President Barack Obama gave the final sign-off on Friday for the forty-minute operation that killed al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden on Sunday. The action took place in a compound in Abbottabad, an affluent Pakistani military town just thirty miles away from the Pakistani capital Islamabad, U.S. officials said.
Despite the apparent rapid turnaround for the operation, the raid on the compound was the result of an intensive, multi-year, bipartisan, cross-agency effort, senior U.S. officials stressed in a phone call with journalists Sunday night. Officials called it the most important victory yet in the world's fight against al Qaeda, but noted bin Laden's death will not bring about an immediate end to the heightened terrorism risk the United States has faced since the attacks of September 11, 2001.
"Without a doubt, the U.S. will continue to face terrorist threats. We have always understood this is a marathon not a sprint," a senior U.S. official told journalists shortly after Obama addressed the nation with the news of bin Laden's death. Still, the official noted that bin Laden's death "is the single biggest victory" in the war against terrorism to date, "and a major step in bringing about al Qaeda's eventual destruction." (You can watch President Obama's description of the operation in the video clip above, courtesy of the AP.)
In their initial reconstruction of the dramatic raid, the officials explained that the United States got intelligence four years ago about the identity of a particular al Qaeda courier who enjoyed Bin Laden's trust and confidence. After months of painstaking effort by the CIA, National Security Agency, and other national security agencies, the U.S. government was eventually able to track this courier, as well as his brother, and further determined that the two brothers seemed to be sharing their residence with another family of extremely high importance to al Qaeda.
U.S. officials said they were stunned to discover the extreme security measures in play at the compound. It was surrounded by walls between 12 and 18 feet high, topped with barbed wire; there were also interior security walls; and it was eight time larger than other residences in the area. What's more, officials on Sunday's call explained, the families living on the compound burned their trash, while all the other households in the area put their trash out for collection on the curb.
And for a property estimated at about a million dollars, it had no telephone or Internet connection, U.S. officials also noted.
"We were shocked by what we saw: an extraordinarily unique compound, that sits on a large plot of land, relatively secluded, and which is eight times larger than other homes in area," one official said. The home "was custom built to hide someone of significance," the official continued. The "extraordinary" state of security at the location helped confirm the suspicions of U.S. officials that it contained a high-value al Qaeda target.
President Obama personally chaired a half-dozen National Security Council meetings on the extremely classified intelligence in recent weeks, U.S. officials said, culminating in his Friday orders to proceed with the operation that killed Bin Laden.
U.S. forces were on the compound for forty minutes today and encountered no local authorities.
In addition to bin Laden, at least three other people were killed in the operation, U.S. officials said, including a man they believe to be one of Bin Laden's sons. Officials said that the action also claimed the life of a woman whom one of bin Laden's aides used as a human shield, they said. Two other bin Laden aides were wounded. No civilians or U.S. persons were wounded in the operation, they said.
One of the two U.S. helicopters involved in the operation apparently suffered damage in the operation. U.S. forces blew up the damaged copter up before boarding the other helicopter to leave the site, the officials said.
In his news conference tonight, Obama said he had called his Pakistani counterpart after the operation and both leaders agreed it was a great day for their countries. But it was impossible not to wonder how bin Laden could have found safe harbor in an affluent suburb of Pakistan's capital -- one that is filled with Pakistani military officials, no less--without a degree of complicity from Pakistani official elements.
"Abbottabad has a large military cantonment area and the Army college and exam center are located there," a former senior U.S. intelligence official who has worked in Pakistan told The Envoy. "It is very much off the usual track for foreigners … and I simply do not believe bin Laden could hide there unaided by, or unknown to, the Pakistanis."
The United States did not notify any other country before the operation, not even Pakistan, U.S. officials said, implying U.S. concern that suspected al Qaeda sympathizers in the Pakistani security services' ranks could have potentially foiled the operation.