Death of Osama Bin Laden
Abbotabad, Pakistan, May 2, 2011: A crack team of Navy SEALs in night-vision goggles fast-rope to the ground from specially outfitted CH-47 and UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters, descending into a walled hideout 40 miles north of Islamabad. This is a military operation years in the making, its roots stretching back nearly ten years to the beginning of the War on Terror - and the U.S. Armed Forces' relentless search for Osama bin Laden.
After the American carpet-bombing of his Tora Bora cave complex a few months after 9/11, the al-Qaeda chief escaped northward into Afghanistan's Konar Province, and later across the border into Pakistan. After a few months of dedicated tracking, many of the Special Operations and CIA forces on bin Laden's trail were pulled off in preparation for the Iraq War. The hunt continued in the skies, via aerial reconnaissance and the U.S. unmanned drone network, with assistance from Pakistani and local ground troops. Good informants were hard to come by, though, and despite an attempt to ramp up the search with Operation Cannonball in 2006, years crept by without reliable leads.
Then, in 2007, the U.S. learned the name of one of bin Laden's trusted couriers: a protégé of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the architect of the 9/11 attacks. By 2009, they had worked out the areas in Pakistan where the courier was active, and in August 2010, they traced him to Abbotabad. He had been in and out of a custom-built compound with 12 to 18 foot walls, two security gates, no windows facing the road, and no telephone or Internet service. The residents burned their trash. The evidence was circumstantial, but U.S. officials knew the signs: there was a high probability that Osama bin Laden was using the property as his base of operations. In March of 2011, President Obama and the National Security Council started to plan how America would strike back.
It all came together at mid-day, on Sunday, May 1st, 2011. With authorization from the President, CIA Director Leon Panetta gave the order for the joint special operations-military team to raid the compound. With two backup choppers waiting in reserve, and - by some accounts - heavy gunships in the air to provide supporting fire, the two primary helicopters swooped down into the compound, flying low on the approach to avoid radar detection. They met enemy fire almost immediately.
The landing was a hard one. Unexpected air currents downed one of the two helicopters just after it crossed the compound wall - destined to be destroyed by the commandos just before their departure. The SEAL team blasted their way into the base, clearing the main three-story building room by room, until only the top two floors were left unexplored.
The details of the operation are still emerging: the government may never release the full video of the assault, so that the soldiers involved can continue to operate undercover. But after a sustained gun battle, the coded report was radioed in to the Situation Room: "Geronimo" Osama bin Laden had been identified by his codename. The terrorist mastermind had been shot and killed, once in the head and once in the chest; he had been unarmed, but was reported to be resisting capture. Four others were also killed, including a courier and his brother, one of bin Laden's sons, and one of his wives, who officials said had been used as a human shield. There were no American casualties.
The strike was surgical, the extraction controlled, the heroes anonymous, and the specifics tightly under wraps. But after one 40-minute firefight, a decade-long manhunt would finally come to an end, and an international criminal organization would be down its kingpin.