What we know about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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The raid that killed Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was reportedly conducted by the U.S. Navy’s SEAL commandos. White House officials declined to detail the forces in the raid, but they were likely carried to the target in two UH-60 helicopters, which can carry various weapons, more than 10 troops, plus high-tech gear to help the aircraft fly at night. White House officials did say only two helicopters were involved, but additional aircraft likely accompanied them to guard the commandos from counterattacks by jihadis or Pakistani aircraft, or to rescue any troops that might be stranded.

In September 2010, intelligence officials began an assessment that suggested bin Laden was hiding in a Pakistani compound. By mid-February, the U.S. “had determined there was a sound intelligence basis for this,” said an Obama administration official. From mid-March, the president held five meetings to consider ways “to bring justice to bin Laden,” said the official.

Several years ago, interrogators had persuaded detainees to reveal an individual who worked as a trusted courier for bin Laden. After several years, officials gradually learned more about the courier, and identified his residence in August 2010, in the town of Abbottabad, about 60 miles north of Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. The compound is large, and was built in 2005 at the end of a long road. The compound has walls up to 18 feet high, which are topped by barbed wire, interior walls, few windows, and two security gates. Despite its cost, the compound had no telephone or internet communications, and no trash pick-up, even though many people lived there.

The compound was raided by a helicopter-borne force. Officials shared little about the attack, but noted that the raid was designed to cause little collateral damage. The 40-minute raid killed four other people, including two couriers, one of bin Laden’s sons and a women who was used as a shield. One of two U.S. helicopters was destroyed after it malfunctioned.

U.S. officials conducted the raid without alerting any Pakistanis.

Officials did not say if the team consisted of soldiers or intelligence-agents. Bin Laden did resist and was killed in a firefight. The U.S. capture of bin Laden’s body will refute any effort by Islamists to deny bin Laden’s death. It also serves as a symbolic trophy in the decade-and-a-half long war between the U.S. and Islamists. In 1996, and again in 1998, Bin Laden issued detailed religious justifications and his strategy for his war against the United States, which culminated in the 2001 destruction of the Twin Towers.

In the past, U.S. officials have released pictures of other dead jihadi leaders, including Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, who was bin Laden’s main ally and deputy in Iraq until he was killed by a U.S. airstrike in 2006. U.S. leaders also released photographs of Saddam Hussein’s two sons after U.S. forces killed them in Mosul in 2003.

Bin Laden’s body will be handled according to Islamic practice and tradition, said a White House official. “This is something we take seriously,” the official said.

Bin Laden’s death also removed a potential political dilemma for U.S. officials. Had he been captured, officials would have had to decide whether to detain him in Guantanamo or even charge him with murder in a civilian court. Either course would have provided bin Laden with numerous opportunities to plead his case to the Islamic world.

The raid on the villa likely also yielded a trove of intelligence for U.S. officials. Captured paper records and computers will have to be decrypted and studied, but could identify Al Qaeda sleeper agents, jihadis and wealthy donors in the Arab world.

The killing of Al Qaeda’s “emir” will be a major help in destroying Al Qaeda, said White House officials. His likely successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, will likely have difficulty maintaining the group, whose jihadis and donors are mostly Gulf Arabs. Al-Zawahiri is an Egyptian.