The commandos swept methodically through the compound’s main building, clearing one room and then another as they made their way to the upper floors where they expected to find bin Laden. As they did so, Obama administration officials in the White House Situation Room listened to the SEAL team’s conversations over secure lines.
“The minutes passed like days,” said John O. Brennan, the administration’s chief counterterrorism adviser. “It was probably one of the most anxiety-filled periods of time, I think, in the lives of the people who were assembled.”
Finally, shortly before 2 a.m. in Pakistan, the commandos burst into an upstairs room. Inside was bin Laden. With a burst of gunfire, one of the longest and costliest manhunts in modern history was over.
The operation, which was planned for months but hidden from all but a tiny circle of administration officials, marked the culmination of a search often seemingly so futile that top U.S. intelligence officials would answer questions about bin Laden’s whereabouts with a helpless shrug.
It was a search that employed Predator drones, sophisticated signal interception equipment, networks of informants, and teams of analysts who scrutinized every video and audio recording from the al-Qaeda leader for inadvertent clues.
In the end, “he was more or less hiding in plain sight,” a senior U.S. intelligence official said. “The only resident of the compound that was taken from the site was Osama bin Laden. He died — almost certainly — from a bullet to the head.”
For years, bin Laden’s whereabouts were a guessing game, an unknown destination at the end of a trail that had gone utterly cold. But over the past year, U.S. spy agencies finally narrowed the circle by homing in on a relatively mundane target: a small network of couriers thought to be bin Laden’s only point of contact to the outside world.
One courier in particular unknowingly led them to a newly built residence north of Islamabad. When American analysts scrutinized the place, “we were shocked by what we saw,” a senior Obama administration official said.
The compound’s main building was three stories tall but had few windows facing outside. The facility appeared to be worth at least $1 million, but had no telephone or Internet connections. Its 12-to-18-foot security walls were topped by barbed wire.
It was far from the tribal areas where lower-level militants dodge Predator strikes. Indeed, the compound was a short distance from Pakistan’s military academy. U.S. documents released by the WikiLeaks anti-secrecy Web site describe plans to send U.S. special operations soldiers to Abbottabad in 2008 to train Pakistani troops. In contrast to the legend of al-Qaeda and its founder, bin Laden was not hiding in a cave.