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More Layers of Detail in How It Happened

May 2, 2011

MSNBC:

How the US tracked couriers to elaborate bin Laden compound
First intelligence of a courier, then an extraordinary house with high walls — and no telephone or Internet. Bin Laden and a son are among five killed in a firefight.  “When we saw the compound, we were shocked by what we saw: an extraordinarily unique compound.”

The plot of land was roughly eight times larger than the other homes in the area. It was built in 2005 on the outskirts of town, but now some other homes are nearby.

“Physical security is extraordinary: 12 to 18 foot walls, walled areas, restricted access by two security gates.” The residents burn their trash, unlike their neighbors. There are no windows facing the road. One part of the
compound has its own seven-foot privacy wall.

And unusual for a compound valued at more than $1 million: It had no telephone or Internet service.

This home, U.S. intelligence analysts concluded, was “custom built to hide someone of significance.”

Besides the two brothers, the U.S. “soon learned that a third family lived there, whose size and makeup of family we believed to match those we believed would be with bin Laden. Our best information was that bin Laden was there with his youngest wife.”

 There was no proof, but everything seemed to fit: the security, the background of the  couriers, the design of the compound.”Our analysts looked at this from every angle. No other candidate fit the bill as well as bin Laden did,” an official said.

“The bottom line of our collection and analysis was that we had high confidence that the compound held a high-value terrorist target. There was a strong probability that it was bin Laden.”

That conclusion was reached in mid-February, officials said. Beginning in mid-March, the president led five National Security Council meetings on the plans for an operation.

Few in the know

On Friday, the president gave the order.

This information was shared “with no other country,” an official said. “Only a very small group of people inside our own government knew of this operation in advance.”

With bin Laden believed found, focus shifted to taking him out. A senior U.S. security official told Reuters that it was a “kill operation,” removing the option for the team to simply capture bin Laden.

Senior U.S. officials told NBC News Monday that CIA Director Leon Panetta had overall command of the operation.

The officials, both in the intelligence community and the Pentagon, said Panetta ran the operation from the CIA Directors conference room on the seventh floor for the CIA.

With Obama having authorized the operation, Panetta gave the order at midday Sunday for the joint special operations-military team that carried out the assault to raid the compound, the officials said. A senior U.S. official declined comment on whether CIA officers were on hand at the site, but Panetta’s role as commander would suggest they were. The CIA and special operations forces have worked together for years in counterterrorism
operations.

US officials watch in real time

According to current and former officials, Panetta was able to watch the operation in real time from the CIA, conferring live with Vice Adm. William H. McRaven, head of the Joint Special Operations Command, who was in
Afghanistan. A live video feed of the assault was available in both in the conference room and at the Situation Room at the White House, narrated by McRaven. One official described two moments in particular as “heart-
stopping”: the moment the choppers arrived on the scene, and when they left the country.

Obama and the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, were among those on hand in the Situation Room. One official said it is unlikely that the entire video will be released because it contains operational
information. Following the death of bin Laden, a loud cheer went up from the CIA officials assembled in
the conference room, which is just off the director’s main office.

At the same time, attention turned to identifying the remains as bin Laden. First, the commander on the ground (whose name has not been released) made a visual identification. Then, a digital image of OBL’s remains was fed
back to the CIA, where it was processed through a facial recognition system.

Also, bin Laden’s’ widow, a Yemeni, identified the remains as those of her husband. In addition to bin Laden, one of his adult sons, probably 19 year old Hamza Bin Laden, was killed as were a courier and the courier’s brother. Bin Laden’s widow remains in Pakistan, the officials said.

When the remains arrived in Afghanistan, an initial DNA test showed a high correlation of a match with the DNA on file. Saudi government had supplied the DNA long ago, having secured it from members of the bin Laden
family. Bin Laden is one of 53 children of the late Mohammed Bin Laden. Results of a more complete DNA testing later confirmed the identity with “100 percent certainty,” the officials said.

A burial at sea
Early Monday, an official told NBC News that bin Laden’s body had already been buried atsea — eliminating the possibility of a burial shrine.

Islamic tradition calls for a body to be buried within 24 hours, but finding a country willing to accept the remains of the world’s most wanted terrorist would have been difficult, a senior administration official said.

According to the White House briefing, the military operation went smoothly except for a helicopter landing that was not part of the original plan. The choppers were only intended to hover over the scene, but due to a
technical malfunction, one of them landed or fell — “not a crash,” the official said — so the military dispatched a third “emergency” helicopter to the scene.

“This operation was a surgical raid by a small team designed to minimize collateral damage. Our team was on the compound for under 40 minutes and did not encounter any local authorities.”

Bin Laden himself participated in the ensuing firefight, the officials suggested.

“Bin laden was killed in a firefight as our operators came onto the compound,” an official said.

Did he fire? a reporter asked.

Shot in the eye

“He did resist the assault force, and he was killed in a firefight,” an official said. NBC News reported that he was shot in the left eye.  Citing officials speaking at a White House briefing, Bloomberg News reported that the special ops team carrying out the mission was not certain if it even would encounter bin Laden in the compound until forces came face-to-face with him.

Four adult males were killed: bin Laden, his son, and the two couriers.

“One woman killed when used as a shield,” and other women were injured, the officials said. The women’s names were not given; it’s not clear whether bin Laden’s wife was among them.

The team blew up the disabled chopper upon their departure with bin Laden’s remains, which resulted in a “massive explosion,” the official told NBC.

Pakistan officials were unaware of the operation and scrambled fighter jets after getting reports of the explosion, according to the U.S. officials. But the U.S. helicopters were able to leave without further incident, the
official said.

No U.S. personnel died. The officials would not name the type of helicopter or say how many U.S. personnel participated.

White House officials proclaimed bin Laden’s death “the single greatest victory in the U.S.-led campaign against al-Qaida,” as one called it.

The officials also said they expect attacks from bin Laden’s loyalists who may step up the timing of previously planned operations.

“In the wake of this operation, there may be a heightened threat to the U.S. homeland. The U.S. is taking every possible precaution.” The State Department has sent advisories to embassies worldwide and has issued a travel
ban for Pakistan.

“Although al-Qaida will not fragment immediately,” an official said, “the death of bin Laden puts al-Qaida on a path of decline that will be difficult to reverse.”

Msnbc.com’s Bill Dedman and Robert Windrem, NBC News investigative producer for special projects, contributed to this report.

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