It took years for the US military to track Osama bin Laden down, finding him not in a cave in the inaccessible tribal regions of Pakistan, but in a sumptuous luxury compound built just six years ago in the same city that is home to Pakistan's most prestigious military academy.
The raid that killed him lasted just 40 minutes.
US officials briefing reporters here said the raid involved a helicopter assault on a compound in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad by a small US team.
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Bin Laden resisted the US team and was shot in the head, they said. Also killed were bin Laden's most trusted courier and one of bin Laden's sons, as well as a woman one of the men tried to use as a human shield, they said.
“Bin Laden was killed as our operators came into the compound,” said one senior administration official, who like the others, spoke on condition they not be further identified because of the situation's sensitivity.
Only US personnel were involved in the raid, and Obama's decision to launch it wasn't shared with any other country, including Pakistan, whose most powerful intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, has long been suspected by US officials of maintaining links to extremist groups close to al Qaida.
One senior administration official indicated that the US was pursuing with the Pakistani government the question of whether any Pakistani officials were aware of bin Laden's presence.
“We are very concerned that he was inside Pakistan,” he said.
The compound was uncovered after years of effort by the CIA, which had been gathering leads on individuals in bin Laden's inner circle, including his couriers. Some of their names were provided by al Qaida members captured by the US.
“One courier in particular had our constant attention,” said a second senior administration official, who declined to release his name, but described him as a “protege” of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged architect of the 9/11 attacks who was captured in Pakistan in March 2003 and is in US custody at Guantanamo.
The CIA positively identified the courier four years ago and two years ago identified areas of Pakistan where the courier and his brother were operating. But because they employed such tight operations security, the agency was unable to pinpoint their residence until last year.
The captured al Qaida members only knew the courier's nom de guerre, but they told US intelligence officers that he was “one of the few . . . trusted by bin Laden,” and that the pair might be living together” he continued.
The courier and his brother were tracked to a massive, palatial compound built in 2005 at the end of a dirt road in an isolated and “affluent” suburb of Abbottabad favored by retired Pakistani military officers, said the second senior administration official, who added that it was believed that the residence was constructed specifically for bin Laden.
“We were shocked by what we saw,” he said, describing the compound as being eight times larger than any of the area's other homes, surrounded by 12- to 18-foot walls topped by barbed wire. Different sections of the structure were walled off from each other.
The “extraordinary security measures” also included two electrified security gates. Trash was burned before being taken out for disposal, he said.
The compound was built at a cost of $1 million — a great deal for a residence in impoverished Pakistan — yet it had no telephone or Internet connections, and the third floor was surrounded by a “seven-foot privacy wall” for its occupants.
The courier and his brother, meanwhile, “had no explainable source of income,” said the second administration official, who added that “we soon learned that more people were living at the compound” than just the two men and their families.
CIA analysts, working with the eavesdroppers of the National Security Agency and experts at the US Geospatial Intelligence Agency, which analyzes satellite imagery, concluded “with strong probability” that a third family — bin Laden, his youngest wife and several family members — also were living there, he said.
The compound's massive security, its isolated location and its size “was consistent with what our experts had expected bin Laden's hideout would look like,” he continued. “No other candidate fit the bill as well as bin Laden did.”
Months of planning went into the helicopter-borne operation, said a third senior administration official, who declined to provide many details, including how many personnel and aircraft participated. Obama met with a close circle of top national security aides five times since March 14 to review the intelligence assessment and plans for the operation before giving the final go-ahead.
The compound's high walls, security precautions, suburban location “and proximity to Islamabad made” the operation extreme risky, he said.
The third senior administration official described the operation as “a surgical raid by a small team designed to minimize collateral damage.”
“Our team was in the compound for under 40 minutes,” he said.
The senior administration officials said that the operation complied with US and international law, and stressed that Obama had repeatedly put Pakistan on notice that the US would act if it received actionable intelligence on the whereabouts of bin Laden or other terrorist threats.
A fourth senior administration official warned that “there may be a heightened threat” of terrorism against the US homeland and Americans overseas as a result of bin Laden's killing.
The administration, he said, was taking “every possible effort” to detect and thwart any retaliatory terrorist strikes.
But he called bin Laden's death “the single greatest victory” in the long campaign to crush al Qaida.
As for bin Laden's body, it will “be handled in accordance with Islamic practice and tradition,” which dictate that the funeral and burial be held within 24 hours of death, the fourth official said. He declined to elaborate.
US officials said early Monday that bin Laden's body was buried at sea.
© 2011 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
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