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The Last Days of Osama bin Laden

April 26, 2012 |
Bin Laden's violent struggle against the U.S. and its allies was about to come to an end. But his life and death in Abbottabad, as drawn from published accounts, interviews with Pakistani investigators and U.S. officials and an examination of some of bin Laden's unpublished writings, as well as an exclusive tour of the compound given to this journalist before it was destroyed by Pakistani authorities, reveal the contradictions that drove America's most wanted enemy--and ultimately proved his undoing.
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Early on the morning of May 2, 2011, the residents of Osama bin Laden's heavily fortified compound were startled awake by the sound of explosions. Bin Laden's daughter Maryam, 20, rushed upstairs to his top-floor bedroom to ask what was going on. "Go downstairs and go back to bed," he told her. Then bin Laden told his wife Amal, "Don't turn on the light."

It was a needless warning. Someone--it is still not clear exactly who--had taken the sensible precaution of turning off the electricity feeding the neighborhood, thus giving the U.S. Navy SEALs now storming the bin Laden residence in Abbottabad, Pakistan, a large advantage on what was a moonless night. Indeed, the instructions to Amal would be the last words bin Laden would ever utter.

Fifty-six hours earlier, on the other side of the world, the President of the United States had ended months of deliberation by telling his National Security Adviser, "It's a go." From neighboring Afghanistan, a squad of specially trained U.S. commandos had ridden their helicopters low and fast through the mountains before landing, securing the perimeter of the compound and blasting their way through locked metal gates. Three of them were coming up the stairs.

Bin Laden's violent struggle against the U.S. and its allies was about to come to an end. But his life and death in Abbottabad, as drawn from published accounts, interviews with Pakistani investigators and U.S. officials and an examination of some of bin Laden's unpublished writings, as well as an exclusive tour of the compound given to this journalist before it was destroyed by Pakistani authorities, reveal the contradictions that drove America's most wanted enemy--and ultimately proved his undoing.

The Floor That Didn't Exist

The compound was a perfect place for a discreet yet comfortable retirement.

Squint a little and the neat houses that climb up the green hills and compact mountains that surround Abbottabad are reminiscent of those in Switzerland. This northern Pakistani city of some 500,000 sits at 4,000 ft. in the foothills of the Himalayas. Enticed by its relatively cool summers and negligible crime rate, a mix of retired army officers and civil servants have been drawn to live in Abbottabad. The vacation high season begins in June, when families from the hot plains of Pakistan arrive to cool off. The golfers among them can play on one of the country's finest courses. The overall feeling is a little more country club than that of the rest of Pakistan's heaving, teeming, smog-filled cities.

It was to the placid environs of Abbottabad that bin Laden, half a decade after his great victory on 9/11, decided to escape. By the spring of 2011, the terrorist mastermind was in his sixth year of hiding out in the city's Bilal Town neighborhood. With its porticoed white villas interspersed with small shops selling fruits and vegetables, it is certainly a pleasant place to live. Sometime in 2005, bin Laden's compound began rising from what had once been open fields. During construction, a third floor was added to the main building. No planning permission was sought for this addition, a common enough dodge in a part of the world where paying property taxes is regarded as a sucker's game. But there was a more compelling reason to keep this alteration as secret as possible: the unauthorized floor was for the exclusive use of bin Laden and Amal, the spirited Yemeni who was his newest and youngest wife.

The third floor was a little different from the others. It had windows on only one of its four sides, and they were opaque. Four of the five windows were just slits well above eye level. A small terrace leading off the floor was shielded from prying eyes by a 7-ft.-high wall designed to conceal even someone as tall as the 6-ft. 4-in. bin Laden. Habitually dressed in light-colored flowing robes, a dark vest and a prayer cap, bin Laden rarely left the second and third floors of the house during the more than five years he lived there. When he did, it was only to take a brief walk in the compound's kitchen garden. A makeshift tarpaulin over a section of the garden was designed to keep even those walks a secret from the all-seeing U.S. satellites that traversed the skies overhead.

It must have been quite confining for an outdoorsman like bin Laden, but there were some compensations. For one thing, he was a long way from the U.S. drone strikes that were steadily picking off many of his longtime aides, the cream of al-Qaeda, in Pakistan's tribal regions some 200 miles to the west. Most important, he was surrounded by three of his wives and a dozen of his children and grandchildren.

The wives ranged in age from the 29-year-old Amal to the 62-year-old Khairiah, who had recently and happily reappeared in bin Laden's life quite unexpectedly after an absence of nine years. Bin Laden had married Khairiah in 1985, when he was 28 and she was 35. Before her marriage, Khairiah had had something of an independent career as a teacher of deaf-mute children. She also held a Ph.D. and hailed from a wealthy, distinguished family that claims descent from the Prophet Muhammad.

As the Taliban regime was imploding during the fall of 2001, Khairiah fled Afghanistan for neighboring Iran, together with several of bin Laden's children. For years they all lived under some form of house arrest in the Iranian capital of Tehran. Sometime during the blazing summer of 2010, Khairiah managed to travel to North Waziristan, a flinty, remote tribal region of Pakistan that lies more than 1,500 miles east of Tehran; the journey took her across tough mountain ranges and through some of the harshest deserts on earth. She then traveled on to Abbottabad to reunite with her husband.

The next wife in seniority in the bin Laden compound was Siham bin Abdullah bin Husayn, an exact contemporary of the 54-year-old al-Qaeda leader's. Siham had obtained a Ph.D. in Koranic grammar while she was living with bin Laden in Sudan in the mid-1990s. A poet and an intellectual, she would often edit bin Laden's writings.

Bin Laden had married his youngest wife Amal a year or so before the 9/11 attacks, when he was 43 and she was 17, but the 26-year age difference between them did not stand in the way of what seemed to be a love match. Amal bore bin Laden five children, including two while she and her husband were living in Abbottabad.

Family life in Abbottabad was a source of genuine solace for bin Laden, who believed deeply that polygamy and procreation were religious obligations. To his close male friends, he often repeated a saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad: "Marry and increase in number because with you I increase the nation (of Muslims)." To other friends, he joked, "I don't understand why people take only one wife. If you take four wives, you live like a groom." (This seems to be the only recorded joke bin Laden ever made.) A clue as to how bin Laden was able to "live like a groom" may be the Avena syrup--a sort of natural Viagra made from wild oats--that was found at the compound after his death.

Life in the compound certainly wasn't luxurious, but for Amal it wasn't much different from the life she had known while growing up in rural Yemen. For meat, the more than a dozen members of the bin Laden family subsisted on two goats a week, which were slaughtered inside the compound. Milk came from cows housed in concrete sheds, eggs from some 100 chickens kept in cages, honey from bees in a hive and vegetables like cucumbers from the spacious kitchen garden. This homegrown produce was supplemented by cans of Sasso olive oil and cartons of Quaker Oats bought locally.

Inside its walls the compound was bare of paint, and in keeping with bin Laden's orthodox beliefs, there were no pictures. It had no air-conditioning and only a few rudimentary gas heaters--in an area where summers can top 100F and winters mean snow. As a result, the electricity and gas bills were relatively minuscule, averaging $50 a month. Beds for the various family members were made from simple planks of plywood. It was as if the compound's inhabitants were living at a makeshift but long-term campsite.

By virtue of her age and stern temperament, the oldest wife, Khairiah, was highest in the pecking order, but there was little fighting among bin Laden's spouses. All of them had gone into marriage knowing it would be a polygamous arrangement, something they believed to be sanctioned by God. Each wife had her own separate apartment with its own kitchen (with crude pipes funneling cooking smells to the outside). The third floor of the main building was Amal's domain, while on the floor beneath her lived the two much older wives.

Also living in the compound were bin Laden's trusted bodyguard and courier Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti (known as the Kuwaiti), the courier's brother and their wives and children. They lived in abject poverty. Bin Laden paid the Kuwaiti and his brother about 12,000 rupees a month each, a little more than $100, a reflection of the fact that al-Qaeda's coffers were nearly empty.

A modest one-story building housed the Kuwaiti and his family. A 7-ft.-high wall separated it from the main house, where bin Laden lived. The Kuwaiti's wife Mariam rarely went into the big house except to do cleaning; only once, in the spring of 2011, did she catch a glimpse of a strange, tall man speaking Arabic. Her husband had explained to her years earlier that there was a stranger living there and instructed her never to talk about him. Bin Laden was hiding even from some of the people living in his own compound.

In his top-floor sanctuary, bin Laden whiled away the days with Amal. The bedroom ceiling was low for a man as tall as bin Laden. A tiny bathroom off to the side had green tile on the walls but not on the floor, a rudimentary toilet that was no more than a hole in the ground, over which they had to squat, and a cheap plastic shower. In this bathroom, bin Laden regularly applied Just for Men dye to his hair and beard to try to maintain a youthful appearance now that he was midway through his sixth decade. Next to the bedroom was a kitchen the size of a large closet. Across the hall was bin Laden's study, where he kept his books on crude wooden shelves and spent much of his time tapping away on his computer, composing lengthy missives that would be delivered by courier to key lieutenants.

In memos he never dreamed would one day end up in the hands of the CIA, bin Laden advised other militant jihadist groups not to adopt the al-Qaeda moniker. On Aug. 7, 2010, he wrote to the leader of the brutal al-Shabab militia in Somalia to warn that declaring itself part of al-Qaeda would only attract enemies and make it harder to raise money from rich Arabs.

In October 2010, bin Laden wrote a 48-page memo to one of his deputies that surveyed the state of al-Qaeda's jihad. He began on an optimistic note, observing that for the Americans it had been "the worst year for them in Afghanistan since they invaded," a trend he predicted would only be amplified by the deepening U.S. budget crisis. But bin Laden also worried that al-Qaeda's longtime sanctuary in Waziristan, in Pakistan's tribal areas, was now too dangerous because of U.S. drone strikes. "I am leaning toward getting most of our brothers out of the area," he wrote.

Bin Laden fretted about his 20-year-old son Hamza, who had moved to the tribal regions sometime in 2010, writing, "Make sure to tell Hamza that I am of the opinion he should get out of Waziristan ... He should move only when the clouds are heavy." While publicly calling for young men to join his holy war, bin Laden was privately advising that his son decamp for the tiny, prosperous Persian Gulf kingdom of Qatar.

Bin Laden also reminded his deputies "that all communication with others should be done through letters" rather than by phone or the Internet. As a result, he had to wait up to two or three months for responses to his queries, which made running al-Qaeda far from efficient.

Bin Laden was always scheming about how to grab more media attention. He instructed his team, "The 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attack is coming and due to the importance to this date, the time to start preparing is now. Please send me your suggestions on this." He proposed reaching out to the correspondents of both al-Jazeera English and al-Jazeera Arabic and wondered if he could get a hearing on an American TV network: "We should also look for an American channel that can be close to being unbiased such as CBS."

Until the end, bin Laden remained fixated on mounting another large-scale attack on the U.S., prodding one deputy, "It would be nice if you could nominate one of the qualified brothers to be responsible for a large operation against the U.S. It would be nice if you would pick a number of the brothers not to exceed 10 and send them to their countries individually without any of them knowing the others to study aviation."

Bizarrely, he complained that Faisal Shahzad--a U.S. citizen of Pakistani heritage trained by the Pakistani Taliban, who had tried to blow up an SUV in Times Square on May 1, 2010--had broken the oath of allegiance he had sworn to the U.S., and he tut-tutted that "it is not permissible in Islam to betray trust and break a covenant." This seeming aversion to recruiting U.S. citizens narrowed the available options. In any case, his top deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri pushed back, telling bin Laden it was much more realistic to attack American soldiers in Afghanistan than civilians in the U.S.

Indeed, by the spring of last year, bin Laden and his men hadn't mounted a successful attack in the West since the July 7, 2005, transportation bombings in London. And al-Qaeda had, of course, never managed to pull off a successful attack in the U.S. after Sept. 11, 2001.

Launching Neptune's Spear

At 1 P.M. E.T. on Sunday, May 1, as night fell 7,000 miles to the east, in Pakistan, President Obama's war Cabinet began to gather in the Situation Room. The White House national-security team had set up secure communications there, connected to Vice Admiral William McRaven, commander of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), who was by now in Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan. The Sit Room was also in secure communication with Leon Panetta's offices at the CIA headquarters and the Ops Center in the Pentagon, where a team of some 30 officers was standing by to respond to any contingency. At 2 p.m., Obama entered the Sit Room for the final meeting with his national-security team as Operation Neptune's Spear commenced. At 2:05 p.m., Panetta began one more overview of the operation.

It was now past 11 p.m. in Abbottabad, and the bin Laden household was in bed. Given the time difference between Afghanistan and Pakistan, it was just past 10:30 p.m. in Jalalabad, where the U.S. Navy SEAL team, consisting of 23 "operators" and an interpreter, were preparing to board two Black Hawk choppers. The men carried small cards filled with photos and descriptions of bin Laden's family and the members of his entourage who were believed to be living at the compound. Also along for the operation was a combat dog named Cairo, wearing body armor just like his SEAL teammates.

Half an hour later, at about 11 p.m. local time, the two Black Hawks took off from the Jalalabad airfield and headed east toward the border with Pakistan, which they would cross in about 15 minutes. The choppers were MH-60s, modified so as to remain undetected by Pakistani radar stations, which were in peacetime mode, unlike the radar facilities on the border Pakistan shared with its longtime enemy India, which were always on heightened alert. Painted with exotic emulsions to help them evade detection, the modified MH-60s gave off a low heat signature in flight. Their tail rotors had been designed to make them less noisy and less susceptible to radar identification. On top of that, the helicopters flew "nap of the earth," which means perilously low and very, very fast--only a few feet above the ground, driving around trees and hugging the riverbeds and valleys that lace the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountain range. This also made them harder to detect by radar. After crossing the border, the choppers swung north of Peshawar and its millions of residents and eyeballs. The total flight time to the target was about an hour and a half, the distance about 150 miles.

Adjoining the White House Situation Room, which can accommodate more than a dozen senior officials at a large, highly polished wooden table and a couple dozen more staffers on the backbencher seats along the walls, is a much smaller meeting room. Like the Sit Room, this room has secure video and phone communications, but it has only a small table and can comfortably accommodate only seven people. In this room was Brigadier General Marshall "Brad" Webb, assistant commanding general of JSOC, dressed in a crisp blue Air Force uniform festooned with ribbons, to monitor the SEAL teams in real time on a laptop, together with another JSOC officer. On the monitors of the small conference room, grainy video of the unfolding raid was fed in from a bat-shaped RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drone flying more than two miles above Abbottabad.

Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, went into the small conference room to watch the feed from the stealth drone and was soon followed by members of Obama's Cabinet. "Slowly, onesies and twosies, they kept poking their heads in," Leiter recalls. Vice President Joe Biden drifted in, then Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and suddenly the room was full, with many of Obama's top intelligence and counterterrorism officials jammed up against the walls or stuck outside, peering through the doorway to get a better look at the unfolding drama. Obama then stepped in, announced, "I need to watch this," and settled into a chair off to one side of the cramped room, next to Webb. (It was here, not in the Sit Room proper, that the famous image of the President and his team would be taken.)

The Black Hawks carrying the SEALs approached Abbottabad from the north-west. Once the helicopters reached their destination, the carefully planned operation began to unravel. As the first chopper tried to land in the largest courtyard in the compound, it suddenly lost altitude. The additional weight of the stealth technology and the higher-than-expected temperatures in Abbottabad had degraded its performance, amplifying an aerodynamic phenomenon known as settling with power--an unexpectedly fast drop. When the SEALs had practiced the maneuver on a replica of the compound in the States, the compound's outer walls had been represented by a chain-link fence, whereas the actual walls were made of concrete. The thick walls likely gave more energy to the Black Hawk's rotor wash and contributed to the chopper's instability. The tail of the craft clipped one of the compound walls, breaking off the critical tail rotor. Now the pilot could no longer control the chopper. Relying on his training, he avoided a potentially catastrophic crash by burying the helo's nose in the dirt in the large yard where the compound occupants grew crops. Because of his quick thinking, the SEALs in the chopper did not sustain serious injuries and were able to clamber out of the downed bird.

Obama grimly watched this unfold on the grainy video feed being beamed back from the drone high above the compound. The feed clearly showed that the rotors of the first helicopter had stopped spinning. Then the second helicopter, instead of hovering and dropping some SEALs on the roof of the main compound building, simply disappeared from the shot. In his Texan drawl, McRaven addressed Panetta without any discernible shift in tone, saying, "We will now be amending the mission. Director, as you can see, we have a helicopter down in the courtyard. My men are prepared for this contingency, and they will deal with it." Within a matter of seconds, McRaven could see on the video feed that the SEALs had made it out of the downed helicopter without any serious problems.

Three of those SEALs ran across the small field and opened a door on one of the inside walls of the compound, leading to a self-contained annex area. There they found the simple garage where the Kuwaiti parked his jeep and the one-story building where he lived with his family. The Kuwaiti poked his head out from behind a metal gate in this building, and the SEALs shot him twice in the chin, killing him. They also wounded the Kuwaiti's wife with a shot to her right shoulder. Their silenced weapons made little noise. (The courier's AK-47 was later discovered by his bedside. It seems unlikely that he fired it; no casings from such a weapon were found at the scene.)

Meanwhile, the second Black Hawk pilot saw what had happened to the first chopper and shifted gears. Plan A had been to hover above the roof of bin Laden's bedroom so that a few SEALs could fast-rope onto it and surprise bin Laden while he slept. Now the pilot opted for Plan B: the safer course of settling the bird down just outside the compound walls in a field of crops. A small group of SEALs jumped out, four of them to secure the outside perimeter of the compound. The remaining eight SEALs on the second chopper jumped out and set an explosive charge on a solid metal door on one of the compound's exterior walls, but when the gate was blown off its hinges, they were greeted by the sight of a large brick wall--a dead end. Soon after that, their colleagues from the downed chopper let them in through the main gate of the compound, saving them the trouble of blowing through the massive, thick exterior wall.

Up in his top-floor bedroom, bin Laden had become a victim of his own security arrangements. The few windows ensured that no one could look in to see him, but now it was impossible for him to see what was going on outside. Dressed in tan shalwar kameez, a loose-trousers-and-tunic outfit, the leader of al-Qaeda waited in the dark in silence for about 15 minutes, seemingly paralyzed as the Americans stormed his last refuge. With no moon and the electricity out, it was pitch black, which must have added to his confusion. Sewn into his clothing were several hundred euros and two phone numbers, one for a cell phone in Pakistan and the other for a call center in Pakistan's tribal regions. This was the extent of bin Laden's escape plan, and it wasn't going to be of much help to him now.

Three SEALs went from the Kuwaiti's one-story building through a metal gate in a wall inside the compound and found themselves in a grassy courtyard in front of the main house. The SEALs entered the ground floor. On their left was a bedroom where they shot Abrar, the Kuwaiti's brother, and his wife Bushra, killing them both.

The SEAL team had no idea what the layout of the floors in bin Laden's house might be. As they moved deeper inside, they passed a kitchen and two large storage rooms. Near the back of the house, which had a bunker-like feel, was a stairwell. Blocking their way to the upper two floors was a massive, locked metal gate. The SEALs blasted their way through this gate with the breaching materials they were carrying. As the SEALs ran up to the second floor, they encountered bin Laden's 23-year-old son Khalid, whom they shot on the staircase.

On a shelf in bin Laden's bedroom were the AK-47 and Makarov machine pistol that were his constant companions, but he didn't reach for them. Instead he opened a metal gate, which blocked all access to his room and could be opened only from the inside, and quickly poked his head out to see what the commotion was. He was immediately spotted by the SEALs, who bounded up the next flight of stairs. Retreating inside, bin Laden made the fatal error of not locking the gate behind him, allowing the SEALs to run past it into a short hallway. They then turned right into his bedroom.

Hearing the sounds of strange men rushing into their room, Amal screamed something in Arabic and threw herself in front of her husband. The first SEAL who charged into the room shoved her aside, concerned that she might be wearing a suicide-bomb vest. Amal was then shot in the calf by another of the SEALs, and she collapsed unconscious on the simple double mattress she shared with bin Laden. Bin Laden was offering no resistance when he was dispatched with a "double tap" of shots to the chest and left eye. It was a grisly scene: his brains spattered on the ceiling above him and poured out of his eye socket. The floor near the bed was smeared with bin Laden's blood.

The aging bin Laden may have grown complacent or tired during his decade on the run; he had no real escape plan, and there was no secret passageway out of his house. Perhaps he expected some kind of warning that never came. Or perhaps he knew that a firefight inside the enclosed spaces of his house would likely end up killing some of his wives and children.

For all his bluster that he would go down fighting and his bodyguards would shoot him if he were ever found by the Americans, when the moment finally came, there was no spectacular martyrdom. Bin Laden died surrounded by his wives in a squalid suburban compound awash in broken glass and scattered children's toys and medicine bottles--testament to the ferocity of the SEALs' assault on his final hiding place. And on Feb. 25, Pakistani authorities sent in a demolition crew that tore the complex down, erasing in a couple of days bin Laden's six-year sojourn in Abbottabad.