US FORCES finally found al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden not in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan’s border, but in an expensive compound in an upscale summer resort a little more than an hour’s drive from Pakistan’s capital, with his youngest wife.
A small US team conducted a helicopter raid on the compound in Abbottabad, a town 60 kilometres north of Islamabad that is relatively affluent and home to many retired members of Pakistan’s military.
After 40 minutes of fighting, bin Laden, an adult son, one of bin Laden’s wives and two men — identified as a courier and his brother — were dead, officials said. White House counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan said bin Laden’s wife was being used as a human shield to protect him.
Mr Brennan said US forces would have taken bin Laden alive if they had the opportunity.
He said it would have happened only if bin Laden did not pose any threat to the Americans sent to take him out. Since he fought back, he was killed.
US forces were led to the fortress-like three-storey building after more than four years tracking one of bin Laden’s most trusted couriers, whom US officials said was identified by men captured after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
One US official said the operation was years in the making, beginning with information gleaned from detainees who “flagged to us people who had been helping bin Laden”.
“One was a courier whose name kept coming up. But he had a nom de guerre. Then, four years ago, we uncovered his name. Two years ago we finally identified the areas where he and his brother were operating,” the official said.
“Detainees also identified this man as one of the few al-Qaida couriers trusted by bin Laden. They indicated he might be living with or protected by bin Laden.
“Then, in August 2010, we found this residence. But it was eight times larger than others in the area, and this courier and his brother had no identifiable means of income, yet he lived with his brother and their families in an unusual and extremely high-security building.”
A senior Obama administration official said: “When we saw the compound where the brothers lived, we were shocked by what we saw: an extraordinarily unique compound.”
Another official said: “The bottom line of our collection and our analysis was that we had high confidence that the compound harboured a high-value terrorist target. The experts who worked this issue for years assessed that there was a strong probability that the terrorist who was hiding there was Osama bin Laden.”
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 rubbish rather than put it out for collection. Intelligence officials believed the $1m 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.
By mid-February, intelligence from multiple sources was clear enough that US President Barack Obama wanted to “pursue an aggressive course of action”, an 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.
Normally, the US shares its counter-terrorism intelligence widely with trusted allies in Britain, Canada, Australia and elsewhere. And the US normally does not carry out ground operations inside Pakistan without collaboration with Pakistani intelligence. But this mission was too important and too secret.
On April 29, Mr Obama approved an operation to kill bin Laden. The mission required surgical accuracy, even more precision than could be delivered by US drones.
To execute it, Mr Obama called on some of the US navy’s elite Seal Team Six and put them under the command of CIA director Leon Panetta, whose analysts monitored the compound from afar. Mr Panetta was directly in charge of the team.
The building sat on a large plot of land that was relatively secluded when it was built in 2005. When it was constructed, it was on the outskirts of Abbottabad’s centre, at the end of a dirt road, but some other homes have been built nearby since then.
Security included outer walls of 3.6m to 5.5m topped with barbed wire and internal walls that sectioned off different parts of the compound. Few windows faced the outside of the compound.
“It is also noteworthy that the property is valued at approximately $1m but has no telephone or internet service connected to it,” an administration official said. “The brothers had no explainable source of wealth.”
US analysts realised that a third family lived there in addition to the two brothers, and the age and make-up of the third family matched those of the relatives — including his youngest wife — they believed would be living with bin Laden.
“Everything we saw, the extremely elaborate operational security, the brothers’ background and their behaviour and the location of the compound itself was perfectly consistent with what our experts expected bin Laden’s hideout to look like,” another administration official said.
Abbottabad is a popular summer resort in a valley surrounded by green hills near Pakistani Kashmir.
Islamist militants, particularly those fighting in Indian-controlled Kashmir, used to have training camps near the town.
* AFTER the firefight that killed Osama bin Laden, the US used “multiple methods” to positively identify his remains, according to a senior Pentagon official who personally saw a photograph of the corpse.
The official declined to specify the methods of identification, but two Obama administration officials said DNA evidence confirmed the death.
The officials claimed the DNA evidence provides a match with 99.9% confidence.
The officials did not immediately say where or how the testing was done but the test explains why US President Barack Obama was confident to announce the death to the world on Sunday night. Mr Obama provided no details on the identification process.
The US is believed to have collected DNA samples from bin Laden family members in the years since the 9/11 attacks that triggered the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. It was unclear whether the US also had fingerprints or some other means to identify the body on site.
US officials also said bin Laden was identified through “facial recognition,” a reference to technology for mapping unique facial characteristics, but it was not clear exactly how the Navy SEAL troops performed the comparison.
The body was later taken to an American warship, but the senior Pentagon official declined to say which one and where the ship was situated. The body was photographed before being buried at sea.
The US official who disclosed the burial at sea said it would have been difficult to find a country willing to accept the remains. Mr Obama said the remains had been handled in accordance with Islamic custom, which requires speedy burial.
Positive identification of the remains is considered a critically important part of the US operation, given the symbolic importance of bin Laden’s leadership of the Islamic extremist movement that was based in Afghanistan until the US invaded in October 2001.
When al-Qaida’s leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed in a US air strike in June 2006, DNA tests were performed by the FBI to positively identify the remains. The US military also performed an autopsy, in part to dispel allegations in the immediate aftermath of the air strike that the terrorist leader had been beaten or shot by US soldiers while in American custody.
* The US military is able to confirm the identity of bin Laden by matching his DNA with a sample from his sister’s brain which they collected when she died. According to reports, she was living in Boston when she passed away from brain cancer “several years ago”.
It was reported that when his sister, who has not been named, died from brain cancer the FBI immediately subpoenaed her body so it could later be used to identify the al-Qaida leader if he was caught.
The brain was preserved and tissue and blood samples taken from it were used to compile a DNA profile, ABC News reported. The tissue sample was reportedly then matched to the DNA of the man shot dead by US troops in a raid on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan.
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