May 5, 2011

Inside bin Laden's lair with SEAL Team Six

Calvin Woodward, The Associated Press

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In this photo take Tuesday, local people and media gather outside the perimeter wall and sealed gate of the compound where Osama bin Laden was killed.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

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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.

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