WASHINGTON — One of Osama bin Laden’s wives stood between him and U.S. Navy SEALs as the world’s most-wanted terrorist was gunned down in an airborne assault on the al-Qaida leader’s safehouse deep in Pakistan. He was holed up less than a mile (1.6 kilometres) from the country’s military academy and not far from the capital of Islamabad.
Details emerged Monday of the life and dramatic death of bin Laden, the day after President Barack Obama made the stunning near-midnight announcement that the al-Qaida leader had been killed.
Obama, while assured bin Laden probably was in the compound, did not know with certainty that the 10-year hunt for the notorious son of a Saudi Arabian construction magnate was at an end until his body was carried to one of four U.S. Special Operations helicopters that had ferried in the American force deep inside Pakistan. One of the craft was damaged on landing and blown up before the return journey to Afghanistan.
On Monday the president said the terrorist mastermind’s death was “a good day for America.”
The administration said DNA testing administered on the body before it was buried at sea from the deck of the USS Carl in the North Arabian Sea confirmed the man killed was indeed bin Laden.
Photo analysis by the CIA, confirmation by a woman believed to be one of bin Laden’s wives on site, and matching physical features like bin Laden’s height all helped confirmed the identification. White House officials were deciding the merits and appropriateness of releasing a photo of bin Laden’s body. He was shot above his left eye, blowing away part of his skull.
“The world is safer. It is a better place because of the death of Osama bin Laden,” Obama said, although security officials in the U.S. and around the globe warned against retaliatory al-Qaida attacks.
Obama hailed the pride of those who broke joined overnight celebrations as the stunning news spread around the globe. Crowds celebrated throughout the night outside the White House and at ground zero in Lower Manhattan where the Twin Towers once stood. Obama was planning to visit there Thursday and meet with the families of those killed nearly 10 years ago, an administration official said.
Both Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said co-operation from the Pakistani government had helped lead U.S. forces to the compound where he died. But a cloud of suspicion hangs over Pakistan, where authorities have routinely denied bin Laden was in the country. U.S. officials, however, said the sprawling bin Laden compound, with its elaborate security and high walls, was built in 2005, apparently to serve as the terrorist leader’s safe house.
Unanswered is the obvious question of how bin Laden could have gone unnoticed just down the road from the country’s equivalent of the U.S. military academy at West Point, New York, in a town swarming with military and intelligence personnel.
“People have been referring to this as hiding in plain sight,” Obama’s counterterrorism chief John Brennan told reporters Monday. “Clearly, this was something that was considered as a possibility. Pakistan is a large country. We are looking right now at how he was able to hold out there for so long and whether or not there was any type of support system within Pakistan that allowed him to stay there.”
Others were more blunt.
Sen. Carl Levin, Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Pakistani Army and intelligence agency “have a lot of questions to answer, given the location, the length of time and the apparent fact that this was actually — this facility was actually built for bin Laden, and its closeness to the central location of the Pakistani army.”
In addition to bin Laden, one of his sons, Khalid, was killed in the raid, Brennan said. Bin Laden’s wife was shot in the calf but survived, a U.S. official said. Also killed were bin Laden’s trusted personal courier Sheikh Abu Ahmed and his brother, both earlier identified as two of bin Laden’s al-Qaida facilitators, and an unidentified woman.
Twenty-three children and nine women were in the compound at the time of the assault and were turned over to Pakistani authorities, said a U.S. official who requested anonymity to discuss an intelligence matter. The SEAL team believes Bin Laden had lived at the compound for six years, the official said.
Obama gave preliminary orders for the attack on Friday shortly before flying to Alabama to inspect tornado damage, and aides set to work on the details. He gave the final directive Sunday. Brennan called it one of the “gutsiest calls of any president in recent memory.”
Brennan said the president and his national security team monitored the raid from the White House Situation Room and expressed relief that elite forces had finally gotten bin Laden without losing any more American lives.
“It was probably one of the most anxiety-filled periods of time in the lives of the people who were assembled here,” Brennan said. “The minutes passed like days.”
Brennan strongly suggested a live video feed had been available — SEALs customarily have video cameras attached to their helmets — and the White House released a photo showing the commander in chief, Vice-President Joe Biden and top aides staring intently at something outside the picture. The White House did not say what they were looking at.
Obama on Monday reaped accolades from world leaders he’d kept in the dark about the operation as well as plaudits from political opponents at home. Republican and Democratic congressional leaders alike gave him a standing ovation at an evening meeting that was planned before the assault but became a celebration of its success.
The dramatic developments came just months ahead of the 10-year anniversary of the hijacked-airliner assaults on the United States. Those attacks took nearly 3,000 lives, led the U.S. into war in Afghanistan and Iraq and forever pierced the notion that the most powerful country on earth could not be hit on such a ferocious scale.
U.S. officials said the information that ultimately led to bin Laden’s capture originally came from detainees held in secret CIA prison sites in Eastern Europe. There, agency interrogators were told of an alias used by a courier whom bin Laden particularly trusted.
It took four long years to learn he was a Kuwaiti-born man named Sheikh Abu Ahmed, then years more before investigators got a big break in the case, these officials said. Sometime in mid-2010, Ahmed was overheard using a phone by intelligence officials, who then were able to locate his residence — a specially constructed $1 million compound with walls as high as 18 feet (5.5 metres) topped with barbed wire.
By mid-February, intelligence from multiple sources was clear enough that Obama wanted to pursue action, a senior administration official said. Over the next two and a half months, the president led five meetings of the National Security Council focused solely on whether bin Laden was in that compound and, if so, how to get him, the official said.
Once under way, four helicopters ferried the U.S. forces to the Abbottabad compound, lowered the SEALS behind the walls and began descending toward a landing. No shots were fired, but shortly after the team hit the ground, one of the helicopters came crashing down and rolled onto its side for reasons the government has yet to explain. None of the SEALs was injured, however, and the mission continued uninterrupted. The crippled aircraft was destroyed before the raiding party flew out in the three remaining helicopters.
U.S. officials have not explained how they managed to secretly fly four helicopters across the Pakistan border to near the capital and into a military garrison city that was home to the country’s military academy. What’s more, it remained unclear how the SEAL team was able to conduct what was described as a 40-minute mission, including a firefight and the explosives destruction of a helicopter, without the Pakistan military or police intervening.
Bin Laden’s death came 15 years after he declared war on the United States. Al-Qaida was also blamed for the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa that killed 224 people and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 American sailors in Yemen, as well as countless other plots, some successful and some foiled.
The greatest terrorist threat to the U.S. is now considered to be the al-Qaida franchise in Yemen, far from al-Qaida’s core in Pakistan. The Yemen branch almost took down a U.S.-bound airliner on Christmas 2009 and nearly detonated explosives aboard two U.S. cargo planes last fall. Those operations were carried out without any direct involvement from bin Laden.
Retaliatory attacks against the U.S. and Western targets could come from members of al-Qaida’s core branch in the tribal areas of Pakistan, al-Qaida franchises in other countries or radicalized individuals in the U.S. with al-Qaida sympathies, according to a Homeland Security Department intelligence alert issued Sunday and obtained by The Associated Press.
A prominent al-Qaida commentator vowed revenge for bin Laden’s death. “Woe to his enemies. By God, we will avenge the killing of the Sheik of Islam,” he wrote under his online name Assad al-Jihad2. “Those who wish that jihad has ended or weakened, I tell them: Let us wait a little bit.”
As quickly as bin Laden’s supporters vowed to avenge his death, administration officials worked to undermine his reputation.
“Here is bin Laden, who has been calling for these (terror) attacks, living in this million-dollar-plus compound, living in an area that is far removed from the front, hiding behind women who were put in front of him as a shield. I think it really just speaks to just how false his narrative has been over the years,” Brennan said.
Associated Press writers Adam Goldman, Chris Brummitt, Ben Feller, Matt Apuzzo, Erica Werner, Pauline Jelinek, Robert Burns, Matthew Lee, Eileen Sullivan and Kimberly Dozier contributed to this story.