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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

INSIDE THE RAID

WASHINGTON — The elite team of commandos entered Pakistani airspace without permission, and left less than an hour later with the body of the most- wanted terrorist in the world — and for those watching watching live in the White House situation room, every minute “passed like days.”

“It was probably one of the most anxiety-filled periods of time in the lives of the people who were assembled here,” said John Brennan, President Obama’s counterterrorism chief. Among those watching were the president and vice president, the secretaries of defense and state, and the leaders of the military and intelligence community.

In a setback eerily like the one in 1980 that doomed President Jimmy Carter’s attempt to free Americans held hostage in Iran, one of the helicopters used to ferry Navy SEAL Team Six into Osama bin Laden’s fortified three-story compound developed mechanical problems and had to land.

The firefight lasted most of the 42 minutes the SEALs were on the ground. They needed to fight their way to the third floor to take out bin Laden toward the end of the battle. Bin Laden’s son Khalid was also killed in the firefight, along with two of his couriers. His youngest wife was shot in the leg, but survived.

Watching the scene unfold a half-world away via satellite link, the room was mostly silent until the SEAL team delivered a terse, coded message: “Geronimo-E KIA.”

Geronimo was the codeword for visual confirmation of bin Laden. “E” for enemy. “KIA,” killed in action.

The commandos were confident that it was bin Laden, 54, who took a shot to the head and another in the chest, completing a mission that was pulled off with the precision of a finely tuned Swiss watch.

The room immediately breathed a “sigh of relief,” Brennan said. And the commander in chief weighed in with just three more words: “We got him.”

The secretive American special forces team had dropped in, hit their target, and emerged relatively unscathed — save for one downed helicopter.

The SEALs scooped up bin Laden’s body, taking with them computer drives and other materials that officials said could lead to a roundup of other al Qaeda leaders, and then detonated explosives to destroy the disabled helicopter. Eighteen others in the compound, including women and children, were handed over to local authorities.

But one of the tensest moments of the entire operation was still to come. The Pakistani military, which had not been alerted in advance, began scrambling jets to respond to the attack.

“They had no idea about who might have been there, whether it be U.S. or somebody else,” Brennan said. “So we were watching and making sure that our people and our aircraft were able to get out of Pakistani airspace. And thankfully, there was no engagement with Pakistani forces.”

The key to the operation came from a key piece of information about one of bin Laden’s trusted couriers, known to the CIA for years only by his nom de guerre, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. Interrogations of two top Al Qaeda operatives, Hassan Ghul and Faraj al-Libi, captured in 2004 and 2005, led the CIA to zero in on al-Kuwaiti as the key to locating bin Laden.

Four years ago, they learned al-Kuwaiti’s real name: Sheikh Abu Ahmed, a Pakistani who had been hiding in Kuwait. But intelligence officers couldn’t find him — until last August, when a phone call by Ahmed to a man the U.S. was monitoring led operatives to the compound at the end of a dirt road in Abbottabad, about 70 miles north of the capital of Islamabad.

The building is many times larger than the surrounding houses and seemed to be a place “to hide someone of significance,” an administration official said after the assault.

The main structure was enclosed behind by 18-foot walls, barbed wire and opaque windows, and the compound had no phone service or Internet access. Even stranger, the occupants burned their garbage instead of putting it out for trash collectors to pick up.
Officials said bin Laden could have been there for as many as three years.

“Once we came across this compound, we paid close attention to it because it became very clear that whoever was living here was trying to maintain a very discreet profile,” a senior administration official said. “The compound was designed to obscure lines of sight from multiple directions. That’s a very important point.”

Still, operatives watching the house still weren’t entirely confident that bin Laden lived there.

But by February, they had gathered enough information from multiple sources to convince the president to pursue what a senior administration official described as “an aggressive course of action.”

In March and April, Obama held five National Security Council meetings to focus on a plan to get bin Laden, if he was indeed at the house.

Multiple training missions were held in Afghanistan in the weeks before Obama approved the operation on Friday, just before he traveled to Alabama to inspect tornado damage.

After the successful bin Laden mission, Associated Press reporters saw the wreckage of one of the American helicopters that malfunctioned and had to be destroyed during the operation. Residents described the sounds of bullets, the clatter of chopper blades and two large explosions as the raid went down.

One neighbor who lives five minutes from the Abbottabad compound told al-Jazeera that he walked over and watched the assault from a nearby street, then went home and found out in the morning that bin Laden had been there. The revelation so baffled the man he couldn’t believe it. He said the neighborhood is secure and a pass is required to get in.

Bin Laden lived in a “million-dollar-plus mansion,” Brennan said, not the cave he was always photographed in, while his underlings were the ones who had to live in mountain caves, ducking the escalating  bombardment of drones.

“It really speaks to how false his narrative has been over the years,” Brennan said.

Bin Laden’s body was identified through multiple techniques, including DNA matching and facial identification technology. A woman who lived at the compound also identified him by name, and some of the members of assault team recognized him.

It’s unclear whether the SEAL helicopter carrying bin Laden’s body returned to its base or flew directly to the Navy carrier Carl Vinson in the northern Arabian Sea. But it’s aboard that ship that the long, frustrating mission to capture the architect of the slaughter of 9/11 finally ended.

In keeping with Islamic rites requiring the dead to be buried within 24 hours, bin Laden’s body was wrapped in a white sheet and placed on a board.

In classic naval fashion, the board was tipped and his body slid off and disappeared beneath the waves.

Former Sen. Bob Kerrey, a ex-Navy SEAL, told The Daily, “I think the less we talk about the death of bin Laden the better. I mean, he’s dead, he’s gone, he’s in Davey Jones’ locker.”

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