WASHINGTON — So much could have gone wrong as SEAL Team Six swept over Pakistan’s dark landscape, dropped down ropes into a compound lined by wall after wall, exchanged gunfire and confronted “Geronimo” face to face. The vital things went right.
Just about every contingency the 25 commandos trained for came at them, rapidly, chaotically and dangerously, in their lunge for Osama bin Laden.
They had acted on the best intelligence the U.S. had ever had on bin Laden’s whereabouts since he slipped away in the mountains of Tora Bora just under a decade ago. But it was guesswork, too, with the commandos’ lives, a president’s reputation and a nation’s prestige riding on the outcome.
Was the man once seen pacing the compound’s courtyard really bin Laden, as it appeared to American eyes? That was just one unknown.
In short, the U.S. had no direct evidence that bin Laden would be there during the assault — or indeed had ever been there. President Barack Obama put the raiders in motion on the “pretty good chance” they would find their man, as CIA Director Leon Panetta, who was overseeing the operation back in Washington, put it.
Days after the attack, the administration has fleshed out a reconstruction that is probably more accurate than its initial, flawed telling. More information has been gleaned from the commandos themselves, now back at their home base outside Virginia Beach, Va. Some dust has settled.
The U.S. changed its story again today when a senior defense official said only one of the five people killed in the raid was armed and fired any shots, a striking departure from the intense and prolonged firefight described earlier by the White House and others in the administration.
There remains no independent or competing account to the administration’s story as yet. The reconstruction comes largely from Panetta, White House spokesman Jay Carney and Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan.
The only other direct witnesses are the compound’s occupants, now in Pakistani custody and, for now, out of reach to everyone else.
Information gaps exist in the official account. Among them: why none of the compound’s survivors was taken away by the Americans, and how many commandos stormed bin Laden’s room. It may never be known which commando, or two, killed bin Laden with shots to his head and chest.
The question of exactly what the unarmed bin Laden did to prompt the SEALs to kill rather than capture him has not been settled. However, officials speaking anonymously told The Associated Press that bin Laden appeared to be lunging for a weapon in a room that contained his trademark AK-47 assault rifle and side arms. Still, to some in government and intelligence circles, the operation bore the hallmarks of a pure kill mission despite statements from officials that bin Laden would have been taken alive if he had surrendered.
On one point, however, there has been no inconsistency, revision or challenge: The raiders of Team Six made good on their “pretty good chance” and got safely away in a bold mission accomplished.
Late last week, Panetta got the word from the White House that Obama was giving the green light for the raid. Other options, including the idea of “just blowing the place up” from a B-2 bomber, had been discarded, he said. The president’s order soon followed.
Obama directed Panetta to proceed under Title 50, meaning this would be a covert operation.
Operational control fell to Adm. William McRaven, head of the Joint Special Operations Command, who is stationed in Afghanistan. Panetta said: “My instructions to Admiral McRaven were, ‘Admiral, go in and get bin Laden. And if he’s not there, get the hell out.'”
Team Six was ready.
Its members had rehearsed the assault many times — two or three times a night in Afghanistan, Panetta said. The U.S. had a strong sense for at least several months that bin Laden might be at the compound, which Americans had been monitoring for months longer than that.
Intelligence officials watched so closely that they saw a family’s clothes on the third floor balcony and, at one point, a man resembling bin Laden out in the courtyard, Panetta said. They surmised bin Laden and his “hidden family” lived on the second and third floors, because his trusted courier — who had unwittingly drawn the U.S. to this unlikely hideout — occupied the first floor, with his brother in a guesthouse.
When two Black Hawk helicopters carrying the commandos left Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, stopping in Jalalabad before crossing over into Pakistan on their way to Abbottabad, the operation invited its first risk. Pakistani authorities, kept in the dark about the U.S. mission in their territory, might spot the choppers and engage them.
But the strong Pakistani military presence in Abbottabad, a garrison city with a military academy near the compound, provided a cover of sorts for the Americans. No one would be particularly surprised to hear choppers flying at night.
Reaching their target, the raiders suddenly had to improvise.
Their plan to place a rappelling team on the roof with a second team dropping into the courtyard was jettisoned when one of the helicopters, its blades clawing at hot, too-thin air, had to put down hard. Both choppers landed in the courtyard, behind one ring of walls with more to go.
That was just one of the split-second decisions the SEALs had to make in the lair of al-Qaida’s leader.
The 25 commandos on the ground encountered gunfire from a man identified as bin Laden’s most trusted courier. They quickly killed him, and a woman with him died in the crossfire.
The compound was populated with more than two dozen children and women, according to the U.S. The raiders faced life-and-death calls — their own lives and those of the compound’s inhabitants — about who was lethal and who was just in their way. That line was not obvious. The SEALs went in with the assumption that some of those they encountered might be wearing explosive suicide vests.
Back at the White House and at a CIA command center, officials including Obama had monitored the operation to this point, apparently on TV monitors although the administration won’t say. Special forces are typically outfitted with video.
But when the strike force actually entered the compound, Panetta said, 20 or 25 minutes elapsed when “we really didn’t know just exactly what was going on.”
The raiders trying to get into the house breached three or four walls, Panetta said, not specifying whether they scaled them or blew holes. In the house, the SEALs shot open some doors. They killed the courier’s brother, then bin Laden’s son on a staircase.
They then swept upstairs and burst into a third floor room, entering one at a time, said Carney. There all the U.S. intelligence, the surmising and the guesswork paid off.
Bin Laden’s wife charged at the SEALs, crying her husband’s name at one point. They shot her in the calf. Officials told AP that one SEAL grabbed a woman, fearing she might be wearing a suicide vest, and pulled her away from his team. Whether that was bin Laden’s wife has not been confirmed.
Also in the room was bin Laden.
The first bullet struck bin Laden in the chest. The second struck above his left eye, blowing away part of his skull.
It is not confirmed whether the shots came from one commando, two or in a spray of gunfire.
After the nerve-wracking, nearly half-hour gap in information from the scene, Washington got word that “Geronimo” was killed in action.
The raiders’ work was not done.
They quickly swept the compound, retrieving possibly crucial records on the operations of al-Qaida.
They destroyed the chopper that gave them trouble. This renewed worries that Pakistani authorities would discover the mission prematurely. Neighbors certainly noticed.
“We had to blow the helicopter,” Panetta said, “and that probably woke up a lot of people, including the Pakistanis.”
The non-combatants, their hands bound with plastic ties as the operation unfolded, were left for Pakistani officials to round up.
About 10 days before the raid, Obama was briefed on the plan. It included keeping two backup helicopters just outside Pakistani airspace in case something went wrong. But Obama felt that was risky. If the SEALs needed help, they couldn’t afford to wait for backup.
He said the operation needed a plan in case the SEALs had to fight their way out. So two Chinooks were sent into Pakistani airspace, loaded with backup teams, just in case. One of those Chinooks landed in the compound after the Black Hawk became inoperable.
The raiders scrambled aboard the remaining Black Hawk and a Chinook, bin Laden’s body with them, and flew to the USS Carl Vinson in the North Arabian Sea. The ground operation had taken about 40 minutes.
Only after the Americans left the area was Pakistan informed of what had happened on its territory.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen called Pakistani Army chief Ashfaq Kayani to tell him that an operation he had not known about was complete, a U.S. official told AP. Panetta called his Pakistani counterpart shortly afterward.
Mere hours after the operation, before most of the world knew bin Laden was found and killed, his body was buried at sea.