By Lisa Daniel
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 2, 2011 - In the early morning hours of darkness yesterday, about 35 miles northeast of Islamabad, Pakistan, dozens of U.S. special operations members and CIA agents readied themselves aboard military helicopters for the operation of a lifetime.
U.S. intelligence officers had been gathering evidence since August that al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was not in a cave along the U.S.-Pakistan border, as had become lore, but was living comfortably with his family and others in a $1 million compound in Abbottabad, a suburb of the Pakistani capital, Defense Department and CIA officials who spoke on background about the operation at the Pentagon said today.
Intelligence officers spent the next eight months gathering information, which flowed heavily early this year, in part from detained fighters with the Afghanistan insurgency, they said. "The intelligence on the compound was shared with no one outside the U.S. government, and only a small number inside," an intelligence official said.
President Barack Obama "pushed this to an actionable level," a senior defense official said, holding numerous meetings with his national security team to consider all possible scenarios.
The special operations team, meanwhile, used its intelligence information to train for the operation, including developing contingency plans for anything they could think of that might not go as planned. With no one other than a small group of U.S. national security officials aware of the operation, officials said, the team was flown in to take bin Laden dead or alive.
Officials would not say how the forces breeched the walls of the compound, which range from 10 to 18 feet high around the perimeter, are topped with barbed wire and cover an acre of land. Once inside the triangular-shaped fortress, the team engaged in a firefight that killed two men who lived there in separate, smaller homes outside the three-story home of bin Laden and his family, officials said. The men are believed to have been brothers; one owned the property and was a courier for bin Laden, deputy national security advisor John O. Brennan said later at a White House briefing.
As expected, officials said, bin Laden resisted capture and was killed in the firefight with U.S. forces on the third floor of the home. Bin Laden's adult son and a woman believed to be his wife also were killed in the shootout, and two women were wounded, they added.
U.S. forces were in the compound for about 40 minutes and took no casualties, officials said. During that time, they also seized numerous items that are being investigated, they said.
Obama and his national security team anxiously monitored the operation in real time, Brennan said.
"The minutes passed like days," he said. "The president was very concerned about the security of our personnel. Clearly, it was very tense. A lot of people were holding their breath, and there was a fair degree of silence as we got the updates." Technical problems with one of the helicopters added to the tension, he said.
After the U.S. team was safely out of the country, officials said, Obama and other members of the national security team began calling government leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan and members of Congress.
"The accomplishment that these very brave personnel from the U.S. government were able to do yesterday is very significant" to the broader effort against terrorism, Brennan said. "This is decapitating the head of the snake. This is something we've been after for 15 years. We are going to try to take advantage of this opportunity we have to demonstrate to the Pakistani people and others that al-Qaida is a thing of the past."
An intelligence official who spoke to Pentagon reporters on background said the operation demonstrated "the tremendous partnership between the CIA and the U.S. military since 9/11."
As intelligence allowed them to piece together details of the compound and its occupants, he said, it became clear bin Laden "was more or less living in plain sight" while al-Qaida's lower level operatives "are living in dire conditions."
"You have to wonder what they think today when they see that their leader was living high on the hog," he said.
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