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Helicopters descended out of darkness on the most important counterterrorism mission in U.S. history. It was an operation so secret, only a select few U.S. officials knew what was about to happen.
The location was a fortified compound in an affluent area north of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. The target was Osama bin Laden.
Intelligence officials discovered the compound in August while monitoring an al-Qaida courier, according to senior administration officials who briefed reporters about the raid after President Obama's televised speech Sunday night.
U.S. intelligence agencies had been hunting that courier for years, the officials said, ever since detainees told interrogators that the courier was so trusted by bin Laden that he might very well be living with the al-Qaida leader.
Nestled in an upscale neighborhood Abbottabad, 35 miles north of the capital of Islamabad, the compound was surrounded by walls as high as 18 feet, topped with barbed wire. Two security gates guarded the only way in. A third-floor terrace was shielded by a 7-foot privacy wall. No phone lines or Internet cables ran to the property. The residents burned their garbage rather than put it out for collection. Intelligence officials believed the million-dollar compound was built five years ago to protect a major terrorist figure. The question was, who?
The CIA used all of America's intelligence assets, senior administration officials said. It used the National Security Agency and worked detainees held in U.S. custody who had information about couriers that bin Laden had been using. He had relied on couriers to get him messages and to send messages to the outside world. It seems that in the end, some of these couriers, maybe unwittingly, were his undoing.
The CIA concluded it was almost certainly bin Laden living behind those walls.
'An Aggressive Course Of Action'
President Obama described the operation in broad strokes Sunday night. Details were provided in interviews with counterterrorism and intelligence authorities, senior administration officials and other U.S. officials. All spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive operation.
By mid-February, intelligence from multiple sources was clear enough that Obama wanted to "pursue an aggressive course of action," a senior administration official said. Over the next 2 1/2 months, 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, the official said.
Normally, the U.S. shares its counterterrorism intelligence widely with trusted allies in Britain, Canada, Australia and elsewhere. And the U.S. normally does not carry out ground operations inside Pakistan without collaboration with Pakistani intelligence. But U.S. officials suspected elements of Pakistan's intelligence service of protecting bin Laden. And this mission was too important and too secretive.
On April 29, Obama approved an operation to kill bin Laden. It was a mission that required surgical accuracy, even more precision than could be delivered by the government's sophisticated Predator drones. To execute it, Obama tapped an elite team and put it under the command of CIA Director Leon Panetta, whose analysts monitored the compound from afar.
The administration officials gave no details about where the U.S. team came from — neighboring Afghanistan, ships out in the Indian Ocean or the Arabian Gulf — or whether it included military or intelligence operatives.
But Panetta was directly in charge of the team, a U.S. official said, and his conference room was transformed into a command center.
'A Thundering Sound, Followed By Heavy Firing'
Details of exactly how the raid unfolded are murky.
Senior administration officials said the small U.S. team went in by helicopter, landed at the compound in Abbottabad and rushed in, and there they saw bin Laden face to face.
Senior administration officials said only that bin Laden "resisted." The U.S. team was on the ground in the compound for less than 40 minutes, they said. And then, early Monday morning local time, the man behind the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil died from an American bullet to his head. He was 54.
Bin Laden's adult son, the courier, the courier's brother and a woman also were killed. The administration officials said al-Qaida operatives were using the woman as a human shield. There were no U.S. casualties, though one of the U.S. helicopters had mechanical difficulties and had to be abandoned and destroyed, administration officials said.
Abbottabad resident Mohammad Haroon Rasheed said the raid happened about 1:15 a.m. local time.
"I heard a thundering sound, followed by heavy firing. Then firing suddenly stopped. Then more thundering, then a big blast," he said. "In the morning when we went out to see what happened, some helicopter wreckage was lying in an open field."
He said the house was 100 meters away from the gate of the Kakul Military Academy, an army-run institution where top officers train.
It was midafternoon in Virginia when Panetta and his team received word that bin Laden was dead. Cheers and applause broke out across the conference room.
Late Sunday night, President Obama addressed the nation to declare, "Justice has been done."
With reporting from NPR's Tom Bowman and Dina Temple-Raston and material from The Associated Press