The helicopter carrying Navy SEALs malfunctioned as it approached Osama bin Laden’s compound at about 3:30 p.m. ET Sunday, stalling as it hovered. The pilot set it down gently inside the walls, then couldn’t get it going again.
It was a heart-stopping moment for President Barack Obama, who had been monitoring the raid in the White House Situation Room, surrounded by members of his war cabinet.
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“Obviously, everyone was thinking about Black Hawk Down and Desert One,” a senior administration official recalled.
The SEALs disembarked.
“The assault team went ahead and raided the compound, even though they didn’t know if they would have a ride home,” an official said.
The special forces put bombs on the crippled chopper and blew it up, then lifted off in a reinforcement craft just before 4:15 p.m., capping an astounding 40 minutes that gave the United States a tectonic victory in the 10-year war on terror touched off by 9/11.
“ The world is safer. It is a better place because of the death of Osama bin Laden,” Obama said at the White House Monday.
The sick chopper turned out to be a tiny wrinkle in an astounding military and intelligence triumph. Bin Laden was shot in the face by the SEALs during a firefight after resisting capture.
Bin Laden’s body was taken to the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, and he was buried in the North Arabian Sea overnight — less than 12 hours after the raid, officials said. DNA from the remains provided certain confirmation that bin Laden was dead. He was 54.
Briefing reporters at the White House Monday, Obama’s counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said the special-ops team that went into the compound was prepared to take bin Laden alive, but he resisted. A woman – one of bin Laden’s many wives – was used as a human shield for bin Laden during the firefight, and was killed, Brennan said.
Brennan declined to describe exactly how White House officials monitored the firefight and said the confirmation that the man killed at the compound was bin Laden came in through the day, as the body was identified by various means. “There wasn’t one ‘A-ha’ when the DNA came in,” Brennan said. “It was building over time.”
As for convincing skeptics that the man killed was the Al Qaeda mastermind, Brennan said the White House is still considering what other evidence to release — including whether to release a photograph of bin Laden’s body. “We are going to do everything we can to make sure nobody has any basis to try to deny that we got Osama bin Laden,” Brennan said.
Here’s how the world’s most-hunted man was vanquished, as recounted by senior administration officials:
Contrary to the intelligence community’s long-held belief that bin Laden was in a lawless “no man’s land” on the Pakistani border, bin Laden had been hiding in a three-story house in a one-acre compound in Abbottabad, about 35 miles north of Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. Officials describe it as a relatively affluent community, with lots of residents who are retired military.
“Bin Laden was living in a relatively comfortable place: a compound valued at about $1 million,” a senior U.S. official told POLITICO. “Many of his foot soldiers are located in some of the remotest regions of Pakistan and live in austere conditions. You’ve got to wonder if they’re rethinking their respect for their dead leader. He obviously wasn’t living as one of them.”
Officials described the raid as the culmination of years of highly advanced intelligence work that included the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), which specializes in imagery and maps, and the National Security Agency (NSA), the “codemakers and codebreakers” who can covertly watch and listen to conversations around the world.