Details of US Operation Emerge: How Bin Laden Was Tracked to His Luxury Home
Osama bin Laden was hiding not in a remote mountain cave but in the comfort of a luxury compound in Abbottabad, one of Pakistan's most beautiful cities, some 60 kilometers north of the capital Islamabad. Details of the US mission that killed him are now emerging.
Pakistani soldiers walk past a compound, surrounded in red fabric, where it is believed that US forces killed Osama bin Laden.
The commandos came under the cover of darkness: United States special forces stormed the hideout of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and shot him dead on Sunday night. President Barack Obama announced his death late at night US time in a televised address.
US officials said bin Laden had been living in a well-protected compound in the town of Abbottabad, some 60 kilometers (37 miles) north of the capital city Islamabad.
The compound had neither an Internet nor a telephone connection. According to the New York Times, the al-Qaida terrorists inside burned their rubbish themselves rather than putting it outside for collection.
Pakistani Generals as Neighbors
Although densely populated, Abbottabad is regarded as one of Pakistan's most beautiful cities. An interesting detail is that many Pakistani generals live here, and that the building is close to a military academy.
US officials said a "small unit" of US special forces landed at the site with two helicopters. A Reuters photographer said the helicopters took incoming fire as they landed. Security guards shot at them from the roof of the building.
At least two explosions were heard in the city. TV footage broadcast by a Pakistani news channel showed the burning building. The flames shot up meters high into the night sky.
The house at the end of a narrow dirt road is roughly eight times larger than other homes in the area.
Bin Laden was Given Chance to Surrender
On Monday, the site was cordoned off by police, reports SPIEGEL Pakistan correspondent Hasnain Kazim, who has traveled to the city. Local residents said they were shocked that bin Laden had been living among them. Many inhabitants witnessed the military operation after being woken by explosions and gunfire. Windows in surrounding buildings were shattered by the blasts.
According to CNN, the US troops had repeatedly trained for the mission. One priority had been to avoid civilian casualties because the compound was close to other buildings.
The operation lasted some 40 minutes and started at 1.30 a.m. local time. Bin Laden died from a shot to the head, CNN reported, citing members of the US Congress. A US national security official told Reuters that the special forces team was under orders to kill Bin Laden, not capture him.
US officials said the al-Qaida leader had been identified through facial recognition and that a DNA test was being carried out.
In addition to bin Laden, three men and one woman were killed. The men are believed to be one of his sons and two couriers. The woman was shot dead when one of the men sought cover behind her. Two other women were injured.
"It was an especially dangerous mission," said one senior US official who declined to be named. Several women and children had been in the compound at the time of the attack.
There were no casualties among the US soldiers. One of the helicopters suffered a technical defect and was destroyed on the grounds by the US troops.
Courier Tracked to Bin Laden Hideout
The entire unit had to return in the one remaining helicopter -- with bin Laden's body. The US government did not immediately reveal which special forces carried out the mission. The ABC network reported it had been around 25 soldiers from the elite Navy Seals force.
The operation was viewed in real-time by CIA Director Leon Panetta and other intelligence officials in a conference room at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, one official said.
"When word came in that the operation was a success, CIA officials in the conference room had a rather large applause," the official said.
US officials said intelligence services got the decisive lead on bin Laden's whereabouts by monitoring one of his couriers. The man had been under surveillance for some time. In August 2010, US agents tracked him to the compound in Abbotabad.
It rapidly became clear to them that it must be an important building because it was so large and so well protected. The CIA spent several weeks examining satellite images of the site and in September came to the conclusion that there was a "strong possibility" that bin Laden may be hiding there, the New York Times reported.
First Meeting on Commando Operation in Mid-March
According to the New York Times, US President Obama held a first meeting with his closest security aides on March 14 to discuss a commando operation. The last of several meetings took place last Friday -- while the world was watching the royal wedding of Britain's Prince William and Kate Middleton.
Obama praised the mission in his speech to the nation. "No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties," he said.
The Pakistani government described the killing of bin Laden as a "severe setback" for global terrorism. The Foreign Ministry said the killing highlighted the resolve of Pakistan and the international community to combat terrorism.
However, a US government official said the US did not initially inform the Pakistani authorities of the investigation. Even after Obama signed the formal orders authorizing the raid, he kept Pakistan's government in the dark about the operation.
"We shared our intelligence on this compound with no other country, including Pakistan," a senior administration official said. The breach of Pakistani sovereignty was outweighed by the "moral duty" to act, the official said.
In his speech to the nation, Obama said he had telephoned with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and that his team had also spoken with their Pakistani counterparts. "They agree that this is a good and historic day for both of our nations," said Obama.
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2011
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH
Begin quote gallery: Click on the arrow