Hours after receiving the go-ahead from President Barack Obama to perform a "surgical strike" on an expansive compound thought to house Osama bin Laden, helicopters descended out of the darkness into an affluent Pakistani neighborhood a few hours from Islamabad by car.
Mr. Obama and his top advisors watched the action unfold in the Situation Room. "The minutes [in the Situation Room] passed like days," said White House Counter Intelligence chief John Brennan at a press conference Monday.
As the information from the operation flowed into the Situation Room on Sunday afternoon, the president exclaimed, "We got him," based on what he was hearing and seeing. Bin Laden died on the scene, shot fatally in the chest and head.
One official heard a commander on scene say, "Geronimo E-KIA." Geronimo was the code name for Bin Laden; E-KIA is "enemy killed in action."
The mission to kill or capture bin Laden was a big risk. U.S. personnel on board had been chosen for one of the most important counterterrorism missions in U.S. history. It was an operation so secret, only a select few U.S. officials knew what was about to happen that Sunday.
Bin Laden was in a highly fortified compound in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad.
Nestled in a neighborhood that also was near Pakistani military academy and favored by retired military leaders, the compound was surrounded by walls as high as 18 feet, topped with barbed wire. Two security gates guarded the only way in. A third-floor terrace was shielded by a seven-foot privacy wall. No phone lines or Internet cables ran to the property. The residents burned their garbage rather than put it out for collection. Intelligence officials believed the million-dollar compound was built five years ago to protect a major terrorist figure. The question was, who?
The CIA asked itself again and again who might be living behind those walls. Each time, they concluded it was almost certainly bin Laden.
President Obama described the operation in broad strokes Sunday night. Details were provided in interviews with counterterrorism and intelligence authorities, senior administration officials and other U.S. officials. All spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive operation.
The operation was months in the making. Intelligence officials discovered the compound in August while monitoring an al Qaeda courier. The CIA had been hunting that courier for years. Officials said CIA interrogators in secret overseas prison developed the first strands of information on him.Current and former U.S. officials said that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, provided his name. The CIA got similar information from Mohammed's successor, Abu Faraj al-Libi. Both were subjected to harsh interrogation tactics inside CIA prisons in Poland and Romania.
The detainees told interrogators that the courier was so trusted by bin Laden that he might very well be living with the al Qaeda leader.
Key to the hunt was identifying the cell phone number of the courier and placing it under surveillance. In 2010, the US intercepted a call to the courier in which he was asked where he had been--he responded that he was back with the people he had been with before--the caller then said "May God facilitate you" the implication being that courier was back with OBL and his family.
The courier did not make it easy to locate the compound, however, since every time he approached the compound, he turned off his phone. He did this more than 90 minutes out and removed the battery, so he went totally dark and would leave it off when he was in the compound--when he left the compound, he would wait 90 minutes and turn it back on. Analysts would therefore keep seeing this pop up in places all over Pakistan but nowhere near to Abbottabod. This why it took so long to find the compound after they had the name and the cell phone number for the courier.
By mid-February, intelligence from multiple sources was clear enough that Mr. Obama wanted to "pursue an aggressive course of action," a senior administration official said. Over the next two and a half months, Mr. Obama 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.
According to multiple reports, Mr. Obama weighed ordering a bombing of the site in March, but declined because of the potential for collateral damage and the difficulty in obtaining proof bin Laden was killed.
On April 29, Mr. Obama approved an operation to kill bin Laden. It was a mission that required surgical accuracy, even more precision than could be delivered by the government's sophisticated Predator drones. To execute it, Mr. Obama tapped a small contingent of the Navy's elite SEAL Team Six and put them under the command of CIA Director Leon Panetta, whose analysts monitored the compound from afar.
The operation was carried out by a 24-man platoon from the Naval Special Warfare Developmental group - known as DEVGRU - based out of Dam Neck, Va. It's a group specifically dedicated to high-risk counterterrorism operations and assigned to the Joint Special Ops Command at Ft. Bragg. (It's predecessor was the storied "SEAL Team Six".)
A full-scale replica of the compound was erected in the special operations sector of Bagram air base in Afghanistan and the DEVGRU unit practiced assaulting under multiple scenarios--with many guards, with few guards, with explosives, etc.
CBS News national security correspondent David Martin reports the team was operating under the authority of Leon Panetta, the CIA director, since the U.S. military does not have authority to operate in Pakistan. A second team of about two dozen orbited out of sight in case they were needed.
The helicopters - reportedly a HH-60 "Pave Hawk" and a CH-47 - came under fire from security forces firing from the roof of the compound. The Pave Hawk had mechanical failure and made a hard landing after half the platoon "fast roped" into the compound. At least two other helicopters were part of the initial assault. When the Pave Hawk couldn't get back in the air, it was destroyed to protect the ship's sensitive avionics and communication equipment.
U.S. troops were at the compound for less than 40 minutes. In addition to bin Laden, three adult males were killed, including bin Laden's adult son and two couriers.
Bin Laden did not go peacefully, according to officials. He resisted arrest and was killed in a firefight as U.S. troops entered the compound - shot twice, in the chest and in the left side of the face. One woman was killed when she was used as a human shield, U.S. officials say, and two women were injured in the raid.
John Brennan, White House counterterrorism adviser, told reporters Monday that the U.S. forces werealive but U.S. officials thought the chances of him surrendering without resistance were "remote."
"He was engaged, and he was killed in the process. But if we had the opportunity to take him alive, we would have done that," Brennan said.
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Brennan also revealed that Mr. Obama and his national security team hadbut would not go into details about what sort of technology was used.
"It was probably one of the most anxiety-filled periods of time, I think, in the lives of the people who were assembled here yesterday," he said.
Adding to the tension was the fact that Pakistani military officials scrambled air force jets in response to the situation, which they had no prior knowledge of. However, the U.S. forces were able to exit Pakistan's air space without incident, Brennan said.
After the gun battle, a "Sensitive Site Exploitation" team arrived to comb the site and collect intelligence material and DNA samples. U.S. officials later said that DNA evidence had offered "99.9 percent" certainty that bin Laden was among the dead.
One of the women in the compound was one of bin Laden's new wives. The Yemeni woman identified him postmortem and was left behind.
None of the specific intelligence resulting in the raid was shared with another country. Officials say Pakistan's government was notified after the fact.
It was mid-afternoon in Virginia when Panetta and his team received word that bin Laden was dead. Cheers and applause broke out across the conference room.
The officials, all of whom spoke to CBS News on condition they remain anonymous, said care was being take to ensure bin Laden's body was handled in an "appropriate manner" according to Islamic custom.
Muslim practice calls for the body to be buried within 24 hours. An assumption is that Saudi Arabia, where his family lives, won't accept the body. U.S. officials said bin Laden was buried at sea.
This discovery and subsequent death of bin Laden doesn't bode well for the Pakistan government. According to Martin, it will be hard for the Pakistanis to explain how bin Laden could have been living in a huge compound located in a densely populated suburb filled with retired military unnoticed.