President Obama saw it as a “50–50” proposition. Admiral Bill McRaven, mission commander, knew something would go wrong. So how did the raid that killed bin Laden get green-lighted? In an adaptation from his new book, Mark Bowden weaves together accounts from Obama and top decision-makers for the full story behind the daring operation.
‘In the name of Allah the most gracious the most merciful. Praise Allah and pray on his prophet. To the esteemed brother, Sheikh Mahmud, Allah protect him.”
Holed up in his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, Osama bin Laden sat at a computer and set down his thoughts in a long letter dated April 26, 2011, to Atiyah Abdul al-Rahman, his third-in-command and the link to his far-flung and beleaguered followers—the man he addressed as Sheikh Mahmud. It was the al-Qaeda leader’s sixth spring of confinement in Abbottabad. His hair and beard had grown white. Ten years after the 9/11 attacks, bin Laden’s life had shrunk to the cramped and crowded space of the upper two floors of a house behind high walls. His days consisted of familiar routines, rarely broken: his meals, his seven daily prayer sessions, his readings, the poetry lessons for his children and grandchildren, the sermons to three of his wives, the brisk daily walk around the vegetable gardens.
In his letter to Sheikh Mahmud, he raced to catch up with the Arab Spring, to interpret the events in light of his own immutable beliefs. Bin Laden also hammered home some advice about security. After more than nine successful years in hiding, he considered himself to be an expert: “It is proven that the American technology and its modern systems cannot arrest aMujahidif he does not commit a security error that leads them to him,” he wrote. “So adherence to security precautions makes their advanced technology a loss and a disappointment to them.”
The computer turned bin Laden’s words into neat lines of uniform Arabic. He was feeling confident. He had five days to live.
I. The Pacer
Eight months earlier, on a hot day in August, Tom Donilon, then the deputy national-security adviser, had added a brief item to the end of his daily morning briefing for Barack Obama. He said, “Leon and the guys at Langley think they may have come up with something”—something related to bin Laden.
There had been no scent of the al-Qaeda leader for more than eight years, ever since he had slipped away from the mountain outpost of Tora Bora during a botched siege by allied troops. The Bush administration maintained that he was somewhere in the mountainous regions of northwestern Pakistan, but, in truth, they had no idea where he was. On May 26, 2009, Obama had concluded a routine national-security briefing in the Situation Room by pointing to Donilon, Leon Panetta, his newly appointed C.I.A. director, Mike Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, and Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff.
“You, you, you, and you,” he said. “Come upstairs.”
The four followed Obama through the warren of narrow West Wing hallways to the Oval Office. They didn’t sit down.
Obama said, “Here’s the deal. I want this hunt for Osama bin Laden and [Ayman] al-Zawahiri to come to the front of the line. I worry that the trail has gone cold. This has to be our top priority and it needs leadership in the tops of your organizations.” He added, “I want regular reports on this to me, and I want them starting in 30 days.”
The conventional wisdom is that the intelligence apparatus had slackened off in its search for bin Laden—and it’s true that President George W. Bush, frustrated by the inability to find him, publicly declared that bin Laden wasn’t important. But among the analysts and operatives, the hunt had always continued. Obama’s order just gave it more focus and intensity. Now, a year later, there was something to talk about. While looking for an al-Qaeda figure who went by the name Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti—a man known to have once been a trusted aide and courier for bin Laden—intelligence analysts had become aware of a curious compound just outside Abbottabad, a prosperous city about 30 miles northeast of Islamabad. Too wary to use cell phones or Internet links, bin Laden relied on couriers to distribute his letters and occasional video and audio pronouncements. Reversing the paths taken by these tapes or thumb drives always ended one or two steps short of bin Laden’s inner circle. But now they had someone who might take them all the way inside. The search for him had lasted eight years. It had taken the C.I.A. five years just to learn his real name: Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed. The trail had ended at this residence.
Panetta brought two of the agency’s bin Laden team leaders to the Oval Office. They handed Obama classified pictures and maps and walked him through the material. What had first intrigued them was the compound itself. Unlike most homes in that affluent neighborhood, it did not have Internet or phone connections. The walls were unusually high, topped by two feet of barbed wire. There was no way to see inside the house itself, from the ground or from above. The agency had learned that the compound was home not only to Ibrahim Ahmed’s family but to his brother Abrar’s family as well. They went by assumed names: Ahmed called himself Arshad Khan, and the brother went by Tariq Khan. They had never been wealthy, but their accommodations were expensive. The brothers were also wary. They burned their trash on-site. None of their children attended school. In telephone calls to distant family members, always made from locations away from the compound itself, they lied about where they were living. The C.I.A. has been known to misinterpret many things, but one thing it recognizes is high operational security.
The agency had been investigating the compound quietly, taking pictures from above and collecting information on the ground. That and telephone intercepts had produced two discoveries.
The first was that living inside the compound on the upper two floors of the central building was a third family. Neighbors in Abbottabad who knew of the Khan brothers were not aware of this third family. The second discovery was that Ahmed still worked for al-Qaeda. Though he was known to have been close to bin Laden years earlier, the agency had no proof that he had retained the connection. But in a telephone conversation with an old friend that summer, a call the C.I.A. monitored, Ahmed was peppered with the standard questions, “What are you doing now? What are you up to?” Ahmed at first didn’t answer. But his friend was insistent, and so he finally gave in, albeit cryptically, explaining, “I’m with the same ones as before.” His friend said, “May Allah be with you,” and quickly dropped the subject. That suggested that whoever Ahmed and his brother were minding in that house was a top al-Qaeda figure.
Those were the new facts presented to the president. “This is the best lead that we have seen since Tora Bora,” said one of the team members. Thinking back on the moment during a long Oval Office conversation, Obama recalled being guarded, “not particularly optimistic.” He found the information intriguing, but only in a general way. The connection to bin Laden was tenuous. Still, he encouraged Panetta and his team to press on. He wanted to nail down the identity of whoever was living upstairs. He also wanted a “close hold” on the information. They were not to let others know about it. They were definitely not to tell Pakistan.
The use of a variety of tools, including agents on the ground and remote surveillance, enabled the team to flesh out life at the compound in detail. There seemed to be no way to determine the identity of the mystery family. The most important clue—the one that would persuade John Brennan, the president’s chief of counterterrorism, that the family was indeed bin Laden’s—was the figure who came to be known as The Pacer, a man in traditional Pakistani attire and prayer cap who regularly took walks around the vegetable garden, part of which had a tarp stretched above to shield it from the sun. Images of The Pacer from overhead cameras were very good, but the angle made it impossible to get a clear look at the man’s face. Efforts were made to gauge the man’s height by measuring his stride and the shadow he cast. The calculations were only precise enough to say this: he was tall and thin. But Brennan, a former C.I.A. officer, had seen Predator imagery of bin Laden back in 2000. He felt he recognized the man, recognized the walk.
Panetta briefed the president periodically throughout the fall. In December, Michael Morell, the head of the C.I.A.’s bin Laden team, and several others met with Tom Donilon and Brennan at the White House. An agency team was now living in a house in the neighborhood. They watched the comings and goings of the Ahmed brothers. They counted the pieces of laundry that were hung out to dry. They determined that the hidden family was large: three wives, a young man, and 10 or more children. The number of wives and children corresponded with the number of family members they believed might be living with bin Laden.
On December 14, just before Obama left to join his family in Hawaii, Panetta visited him in the Oval Office. Obama was struck, as were the agency men, by the fact that this third family never left the compound, and also by the compound’s very size. It was atypical of the neighborhood. Whoever had built it had considerable resources and clearly intended to prevent anyone from seeing inside. Obama was also captivated, as others had been, by the video imagery of The Pacer strolling soundlessly inside the high walls.
There was always the possibility, the president knew, that “this was some warlord from Afghanistan who had set up shop, the possibility that this was a drug dealer from the Gulf who valued his privacy or had a mistress or a second family.” But he also understood that The Pacer might be exactly who they thought he was. From what he knew of the man, Obama had never bought the conventional wisdom—the assumption that bin Laden “was living an ascetic life somewhere, in some mountain somewhere.” The evidence was circumstantial, but he agreed that it would be hard to find another explanation that fit all the facts. Obama kept his expectations under control, as he is known to do, but admitted to himself that “this might be for real.”
He instructed Panetta to get creative, to figure out a way to nail it down—to “run it to ground.” He also asked Panetta to start preparing plans for action.
II. “This Is 50–50”
By now, the C.I.A. had its own small armies in the field. When Panetta and Morell returned from the meeting, the first thing they considered was using their own people. The two broad options were to bomb the compound or to send in a raiding party. The latter would require a lot more planning and rehearsal than the former, and would involve a lot more people. Using C.I.A. personnel had the advantage of keeping the secret—now four months old—fairly well contained.
The C.I.A. teams were excited about the mission, and eager to do it themselves—and soon. But Panetta and Morell had time. The president had also told them to work harder on identifying the mystery man in the compound. Before committing to using its own operators, the C.I.A. wanted to at least consult with Admiral Bill McRaven, a navy SEAL who now led the Joint Special Operations Command, an army within an army that during the past decade had conducted thousands of operations around the world, mostly in secret.
All McRaven knew before getting the call was that the C.I.A. had a possible new lead on bin Laden. He had heard that before, and none of these “Elvis sightings” had ever panned out. Early in the war in Afghanistan, his men had spent a lot of time chasing bin Laden’s ghost. This time he was told that the intelligence seemed better than usual, but he didn’t think much of it until summoned to Langley in January. In the deputy director’s seventh-floor office, overlooking the Potomac, McRaven and one of his top aides met with Panetta, Morell, and the heads of the C.I.A.’s own strike force. He was shown pictures of the compound. Everything was heavily couched in maybes. But on that qualified basis, they launched into tactical discussion. If you were going to hit this target, how would you do it?
The C.I.A. men had had a head start. They sketched five different options. That fact alone was telling. McRaven could see at a glance that there was really only one way to do it. The admiral ruled out the bombing option immediately. Whatever the advantages in simplicity and reduced American risk, his educated guess was that it would take upwards of 50,000 pounds of ordnance to destroy a compound of that size and make sure bin Laden, if he was there, did not survive. You had to consider the possibility of tunnels or an underground bunker. That explosive power would kill everyone inside the compound and quite a few people nearby.
A ground raid, on the other hand, posed relatively few problems. His men had been hitting compounds like this daily for years, often a dozen or more a night. This one was unremarkable. It had a three-story residence, a smaller outbuilding, and high stone walls all around it, which merely indicated the right way to go in—from above.
McRaven explained to Panetta and Morell how special ops would hit the target. The biggest problem was its location in Abbottabad, a “denied” space 150 miles from friendly territory in neighboring Afghanistan, which meant that delivering the force and safely extracting it without triggering a shooting war with Pakistan would be challenging—but doable. It would increase the complexity of the mission, and complexity multiplied the number of things that could go wrong. That aside, attacking the compound and the buildings was old-hat. The tactics McRaven’s teams had developed were built on years of trial and error, missions that had worked and those that hadn’t. Think what one will about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they had produced a new kind of fighting force. McRaven explained what his men would do, and why. He even suggested the right man for the mission: his SEAL Team Six commander, who in 2009 had led the mission that killed three Somalian pirates, rescuing an American freighter-ship captain. McRaven also noted that, no matter how well the operation in Abbottabad was planned, long experience taught that something would go wrong. Somethingalwayswent wrong, which was why his men’s unrivaled experience would be invaluable.
After listening to McRaven, Panetta and Morell abandoned the idea of a C.I.A. operation. If there was going to be a helicopter raid, McRaven and the SEALs would do it.
On March 14, Obama met with the National Security Council to formally review the intelligence. They gathered in the White House Situation Room, where much of the drama over the next two months would unfold. The Situation Room, informally known as the Woodshed, sits in the basement of the West Wing and, despite the resonant name, is not the sort of space a set designer would create for a great center of national power. The main conference room is nearly filled by the long polished-wood table at its center and the row of high-backed black leather chairs around it. There is barely enough room for staff members to sit on chairs against the beige walls. The lighting is fluorescent, and instead of windows there are flat-screen TVs, six of them, the largest filling the south wall down the long table from the president’s chair. When the room is full, the top leadership of the nation can truly be said to be huddled.
By early March the C.I.A. had determined that the Abbottabad compound definitely held a “high-value target” and that he was most likely Osama bin Laden. The C.I.A.’s team leader, perhaps the most senior analyst on the trail, was close to convinced. He put his confidence level at 95 percent. Brennan felt about the same, but others were less certain—and some were far less certain. The assessment would ultimately be “red-teamed”—worked over by analysts assigned to poke holes in it—three times: by the Counterterrorism Center, by Brennan’s staff, and by another group within the C.I.A. Four veterans at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence had reviewed the case and provided their own opinions. Most of those involved placed their confidence level at about 80 percent. Some went as low as 40 or even 30 percent.
“O.K., this is a probability thing,” said Obama. “Leon, talk to me about this.” The director explained that following the agency’s erroneous conviction, a decade earlier, that Saddam Hussein had been hiding weapons of mass destruction—a finding that was used to justify a long and costly war—the C.I.A. had instituted an almost comically elaborate process for weighing certainty. It was like trying to craft a precise formula for good judgment. Analysts up and down the chain were now asked not only to give their opinion but also to place a confidence level on it—high, medium, or low. Then they were required to explain why they had assigned that level. What you ended up with, as the president was discovering, was more confusion.
At one meeting, Obama asked Morell, who was seated in a chair against the wall behind him, under the presidential seal, for his own view. Morell put the probability that The Pacer was bin Laden at 60 percent.
Morell had been personally involved in the flawed analysis of Saddam’s weapons capability and yet had felt more certain aboutthatthan he felt about this. “People don’t have differences because they have different intel,” he said. “We are all looking at the same things. I think it depends more on your past experience.” He explained that counterterrorism analysts at work on al-Qaeda over the past five years had enjoyed a remarkable string of successes. They had been crushing the terror group inside Pakistan and systematically killing its top leadership. So they were very confident. Those who had been at work longer, like himself, had known failure. They knew the fragility of even the soundest-seeming intelligence analysis. The W.M.D. story had been a brutal lesson.
“Mr. President,” he said, “if we had a human source who had told us directly that bin Laden was living in that compound, I still wouldn’t be above 60 percent.” Morell said he had spent a lot of time on both questions, W.M.D. and Abbottabad. He had seen no fewer than 13 analytical drafts on the former and at least as many on the latter. “And I’m telling you, the case for W.M.D. wasn’t just stronger—it wasmuchstronger.”
The president listened, but he had already pretty much made up his mind. “One of the things you learn as president is you’re always dealing with probabilities,” he told me. “No issue comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable. No issue comes to my desk where there’s 100 percent confidence that this is the right thing to do. Because if people were absolutely certain then it would have been decided by someone else. And that’s true in dealing with the economic crisis. That’s true in order to take a shot at a pirate. That’s true about most of the decisions I make during the course of the day. So I’m accustomed to people offering me probabilities. In this situation, what you started getting was probabilities that disguised uncertainty as opposed to actually providing you with more useful information.” The president had no trouble facing reality. If he acted on this, he was going to be taking a gamble.
The conversation about percentages wore on, and the president finally cut in. “This is 50–50,” he said. That silenced everyone. “This is a flip of the coin. You guys, I can’t base this decision on the notion that we have any greater certainty than that.” What he wanted to know was: if he decided to act, what were his options?
The simplest, and the one that posed the least risk to American forces, was to reduce the compound to dust, along with everyone and everything in and around it. As Peter L. Bergen recounted inManhunt,the air force calculated that to do the job right would mean dropping upwards of 30 precision bombs, or launching a comparable number of missiles. This would be enough to guarantee that anything on, in, or near that plot of earth would be killed. There would be minimal worry about air defenses, and no chance of having to mix it up with Pakistan’s army or police. Obama asked how many people were living at the compound, and was told that there were four adult males, five or six adult women, and nearly 20 children. He asked about the houses that were close to the compound in the neighborhood. Those, too, would be destroyed.
As McRaven had done earlier, Obama scrapped that plan immediately. He said the only way he would even consider attacking the compound from the air was if the blast area could be drastically reduced.
McRaven explained the raid option. He had not yet brought on a full team to scope out the mission completely. The one thing he could tell the president for sure was that if his team could be delivered to the compound they could clear it and kill or capture bin Laden with minimal loss of life. He presented the still-sketchy ground operation as a simple statement of fact. Without bringing any more people into the planning loop, he said, “I can tell you that we can succeed on the raid. What I can’t tell you yet is how I get in and how I get out. To do that requires detailed planning by air planners who do this for a living Getting out could be a little sporty. I can’t recommend a raid until I do the homework.”
In the days ahead the air force would come back with a plan for smaller bombs and smaller blast circles. They could hit the compound without harming people outside its walls, but the lesser assault meant that they could not guarantee taking out anything underground. There would still be a lot of bodies, women and children included, and no way to tell if one of the dead was bin Laden.
In the aftermath of the raid, the term “air option” has come to be synonymous with “bombing.” In fact, there was a very different air option, not widely known, and this different option was the one that was ultimately taken seriously. The idea had been put forward by General James “Hoss” Cartwright, vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs: wait for the tall man in the prayer cap to go for his daily walk and take a shot at him with a small missile fired from a drone. It would require great precision, but the drones had delivered that in the past. There would be no dead wives and children, no collateral damage at all. But it was strictly a one-shot deal. If the drone missed, The Pacer and his entourage would vanish.
In the end, despite all of the potential complications of a helicopter raid, the president told McRaven to start rehearsing that option. It had clear advantages, one of them being that you would know if you had achieved your objective. Another, in the president’s view, was the sheer intelligence value: as he recalls, “there might be the possibility that we would get enough intelligence out of the compound, even in a very short operation, that would help us dismantle other portions of the organization.” At the same time, raiding the compound posed a slew of hard questions that the air option did not. One of the thorniest was what to do if bin Laden was not killed but captured. Obama believed that there was very little chance of this, but it was a possibility.
How the legal system should deal with high-profile terrorists had been a hot political issue for years, and Congress had done nothing to resolve the problem. President Bush had locked most of them away at Guantánamo, and talked about holding military tribunals somewhere down the line. But some, like the shoe bomber, Richard Reid, had already been tried in federal courts and were now serving life sentences. Attorney General Eric Holder’s plan to put Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the operational mastermind of 9/11, on trial at the federal courthouse in Manhattan had run into so much opposition that the administration was forced to reverse itself and announce that he would instead face a military tribunal at Guantánamo.
In the unlikely event that bin Laden surrendered, Obama saw an opportunity to resurrect the idea of a criminal trial. He was ready to bring him back and put him on trial in a federal court. “We worked through the legal and political issues that would have been involved, and Congress and the desire to send him to Guantánamo, and to not try him, and Article III,” the president told me. “I mean, we had worked through a whole bunch of those scenarios. But, frankly, my belief was, if we had captured him, that I would be in a pretty strong position, politically, here, to argue that displaying due process and rule of law would be our best weapon against al-Qaeda, in preventing him from appearing as a martyr.”
III. The Decision
McRaven’s men undertook their first rehearsal on April 7. They worked on an isolated acre deep inside the sprawling, wooded grounds of Fort Bragg, where a mock-up of the three-story Abbottabad house had been built.
For the first practice session, the SEALs rehearsed what would be, effectively, the last part of the mission, hitting the compound and the target house. They approached aboard two stealth Black Hawk helicopters. One unit roped down to the roof of the building and assaulted from above. The other roped inside the compound walls and assaulted from the ground. This part of the operation took only about 90 seconds to complete. The delivery choppers moved off while the men did their work, then swooped back to pick them up.
McRaven’s men had done this sort of thing so many times they could almost do it blindfolded. For the most part the group consisted of SEAL Team Six, but McRaven had also grabbed men from other units.
SEAL Team Six had rotated home not long before. The men on these elite special-operations teams went to war in shifts. For most of the past 10 years they had been deploying to Iraq or Afghanistan for three-to-four-month tours, where they maintained a very high op tempo, going out on missions sometimes two or three times a night. When deployed, they lived for the most part sequestered from conventional troops, either at their own forward operating bases or on a portion of a larger base that was sealed off. It was a deeply satisfying business. The men in these units tended to stay. Many found it hard to adjust to anything else. The skills required were not readily applicable to other kinds of work. When you have been part of such operations—adrenaline-pumping missions in which you risk your life and good friends die; and when you enjoy the silent admiration of everyone you meet; and when you believe your work is vital to the nation’s security—it is hard to find anything else that compares.
The team re-assembled for a second rehearsal a week later in Nevada, where the heat and the altitude (about 4,000 feet) were similar to Abbottabad’s. This time the rehearsal was designed to duplicate the conditions flying to the target. On the real mission, the helicopters would have to travel 90 minutes before arriving over Abbottabad. They would be flying very low and very fast to avoid Pakistani radar. Mission planners had to work out precisely what the choppers could do at that altitude, and in the anticipated air temperatures. How much of a load could the choppers carry and still perform? In Nevada, they went through the entire scenario. The mock-up of the compound was much cruder; instead of stone walls, there was just a chain-link fence. But the purpose of the rehearsal was not to duplicate the final 10 minutes of the raid—what they had been doing at Fort Bragg. The purpose was to simulate the stresses on the choppers. They would discover only later that they had made one mistake.
Meanwhile, another option was being tested—Vice-Chairman Cartwright’s magic bullet, in the form of a small guided munition that could be fired from a tiny drone. No one involved with planning the mission will discuss its particulars, but the weapon may well have been a newly designed Raytheon G.P.S.-guided missile, about the length and width of a strong man’s forearm. The missile can strike an individual or a vehicle without harming anything nearby. Called simply an S.T.M. (Small Tactical Munition), it weighs just 13 pounds, carries a 5-pound warhead, and can be fired from under the wing of a small drone. It was a “fire-and-forget” missile, which meant you could not guide it once it was released. It would find and explode on the precise coordinates it had been given. Since The Pacer tended to walk in the same place every day, Cartwright believed the missile would kill him, and likely him alone. It placed no American forces at risk.
The weapon had yet to be used in combat, though the technologies involved were hardly new. Still: did you want to hang such a critical opportunity on a single shot, with a missile that had never been fired in anger? If you missed, The Pacer would vanish. And if you hit him, how would you know that you had? If there was no proof that bin Laden was dead, al-Qaeda could theoretically keep him alive for years, raising money and planning attacks in his name.
The final meeting before the raid was held in the Situation Room on Thursday, April 28. Filling the black leather chairs were Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen, Vice-Chairman Cartwright, Brennan, Donilon, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and C.I.A. Director Leon Panetta and his deputy, Michael Morell. Top staffers ringed the room. Admiral McRaven did not participate: he and the SEAL team were now in Afghanistan.
Everyone sensed that the secret had held about as long as it could. Brennan had asked Mike Leiter to assemble a group from the Counterterrorism Center to perform one last “red-teaming” of the intelligence. The final meeting began with that presentation, which was deflating for almost everyone in the room. Leiter told the president that his group could arrive at only 40 percent certainty that bin Laden was there. This was, as Leiter pointed out, “38 percent better than we’ve been for 10 years.” Obama asked if that estimate was based on new or different information. It was not. The president asked Leiter to explain the disparity. Why was their confidence so much lower than, say, the leader of the C.I.A.’s bin Laden team, whose confidence had been 95 percent? Leiter could not explain this to the president’s satisfaction, and so the new assessment was dismissed. As far as Obama was concerned, the level of certainty was the same as it had been for months: 50–50.
One by one, the principals around the room were asked to choose among three options—a raid, a missile strike, or doing nothing—and then to defend their choice. The president said that he probably would not make a decision until the next morning, but he wanted to hear everyone’s view. It was widely reported in the weeks and months after the raid that most, or at least many, of the president’s top advisers opposed the raid, but this is not true. Nearly everyone present favored it.
The only major dissenters were Biden and Gates, and before the raid was launched, Gates would change his mind.
The vice president was never shy about political calculations. “Mr. President, my suggestion is: don’t go,” he said. “We have to do two more things to see if he’s there.” Biden believed that if the president decided to choose either the air or the ground option, and if the effort failed, Obama could say good-bye to a second term. Biden never hesitated to disagree at meetings like this, and the president had always encouraged him to do so. In this case Biden disagreed with his own top adviser on such matters, Tony Blinken, who was not asked for an opinion at the meeting but had earlier told the president that he strongly favored the raid.
Gates favored taking the shot from the drone. He spoke quietly but forcefully. He acknowledged that it was a difficult call, and that striking from the air would leave them not knowing whether they had gotten bin Laden, but he had been working at the C.I.A. as an analyst in 1980 when the Desert One mission to rescue the hostages in Iran failed. He had, in fact, been in this very Situation Room when the chopper collided with the C-130 at the staging area in the desert and turned that rescue mission into a fireball. It was an experience he did not wish to revisit. He had visibly blanched the first time he had heard that McRaven was planning a helicopter-refueling stop in a remote area outside Abbottabad, similar to what had been done in Iran in 1980. As defense secretary, Gates knew the importance of maintaining the flow of fuel and matériel to American forces fighting in Afghanistan, which depended on Pakistan’s goodwill. There was so much to lose, he said, and the evidence for bin Laden’s presence in the compound was still flimsy.
Cartwright agreed with Gates. He had put the drone option on the table, and he was confident that the small missile would hit the target. It was the simplest and least risky way to go. Leiter, though expressing low confidence that The Pacer was bin Laden, also advocated the drone option.
Everyone else favored sending in the SEALs. Clinton, who had faulted Obama during the primary campaign for asserting that he would send forces to Pakistan unilaterally if there was a good chance of getting bin Laden, now said that she favored the raid. She delivered this opinion after a typically lengthy review of the pros and cons. She noted that the raid would pose a diplomatic nightmare for the State Department. But because the U.S.-Pakistani relationship was built more on mutual dependence than friendship and trust, it would likely survive the crisis. Admiral Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, gave a detailed PowerPoint presentation before delivering his endorsement. Mullen had witnessed McRaven’s rehearsals at Fort Bragg and in Nevada. He had high confidence in the SEAL team
Brennan, Donilon, Clapper, Panetta, and Morell all agreed. The C.I.A. director felt strongly about it, which was not surprising. This had been his project all along, and the analysts who worked for him would have felt betrayed if their boss had changed his mind. Panetta told Obama that he ought to ask himself this question: “What would the average American say if he knew we had the best chance of getting bin Laden since Tora Bora and we didn’t take a shot?”
So the vote in the room was largely in favor of unleashing McRaven and the SEALs, and by the next morning Gates had countermanded his opposition. When his deputies Michael Vickers and Michèle Flournoy had learned that he had voted in favor of a drone strike, they decided to confront him. They went to his office first thing Friday morning. “Boss, we think you are wrong,” said Flournoy.
Like most of the other principals, Gates had been brought into the loop fairly late. Flournoy and Vickers had spent a lot more time on the matter than he had. They believed he didn’t fully understand how well-thought-through McRaven’s plan was. Both had been terrifically impressed by the special-ops commander. They were used to dealing with generals and admirals, and few of them liked being challenged. McRaven had understood from the start that he would have people looking over his shoulder. Flournoy was particularly impressed by McRaven’s willingness to admit that he didn’t have all the answers. “You know, I haven’t thought about that, but I need to,” he would say. He was open to suggestions and made substantial revisions based on the input he was given. They had seen how carefully McRaven picked the members of the team, choosing men who had honed their skills night after night for months.
They also argued that Gates had not adequately considered the downsides of a drone strike. First of all, neither Flournoy nor Vickers bought Cartwright’s optimism about the small missile’s hitting the target. The Pacer, after all, was moving. The missile could not be guided. You have one shot, they reminded Gates, and if you miss, you’ve blown it. Imagine the criticism of the president that would follow: You got the chance of a lifetime and you blew it with something untried?
They talked for an hour, and when they were done, Gates phoned the White House to say that he had changed his mind. So in the end every one of the president’s top advisers except Biden was in favor of taking immediate action. Two, Cartwright and Leiter, wanted to use the drone. Everyone else backed McRaven.
In truth, the president had all but made up his mind to launch the raid when he left the meeting that Thursday afternoon. He had been thinking about it for months. He delayed making the final decision in order to take one last breath. He had been inclined to hit the target for a long time now. He had made his peace with “50–50” months ago. He had been tempted by the air option, but believed that the importance of certainty was too great.
Still, he turned it over in his mind until the small hours. His habit was to stay up much later than Michelle and the girls. That night he was preoccupied not so much with making a decision, but with whether he had considered every element carefully enough. “It was a matter of taking one last breath and just making sure, asking is there something that I haven’t thought of?” Obama explained to me. “Is there something that we need to do? … At that point my estimation was that we weren’t going to be able to do it better a month or two months or three months from now. We weren’t going to have better certainty about whether bin Laden was there, and so it was just a matter of pulling the trigger.” Alone in the Treaty Room, he considered the matter for three or four hours. He woke up several times that night, still mulling it over. In the end, he would recall, the decision would boil down to Obama’s deep confidence in McRaven: “He just never looks like he’s surprised by anything.”
IV. “How Tall Is This Guy?”
The two stealth Black Hawks lifted off from the airfield at Jalalabad at 11 P.M. local time. They were blacked out and, together, carried a full, minutely calculated load: 23 SEALs, a Pashto translator, and a dog—a Belgian Malinois named Cairo. The job of the translator and the dog would be to keep the curious away from the compound while the SEALs did their work. As soon as the Black Hawks crossed the border into Pakistan, three big Chinooks lifted off from Jalalabad. The Chinooks carried the Rapid Reaction Force, to be mobilized in case of trouble. Some have credited Obama for insisting that this force be deployed; if the Pakistanis made trouble, the U.S. would make trouble for them. But McRaven would have deployed it anyway—it was standard procedure. In this instance, one Chinook would set down just inside the border on the Afghan side. The other two would proceed to a staging area north of Abbottabad. McRaven had determined during rehearsals that the drumming chop of the approaching Black Hawks would be faintly audible about two minutes before they reached the target. The helicopters were stealthy, designed to avoid being spotted by radar, and quieter than standard models, but they still created quite a racket as they moved overhead. Approaching the compound from the northwest, the Black Hawks were now visible in the grainy overhead feed from the Sentinel drone to those gazing at screens in the White House and at the C.I.A.
After that, things happened very fast. The reconstruction that follows comes chiefly from civilian and military personnel who participated in the planning and execution of the raid. Some information derives from published accounts.
Biden, Gates, and General Brad Webb, in a conference room in the White House basement, across from the Situation Room, watched with horror as the first chopper, instead of hovering over the compound yard for a few moments to drop the SEAL team, as planned, abruptly wheeled around, clipped the compound wall, and hit the ground. The chopper hadn’t been able to hover—it had “mushed,” or begun to skid uncontrollably. An after-action analysis would conclude that because the compound was encircled by stone walls, whereas the mock target in Nevada had only a chain-link fence, the air beneath the Black Hawk was warmer and less dense than anticipated, and insufficient to bear the helicopter’s weight.
No one watching the small screen in the White House could see exactly what had happened. They could see only that the helicopter was down inside the wall, and everyone knew that had not been part of the plan.
Excruciating moments passed as McRaven sought word from the scene. Every discussion of what could go wrong on this mission had referenced the helicopter that clipped a plane and exploded in the Iranian desert in 1980. Here, in the first seconds of the mission, they already had a helicopter down.
Obama had been following Donilon’s advice up to this point, receiving mission updates secondhand, talking with Panetta via the video hookup and letting others monitor the video feed and chat lines, but when the chopper went down he abruptly got up and crossed the hall.
Clinton watched him go, standing over the food tray in the adjacent room with Ben Rhodes, the chief foreign-policy speechwriter.
“Ben, do you think it’s a good idea for the president to watch this?” she asked.
“He’s not going to be directing anything,” Rhodes said. “It’s just a feed.”
Clinton followed the president. Sitting at the head of the small conference table, Webb stood up to surrender the spot when he noticed Obama enter. The president waved him back down.
“I’ll just take this chair here,” he said, sliding into the corner. “I need to watch this.”
In Jalalabad, the president’s entry was duly noted by Webb on the chat line.
“Sir, the president just walked into the room,” a sergeant major told McRaven.
The admiral didn’t have time to explain things to Washington. He quickly ascertained that no one on the chopper had been hurt. They were already adjusting their approach to the target house. All of these men had long ago proved their talent for adapting quickly. McRaven had lost helicopters before. He told Panetta straightforwardly what had happened—and that he had options.
The White House was still in the dark. A White House photographer snapped a picture at precisely this moment, with Webb at the center in his blue uniform, head down, intently monitoring the video feed and chat line on his laptop screen; Obama seated in the corner with furrowed brow; Donilon standing behind Webb with his arms crossed, flanked by Mullen and Chief of Staff Bill Daley; Clinton with her hand to her mouth; Gates and Biden looking glum; all fixated on an off-camera screen.
The second Black Hawk had diverted from its planned course and landed outside the compound walls in a newly planted field. The mission had called for it to hover briefly outside to drop the translator, the dog, and four SEALs, and then move to a hover directly over the home to drop the rest of the team on its roof. It was clear now that the entire assault plan had gone awry.
Then, without further explanation of what had happened, SEALs could be seen streaming out of both choppers. Those watching in Washington concluded correctly that, whatever had happened, the mission was proceeding. In his flat Texas twang, McRaven could be heard ordering in one of the two Chinooks waiting north of Abbottabad.
The team from the crashed chopper moved quickly along the inside wall, pausing only to blow open a metal door that led to the house. The team from the chopper outside the wall blasted in through another entrance. There were flashes of light on the screen. The men were moving now on the house itself, and then were inside.
Upstairs, the household had been startled awake by a loud crash. One of bin Laden’s adult daughters ran up from the second floor to the third and was told to go back down. Bin Laden instructed his wife Amal to leave the lights off, though they would not have been able to turn them on anyway: C.I.A. operatives had cut the electricity to the entire neighborhood. Bin Laden waited upstairs with Amal.
One group of SEALs entered the garage area of the guesthouse. Teams like this had hit houses that were wired to explode, and had encountered human targets wired to blow themselves up, so they moved very fast, and with adult males in particular they were inclined to shoot on sight. The courier Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed sprayed a wild burst of AK-47 rounds at the SEALs, who returned fire and killed him. His wife, behind him, was hit in the shoulder.
Another part of the team moved on the main house, clearing it methodically, room by room. Abrar Ahmed, the courier’s brother, was in a first-floor bedroom with his wife Bushra. Both were shot dead. The team then cleared the first floor, room by room. When they encountered a locked metal door in the rear, sealing off a stairway to the upper floors, they slapped on a small C-4 charge, blew it off its hinges, and moved up the stairs. Bin Laden’s 23-year-old son, Khalid, a slender bearded man in a white T-shirt, was shot dead at the top of the stairs. There were wailing women and children on this floor, none of whom posed a threat. The team didn’t know it yet, but there was only one adult male left in the compound, and he was in the third-floor bedroom.
Originally, half of the assaulting SEALs were to have come through the third-floor balcony into the top floor, in which case bin Laden would have been encountered immediately, at about the same time the Ahmed brothers were being shot downstairs. Instead, bin Laden had 15 long minutes to wait in the darkness as the SEALs cleared the rooms. Their rifles had silencers, and none of the victims had fired, so he may not have heard shooting, but he would have heard the burst of fire from Ahmed, the shouting, and the sound of the door being blown off. He might have also heard the muted pop of the SEALs’ silenced weapons. He would have heard those sounds moving toward him. The only windows on his secure third floor looked north, out over the compound walls. The downed chopper was in the western corner and the one that landed outside the walls was to the south, so he could only have surmised who was coming for him. He may have thought it was a Pakistani force.
Three SEALs came up the stairs methodically, scanning different angles, searching while protecting one another. The first man up spotted a tall, bearded, swarthy man in a prayer cap wearing traditional Pakistani clothes, a knee-length flowing shirt over pajama-like bottoms. The SEAL fired and the man retreated quickly. The teammates followed. As the first SEAL entered the bedroom, he saw bin Laden on the floor, but first had to contend with Amal, who shouted and moved in front of her husband. The SEAL knocked her aside as his teammates stood over the mortally wounded bin Laden and fired killing shots into his chest.
The engagement was over in seconds. Amal had been shot in the leg. Bin Laden had weapons on a shelf in his bedroom, but had not picked them up. His identity was unmistakable, even with the grotesque hole through his right forehead. When he was shot he had not been surrendering, but neither had he been resisting. It is impossible to second-guess men in a firefight, but the available evidence suggests that if the SEALs’ first priority had been to take bin Laden alive he would be in U.S. custody today. What is more likely is that the SEALs had no intention of taking bin Laden alive, even though no one in the White House or chain of command had issued such an order. It would have taken a strong directive to capture him alive to preempt the instinct to kill him. The men who conducted the raid were hardened to violence and death. Their inclination would have been to shoot bin Laden on sight, just as they shot the other men they encountered in the compound.
McRaven heard the code word, “Geronimo.” It was part of an alphabetical code to report progress, the “mission execution checklist.” Geronimo meant bin Laden. The admiral conveyed the report immediately to Panetta, and it began to spread through the C.I.A. and the White House. In the corner of the crowded conference room, Obama heard the words “Geronimo ID’d.”
“Looks like we got him,” said Obama, only half believing it.
The president knew the ID was still tentative. To the extent he felt relief or excitement or satisfaction, he tried to fight those feelings down. To him, the moment meant that the SEALs could now start extricating themselves—which for all he knew could entail fighting their way out. There had been a chopper crash and explosions at the compound. If the United States was going to have to defend the raiders on their way out—and there was a force ready to do so—it meant the worst might still lie ahead. Hearing the report, the president thought, Get the hell out of there now!
McRaven realized he didn’t know whether bin Laden had been killed or captured. He said, “Find out whether it’s Geronimo E.K.I.A. [Enemy Killed in Action].” The answer came back, “Roger, Geronimo E.K.I.A.” So McRaven passed that on to Panetta. The delay between these two reports would cause some confusion in later accounts, which suggested that the SEALs had first found bin Laden, chased him, and then a few minutes later killed him. The finding and the shooting had together taken place within seconds.
There remained some uncertainty—a point McRaven was careful to make. The president had been deeply aware of the fact. As he would recall, the SEALs had just been through a firefight. They were operating at night, and in the dark. The circumstantial evidence was compelling—and everyone had heard the words “Geronimo ID’d”—but there had as yet been no conclusive confirmation that the man who had been killed was bin Laden. The situation was tense, and it would be until the choppers were in the air.
The video on the screen now showed the team leaving the house, herding the uninjured women and children to one corner of the compound, away from the downed chopper. Some of the men emerged carrying a bag—bin Laden’s body had been zipped into a nylon body bag after being dragged down the stairs. One of bin Laden’s daughters would later say that she heard her father’s head banging on each step, leaving a bloody trail. The SEALs moved deliberately, and Obama remembers feeling that they were taking too long. Everyone was waiting for the Pakistani response.
But the commotion at the compound had, in fact, attracted little interest in the neighborhood or the country. The translator, wearing a Kevlar vest under his traditional long Pakistani shirt, shooed away the few residents who came out for a look. He told them in Pashto to go back to their houses—a “security operation” was under way. There was also the matter of the dog. People retreated.
The Chinook summoned by McRaven now landed loudly outside the compound walls. Men were working on planting explosives on the downed Black Hawk and destroying its sensitive avionics. A medic from the Chinook unzipped bin Laden’s body bag, took swabs of blood, and inserted needles to extract bone marrow for DNA testing. Twenty minutes elapsed before the body bag was carried out to the working Black Hawk. One of the bone-marrow samples was placed on the Chinook. The intelligence haul from bin Laden’s computers was likewise distributed between the two choppers. Finally, the White House audience saw the downed Black Hawk explode. The demolition team scurried to the Chinook, and the choppers lifted off. When Pakistan’s air force finally scrambled two F-16s, the American force was safely across the border. The choppers landed back in Jalalabad. It was three A.M.
McRaven signed off on his narration for about 20 minutes to go and meet the men on the tarmac as they brought out the body bag. It was unzipped, and photos were taken and transmitted immediately to Washington and Langley. The man had been dead for an hour and 40 minutes, and he had taken a shot to the head. The face was swollen and distorted.
McRaven called Langley with a question for the bin Laden team.
“How tall is this guy?” he asked.
He was told, “Between six four and six five.”
The dead man was certainly tall, but no one had a tape measure, so one of the SEALs who was six feet four lay down next to it. The body lengths roughly matched.
Twenty-four hours later, McRaven supervised the disposal of bin Laden’s body. They had decided weeks earlier that the best option would be burial at sea; that way there would be no shrine for the martyr’s followers. So the body was cleaned, photographed from every conceivable angle, and then flown on a V-22 Osprey to the aircraft carrier U.S.S.Carl Vinsoncruising in the Arabian Sea. As a formality, the State Department contacted Saudi Arabia’s government and offered to deliver the body to his home country, but bin Laden was as unwanted there in death as he had been in life. Told that the alternative was burial at sea, the Saudi official said, “We like your plan.”
Procedures for a simple Muslim burial were performed on the carrier, with bin Laden’s body being washed again and wrapped in a white shroud. A navy photographer recorded the burial in full sunlight, Monday morning, May 2. One frame shows the body wrapped in a weighted shroud. The next shows it lying diagonally on a chute, feet overboard. In the next frame the body is hitting the water. In the next it is visible just below the surface, ripples spreading outward. In the last frame there are only circular ripples on the surface. The mortal remains of Osama bin Laden were gone for good.
V. Five Days Later
On May 6, 2011, President Obama flew to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, to meet with the SEAL team and the chopper pilots. They assembled in a drab classroom on the base. The president was struck by how “ordinary” the group seemed. With only one or two exceptions, the men did not resemble the bulked-up heroes of Hollywood but rather a group of ordinary, fit-looking men. They ranged in age from their late 20s to their early 40s. Some had gray hair. Dressed differently, Obama thought, they could have been bankers or lawyers. It wasn’t physical prowess that distinguished them, he decided. It was savvy and skill. In the front of the classroom was a model of bin Laden’s compound. McRaven had said his men would walk the president through the mission in detail. They would tell him anything he wanted to know, except which of them had killed bin Laden. That secret would stay with the team.
McRaven addressed the group first. Then the helicopter pilot whose Black Hawk had crashed inside the compound stood up. He was a tall, thin man with dark hair who appeared unused to speaking before a group, especially one that included the president of the United States. He described for Obama exactly what had happened with his chopper, and how deliberate his crash had been. He explained that once he realized the craft was going down, he maneuvered it to catch the tail on the wall so that it would land upright.
“Was the weather a factor?” Obama asked.
“Yes,” the pilot said. The air had been warmer inside the compound than the mission plan had anticipated. He explained the aerodynamics.
When he was finished, the SEAL-team commander spoke. He was a short, stocky man who was at once dead serious and perfectly at ease. He began by thanking the chopper pilot. “I am here today,” he said, “because of the amazing work that this guy did.” He then gave a long account of exactly how their successful mission had been “10 years in the making.” The capability he and the other men in the classroom represented had been honed over all those years of combat, he said. Their skills and tactics had been purchased with the lives of others. He mentioned the operating bases in Afghanistan that were named in honor of these men. Then he explained that the success of the mission had depended on every member of the team, and gave examples. He cited the skill of the pilot settling down the chopper upright. He mentioned many others. He cited the Pashto translator, who was able to turn away the curious onlookers outside the compound.
“I don’t know what we would have done if all those people had just started rushing the compound,” he said.
He even mentioned Cairo, the dog.
“You had a dog?” the president asked, surprised.
“Yes, sir, we always have a dog with us,” the commander said.
“Well,” said Obama, “I would like to meet that dog.”
“Mr. President, then I would advise you to bring treats,” said the commander.