For God And Country, I Pass Geronimo, Geronimo E.K.I.A.
Two days after the September 11 attacks, U.S. President George W. Bush stated: “The most important thing is for us to find Osama bin Laden.” He added: “It is our No. 1 priority and we will not rest until we find him.”
American intelligence officials discovered the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden by tracking one of his couriers. Information was collected from Guantánamo Bay detainees, who gave intelligence officers the courier’s pseudonym and said that he was a protégé of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. In 2007, U.S. officials discovered the courier’s real name and, in 2009, that he lived in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Using satellite photos and intelligence reports, the CIA surmised the inhabitants of the mansion. In September, the CIA concluded that the compound was “custom built to hide someone of significance” and that bin Laden’s residence there was very likely. Officials surmised that he was living there with his youngest wife. To identify the occupants of the compound, the CIA worked with Doctor Shakil Afridi to organize a fake vaccination program. Nurses gained entry to the residence to vaccinate the children and extract DNA, which could be compared to a sample from his sister, who died in Boston in 2010.
Built in 2004, the three-story compound was located at the end of a narrow dirt road. Google Earth maps made from satellite photographs show that the compound was not present in 2001 but had been built by the time that new images were taken in 2005. It is located 2.5 miles northeast of the city center of Abbottabad. Abbottabad is about 100 miles from the Afghanistan border on the far eastern side of Pakistan, about 20 miles from India. The compound is less than one mile southwest of the Pakistan Military Academy. Located on a plot of land eight times larger than those of nearby houses, the compound was surrounded by a 12-to-18-foot concrete wall topped with barbed wire. It had two security gates, and the third-floor balcony had a seven-foot-high privacy wall, tall enough to hide the 6 ft. 4 in bin Laden. The compound had no Internet or landline telephone service. Its residents burned their refuse, unlike their neighbors, who set their garbage out for collection.
The CIA rented a home in Abbottabad from which a team staked out and observed the compound over a number of months. The CIA team used informants and other techniques to gather intelligence on the compound. The safe house was abandoned immediately after bin Laden’s death. The U.S. National Geospatial/Intelligence Agency helped the Joint Special Operations Command create mission simulators for the pilots, and analyzed data from an RQ-170 drone before, during and after the raid on the compound. The NGA created three-dimensional renderings of the house, created schedules describing residential traffic patterns, and assessed the number, height and gender of the residents of the compound. The design of bin Laden’s compound may have ultimately contributed to his discovery. A former CIA official involved in the manhunt told The Washington Post, “The place was three stories high, and you could watch it from a variety of angles.”
The CIA briefed Vice Admiral William H. McRaven, the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), about the compound in January 2011. McRaven said a commando raid would be fairly straightforward but he was concerned about the Pakistani response. He assigned a captain from the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU) to work with a CIA team at their campus in Langley, Virginia. Planners believed the SEALs could get to Abbottabad and back without being challenged by the Pakistani military. The helicopters to be used in the raid had been designed to be quiet and to have low radar visibility. Since the U.S. had helped equip and train the Pakistanis, their defensive capabilities were known. The U.S. had supplied F-16 Fighting Falcons to Pakistan on the condition they were kept at a Pakistani military base under 24-hour U.S. surveillance. The U.S. would know immediately if the Pakistanis scrambled their jets. McRaven and the SEALs left for Afghanistan to practice at a one-acre, full-scale replica of the compound built on a restricted area of Bagram known as Camp Alpha. The team departed the U.S. from Naval Air Station Oceana on April 26 in a C-17 aircraft, refueled on the ground at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, landed at Bagram Air Base, and then moved to Jalalabad on April 27. On May 1 at 1:22 p.m., CIA Director Leon Panetta directed McRaven to move forward with the operation.
Operation Neptune Spear was carried out by approximately two dozen heliborne U.S. Navy SEALs from the Red Squadron of the Joint Special Operations Command’s DEVGRU. For legal reasons, namely that the U.S. was not at war with Pakistan, the military personnel assigned to the mission were temporarily transferred to the control of the civilian Central Intelligence Agency. The DEVGRU SEALs operated in two teams and were reportedly equipped with Heckler & Koch 416 carbine military assault rifles and Heckler & Koch MP7 personal defense weapons with attached suppressors, night-vision goggles, body armor and handguns. A total of 79 commandos and one dog were involved in the raid. The military working dog was a Belgian Malinois named Cairo. The dog was tasked with tracking anyone who tried to escape and to alert SEALs to any approaching Pakistani security forces. The dog was to be used to help deter any Pakistani ground response to the raid and to help look for any hidden rooms or hidden doors in the compound.
According to the mission plan, the first helicopter would hover over the compound’s yard while its full team of SEALs fast-roped to the ground. At the same time, the second helicopter would fly to the northeast corner of the compound and deploy the interpreter, the dog, and four SEALs to secure the perimeter. The second helicopter would hover over the house and the team leader and six SEALs would fast-rope onto the roof. The team in the courtyard was to enter the house from the ground floor. As they hovered above the target, however, the first helicopter experienced a hazardous airflow condition known as a vortex ring state. This was aggravated by higher than expected air temperature and the high compound walls, which stopped the rotor downwash from diffusing. The helicopter’s tail grazed one of the compound’s walls, damaging its tail rotor, and the helicopter rolled onto its side. The pilot quickly buried the aircraft’s nose to keep it from tipping over. None of the SEALs, crew and pilots on the helicopter was seriously injured in the soft crash landing, which ended with it pitched at a 45-degree angle resting against the wall. The other helicopter landed outside the compound and the SEALs scaled the walls to get inside. The SEALs advanced into the house, breaching walls and doors with explosives.
The interior of the house was pitch dark, because CIA operatives had cut the power to the neighborhood. Inside, the SEALs encountered the residents in the compound’s guest house, in the main building on the first floor where two adult males lived, and on the second and third floors where bin Laden lived with his family. Bin Laden’s courier Al-Kuwaiti opened fire on the first team of SEALs with an AK-47 from behind the guesthouse door, and a firefight took place between him and the SEALs, in which al-Kuwaiti was killed. His wife Mariam was allegedly shot and wounded in the right shoulder. The courier’s male relative Abrar was shot and killed by the Seals’ second team on the first floor of the main house. A woman near him later identified as Abrar’s wife Bushra, was also shot and killed. Bin Laden’s young adult son rushed towards the SEALs on the staircase of the main house, and was shot and killed by the second team.
Bin Laden peered over the third floor ledge at the Americans advancing up the stairs, and then retreated into his room. As the SEALs approached, bin Laden placed one of his wives between himself and the commandos, pushing her towards them. A SEAL fired several shots at bin Laden’s head, and he fell back into his room. Inside the bedroom, bin Laden lay on the floor with a head wound as two of his wives stood over him. One of them, Amal Ahmed Abdul Fatah, screamed at the SEALs in Arabic and motioned as if she were about to charge. One of the SEALs shot her in the leg, then grabbed both women and shoved them aside. A second SEAL entered the room and two SEALs shot bin Laden in the chest with an H&K 416 using Navy M855 5.56 mm rounds. On May 2, 2011, shortly after 1:00 am PKT, the SEAL team leader radioed,
“For God and country, I pass Geronimo, Geronimo E.K.I.A.” — enemy killed in action — confirming to Admiral McRaven that Bin Laden was dead.