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 Osama bin Laden 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. 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.
But 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. Some of their early details proved unreliable.
Information gaps exist in the official account.
But on one point 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.
Operational control fell to Adm. William McRaven, head of the Joint Special Forces 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.
As intelligence officials watched, they saw signs that a “hidden family” appeared to be living on the third floor. Their interest intensified when they spotted a man resembling bin Laden in the courtyard, Panetta said. They had already determined that bin Laden’s 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, the operation invited its first risk. Pakistani authorities, kept in the dark about the U.S. mission in their territory, might fire on the choppers.
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 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.
Gunfire erupted, but the compound was also 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 the way. The SEALs went in assuming some people they encountered might be wearing explosive suicide vests.
At the White House and a CIA command center, officials including Obama monitored the operation, 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.”
A violent melee was going on, key details still largely a mystery.
On the first floor, the SEALs killed the courier and his brother, and the courier’s wife died in crossfire.
They then swept upstairs and burst into a third floor room, entering one at a time, said Carney. There all the U.S. intelligence and guesswork paid off as they spotted bin Laden.
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 were bin Laden and a son.
The first bullet struck bin Laden in the chest, the second above his left eye, blowing away part of his skull. The son was shot dead in that room, too.
After the nerve-wracking, nearly half-hour gap in information from the scene, Washington got word that bin Laden was killed.
But 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.
“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 earlier, 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.
Mere hours after the operation, before most of the world knew bin Laden was found and killed, his body was buried at sea.