Only one of the five people killed in the raid in which Osama bin Laden died was armed and fired any shots, a senior US defence official said today, acknowledging that the new account differs greatly from original administration portrayals of a chaotic, intense and prolonged firefight.
The only gunman in the al-Qaida leader’s Pakistani compound was quickly killed in the early minutes of the commando operation, before the Navy Seals assault team swept through the house and shot the others, the official said.
The details have become clearer now that the assault team has been debriefed, the official added, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak on the record.
He said the raid should be described as a precision, floor-by-floor operation to hunt and find the al-Qaida leader and his protectors, rather than as it has been portrayed by a succession of government officials since bin Laden’s death was announced on Sunday night.
In another development, aviation experts said a helicopter used in the assault appeared to be a stealthier, top-secret and never-before-seen version of a routinely used special ops helicopter. It made a hard landing and was destroyed by the military team at the site, leaving behind wreckage for experts to analyse.
As the Seals moved into bin Laden’s compound, they were fired on by bin Laden’s courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, who was in the guesthouse, the senior defence official said. The Seals returned fire, and the courier was killed, along with a woman with him. She was hit in the crossfire, the official said.
The Americans were never fired on again as they encountered and killed a man on the first floor and then bin Laden’s son on a staircase, before arriving at bin Laden’s room. Officials have said bin Laden was killed after he appeared to be lunging for a weapon.
White House, Defence Department and CIA officials have offered varying and foggy versions of the operation throughout the week, though the dominant focus was on a firefight which officials said consumed most of the 40-minute assault.
“There were many other people who were armed... in the compound,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Tuesday when asked if bin Laden was armed. “We expected a great deal of resistance and were met with a great deal of resistance.”
“For most of the period there, there was a firefight,” a senior defence official told Pentagon reporters in a briefing on Monday.
And though officials later revised these words, White House counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan originally said bin Laden also took part in the shoot-out. Later the administration said bin Laden was not armed but that there were guns in the room.
NBC News, which was first to report that four of the five people killed were unarmed, said the majority of the operation was spent gathering up the compound’s computers, hard drives, mobile phones and other items which could provide valuable intelligence on al-Qaida and potential operations worldwide.
Those materials have been taken to the FBI lab at the Marine Corps base at Quantico, Virginia, the defence official said.
Widely published photos of the remains of the MH-60 Black Hawk helicopter which made a hard landing at the outset of the operation - and was destroyed with explosives before the Seals left - show it had been modified to make it harder to detect with radar, said Richard Aboulafia, aviation expert with the Teal Group consultancy.
“It’s pretty clear it was meant to penetrate Pakistani airspace,” he said.
The Seal team was flown in by an elite Army Special Operations unit, known as the Knight Stalkers, according to a defence official. The unit is based at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and US President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit there tomorrow.
The Knight Stalkers specialise in night flight operations and are equipped with Black Hawk, Chinook and MH-6 Little Bird helicopters. But Mr Aboulafia said the existence of a helicopter like the one at the scene in Pakistan “was a very well-kept secret”.
Also today, two shopkeepers in Pakistani told the Associated Press that the bodies of al-Kuwaiti and his brother are shown in other photos taken in the compound after the raid.
The photos were published by Reuters news agency, which said it had bought them from a Pakistani security official who entered the compound after the assault.
The shopkeepers said they could not identify a third man’s body in the photos. But by elimination, that would suggest the third man was bin Laden’s son, since the Obama administration has said five were killed – bin Laden, his son, the courier, the courier’s brother and a woman.
Prospects of ever seeing photos of bin Laden’s corpse are uncertain now that Mr Obama has decided not to release them publicly, said Scott Hodes, a former Freedom of Information and Privacy Act lawyer at the Justice Department.
The White House is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act or FOIA, so the law would not apply if the images are controlled there.
The CIA, which had operational control of the mission, and the Defence Department can use a series of exemptions from the Act to block release of the images.
On Monday, the Associated Press requested through the FOIA photos of bin Laden’s body as well as other materials, including video taken by military personnel during the raid and on the USS Carl Vinson, the ship which carried out bin Laden’s burial in the North Arabian Sea. The government has 20 days to respond to a FOIA request.
The Obama administration has pledged to be the most transparent government in US history and to comply much more closely with the Freedom of Information Act than the Bush administration did.
Ultimately, the issue could end up in federal court.
“I think that it’s going to be a hard road,” Mr Hodes said. “It’s not inconceivable that a court is going to say to release them. But I think the government will fight because it’s made its decision.”
Sarah Palin, the 2008 vice presidential nominee and former Alaska governor, said yesterday that Mr Obama should stop “pussy-footing around” and release the photos.