May 5, 2011

In Focus: Key elements of bin Laden raid all went right

New details emerge of SEAL team's time on the ground.

By CALVIN WOODWARD The Associated Press

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.

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This undated artist’s rendering provided by the CIA shows the Abbottabad compound in Pakistan where SEAL Team Six landed and ran down Osama bin Laden after months of intelligence gathering.

The Associated Press

See more photographs, videos and related Osama bin Laden coverage.

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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