Behind the operation to get Osama bin Laden **UPDATED**

According to a senior White House official who briefed reporters Sunday night, the push to get bin Laden began in the earliest days of the Obama administration, when the president “formally instructed the intelligence community and his counterterrorism advisers to make the pursuit of Osama bin Laden, as the leader of al Qaeda, as a top priority.”

The latest news out of the Obama administration on the death of Osama bin Laden is that a DNA match has confirmed that the man killed by U.S. Navy SEALs in Abbottabad, Pakistan was bin Laden. CNN says that senior administration officials confirm that there are “photographs of the body with a gunshot wound to the side of the head that shows an individual who is not unrecognizable as bin Laden.” No decision has yet been made on whether to release the photographs and if so, when and how. Story here.

The mission to get Bin Laden was years in the making, but the preparations truly heated up last September, according to a briefing by senior administration officials to reporters late Sunday night.

According to the official, even before the CIA began making its intelligence assessments last September, the administration put in place a plan to “degrade and defeat” al-Qaida, ostensibly including the stepped up military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Once the CIA assessments began, the intelligence agency last September became aware of a compound in Abbottabad “where a key al Qaeda facilitator appeared to be harboring a high-value target.” The intelligence analysts working the issue came to the conclusion that there was a strong probability that the high value target was bin Laden.

According to the official, by mid-February, a series of “intensive meetings” at the White House led the president to conclude that there was “sound intelligence basis” for conducting an aggressive pursuit of bin Laden at the compound and Obama “directed that action be taken as soon as there was actionable intelligence.

By mid-March, President Obama began chairing a series of National Security Council meetings which took place on March 14th, March 29th, April 12th, April 19th, and April 28th. The official said the President gave the final order to go forward with the operation on the morning of Friday, April 29th. The president gave his authorization to strike the compound on Friday night.

The raid on the compound took place in the early morning hours Sunday and was conducted by a small team of U.S. troops, which news outlets have identified as Navy SEALs. (Related: the secret team that killed bin Laden.)

Politico has some more details on the operation, including:

Obama rejected original plan for bombing; wanted proof – Navy SEALS held two rehearsals last month, with war cabinet monitoring from White House – Raid planned for Saturday but pushed off a day because of weather – Chopper stalled as it hovered over the compound – Forces blew it up and left in a reinforcement craft …

The original plan for the raid was to bomb the house, but President Obama ultimately decided against that. “The helicopter raid was riskier. It was more daring,” an official said. “But he wanted proof. He didn’t want to just leave a pile of rubble.” Officials also knew there were 22 people living there, and Obama wanted to be sure not to kill all the civilians. So he ordered officials to come up with an air-assault plan. The forces held rehearsals of the raid on April 7 and April 13, with officials monitoring the action from Washington.

As the actual raid approached, daily meetings were held of the national security principals, chaired by National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, and their deputies, chaired by John Brennan, the president’s counterterrorism adviser. At an April 19 meeting in the Situation Room, the president approved the assault, in principle, as the course of action. He ordered the force to fly to the region to conduct it. On April 28, just after his East Room announcement that CIA Director Leon Panetta would be succeeding Robert Gates as Defense Secretary, the president held another meeting in the Situation Room, and went through everyone’s final recommendations. He didn’t announce his decision at that time, but kept his counsel overnight.

According to Politico’s Mike Allen, administration sources say the 40-minute operation did not go off without a hitch:

… a helicopter carrying Navy SEALs malfunctioned as it approached bin Laden’s compound at about 3:30 p.m. Eastern Sunday, stalling as it hovered. The pilot set it down gently inside the walls, then couldn’t get it going again. It was a tense moment for President Barack Obama, who had been monitoring the raid in the White House Situation Room surrounded by members of his war cabinet.

In the end, the sick chopper turned out to be a tiny wrinkle in a military and intelligence success. Bin Laden was shot in the face by the SEALs during a firefight after resisting capture. He was buried at sea less than 12 hours later.

The National Journal gets even more specific:

After bursts of fire over 40 minutes, 22 people were killed or captured. One of the dead was Osama bin Laden, done in by a double tap — boom, boom — to the left side of his face.

The administration official told reporters on Sunday, “this remarkable achievement could not have happened without persistent effort and careful planning over many years. Our national security professionals did a superb job. They deserve tremendous credit for serving justice to Osama bin Laden.”

The Intel

According to the administration, the CIA had long been gathering “leads on individuals in bin Laden’s inner circle, including his personal couriers. Detainees in the post-9/11 period flagged for us individuals who may have been providing direct support to bin Laden and his deputy, Zawahiri, after their escape from Afghanistan.”

The CIA focused on one courier in particular, whose nom de guerre was given up by detainees, who also identified him as both a protégé of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and a trusted assistant of Abu Faraj al-Libbi, the former number three of al Qaeda who was captured in 2005.

The administration official said detainees also identified the man as one of the few al Qaeda couriers trusted by bin Laden. They also indicated he might be living with and protecting bin Laden. Still, for years, U.S. intelligence officials didn’t have his name or location.

According to the official, the U.S. uncovered the courier’s identity in 2007, along with the areas in Pakistan where the individual and his brother operated, though they were unable to pinpoint a location. The official said the brothers maintained strong operational security, which only reinforced the idea that the Americans were on the right track.

Then, in August 2010, the compound in Abbottabad, which was the brothers’ residence, was identified. According to the administration official, the area is “relatively affluent, with lots of retired military,” and is insulated from the natural disasters and terror attacks that have plagued other parts of Pakistan in recent years. In fact, it is located near a Pakistani military training academy, raising questions about what Pakistan’s military may have known about the compound.

The administration official says U.S. intelligence was “shocked” by what they saw at the compound, which was described as “extraordinarily unique”; 3 stories high, and sitting on a large plot of land in an area that was relatively secluded. The compound was roughly eight times larger than any other home in the area, surrounded by 12-18 foot walls topped with barbed wire. The U.S. believes the compound was built in 2005, and that at that time it was on the outskirts of the town center, at the end of a narrow dirt road. In the ensuing years, some residential homes were built nearby.

Aerial photos of the compound released Monday by the Pentagon.

More about the compound:

Internal wall sections — internal walls sectioned off different portions of the compound to provide extra privacy. Access to the compound is restricted by two security gates, and the residents of the compound burn their trash, unlike their neighbors, who put the trash out for collection.

The main structure, a three-story building, has few windows facing the outside of the compound. A terrace on the third floor has a seven-foot wall privacy — has a seven-foot privacy wall. (More photos of the compound, released by the Pentagon, here.)

Administration officials said the property is valued at approximately $1 million, but it had no telephone or Internet service. Officials could find no explanation for the the brothers’ source of wealth.

Intelligence analysts came to the conclusion that based on the specifications, the compound was custom built to hide someone “of significance.” And the U.S. learned that more than just the brothers and their families lived there. The third family’s “size and makeup matched the bin Laden family,” and the analysts concluded that it was bin Laden, and he was living there with several family members along with his youngest wife.

Also of significance to the U.S. was the fact that two close associates of bin Laden: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Faraj al-Libbi, had been arrested in the settled areas of Pakistan.

It was with that confidence that a “high value target” was being housed at the brothers’ compound, and that the person being housed was bin Laden, the administration official said the operation was deemed a “go.”

According to another senior administration source, the operation was designed to minimize collateral damage and civilian casualties. The SEAL team was inside the compound for around 40 minutes and “did not encounter any local authorities while performing the raid.” In addition to Osama bin Laden, three adult males were killed in the raid. Two are believed to have been couriers and the third was bin Laden’s adult son.

There were several women and children at the compound. One woman was killed when she was used as human shield by one of the men inside the compound. Two others escaped with injuries.

Pakistani officials were not informed of the raid in advance, but were contacted shortly after it was completed. The officials also noted that Pakistian “helped” in the development of leads that led to the operation. Only a “very small group of individuals within the U.S. government” were aware of the operation in advance.

The official noted that it was significant that bin Laden’s end comes at the same time citizens of several North African and Middle Eastern countries are engaged in uprisings, seeking greater freedom and democracy.

NBC News reports that after it was photographed and DNA extracted for identification purposes, bin Laden’s body was “cleansed and buried at sea” according to Islamic custom, expelled from the deck of a U.S. aircraft carrier in the North Arabian sea. (UPDATE: Some Islamic scholars dispute the claim that the burial was according to their traditions. Burial at sea is highly unusual for Muslims.)

In a White House briefing Monday, Homeland Security Adviser John Brennan called bin Laden’s death a “strategic blow to al-Qaida,” and pointed out the irony of the terror leader sending other Muslims out to die while he lived in a fortified compound, “far from the front,” hiding behind his wife at the end. (UPDATE: Brennan and other administration officials are now casting doubt on the idea that bin Laden’s wife was killed, and are now suggesting the woman who was killed was the wife of another resident of the compound. There are also questions regarding whether bin Laden fired a weapon at U.S. forces.)

Per the Los Angeles Times:

Brennan also described the scene as President Obama and other White House officials monitored the operation from the Situation Room, calling it “probably one of the most anxiety-filled periods of times in the lives of the people assembled here.”

“Minutes passed like days,” he said.

Related: the 10-year hunt for bin Laden

Related: Taliban ‘commander’ vows revenge

Related: a political boost, for now

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2 Responses to Behind the operation to get Osama bin Laden **UPDATED**

  1. bmull says:

    There are still a lot of discrepancies. For instance numerous media are quoting an anonymous white house official saying bin Laden did not use his wife as a shield, and she is still alive. How Brennan, who watched the raid on video, could be wrong about this is unclear.

  2. Flo says:

    They are still crafting the story, Mull; they will fit the video to it later.

    Really? Maybe it’s the media racing to be first with details that is causing descrepancies. From what we hear, the video isn’t that clear and who really knows who OBL’s wives were.

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