compound in Pakistan, where it was night, stealthily descending on the complex. Its inhabitants, which included bin Laden, were able to put up a fight.
There were conflicting reports Monday whether it was a “kill mission,” but Brennan said authorities were prepared to take the terrorist mastermind alive. Among those killed was a woman, who was originally described as one of bin Laden’s wives and whom he used as a human shield. While confirming her death, U.S. officials later disputed both her roles in the day’s events. The al-Qaida courier, his brother and one of bin Laden’s sons were reportedly also killed in the raid.
Ultimately, bin Laden was shot twice in the head on the third floor of his compound in the gun battle in which the al-Qaida leader “resisted,” officials said.
The idea that bin Laden was not living in a remote cave but in a wealthier suburb painted a different picture of a man who had become a specter in America’s war on terror.
“It really just speaks to just how false his narrative has been over the years,” Brennan said.
The operation took about 40 minutes, while half a world away, Obama and other officials watched the action unfold on a live feed.
Not until about 4 p.m. Eastern did the SEALs confirm bin Laden's death and that no American was hurt. "We got him!" Obama shouted.
On Monday, Obama spoke at the White House during an unrelated Medal of Honor ceremony, and in brief remarks told Americans that the world “is a better place.”
2007 – U.S. officials uncover the identity of Osama Bin Laden’s courier, who had ties to 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheik Mohammed
2009 – Area in which courier and his family lived in Pakistan is identified
August 2010 — After a tip CIA locates the courier’s residence, a compounds in Abbottabad, Pakistan
September 2010 – Officials first determine that it’s possible that Bin Laden was also living in a Abbotabad compound
February 2010 – Officials conclude there’s enough evidence to pursue Osama at the compound
March 4 – The president has the first of at least five meetings with the National Security Council to develop strategy to catch Bin Laden
April 7, 2011 — U.S. Navy SEALs perform the first of two practice runs at a mockup of the compound at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan
April 14, 2011 Second practice run at the mock compound.
April 30 Obama gives the order to take out Bin Laden in his hideaway
May 2: 2 p.m. EST Obama meets with national security team to review final mission preparations
About 3:20 EST: Helicopter carrying a U.S. military team, mostly if not at all Nacy Seals, to the site malfunctions. They later destroy the copter with bombs
3:30 EST The special ops unit attacks the compound in a raid lasting about 40 minutes. Four people are killed, including Bin Laden, reportedly shot twice in the left side of the face.
3:50 p.m. Obama learns bin Laden has been “tentatively identified.”
4:15 P.M. – Battle inside compound is completed, they leave the compound in a “reinforcement craft.”
Around 7 p.m. Obama learns that assessment has been updated to “high probability” that Bin Laden was one of the four killed.
Later in night: DNA testing confirms Bin Laden’s identity.