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How Osama bin Laden died: Details of the commando raid that killed the world's most wanted man

May 2, 2011 |  3:10 am

Osama bin laden's housing compound burns in Pakistan

So, in the end it was not a cold, dank Afghan cave that sheltered the world's most wanted man, Osama bin Laden.

It was a huge million-dollar enclave in Abbottabad, Pakistan, with far too much security and 18-foot high walls, way taller than necessary to protect the two couriers who allegedly lived there alone. (See raw video footage below.)

That in the end is what brought the sudden end to Bin Laden's life with a U.S. bullet into his head, among other places, after a circuitous 10-year hunt for the spiritual leader of the global Al Qaeda terrorist franchise and the master plotter of the 9/11 attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people.

The hunt began to narrow several years ago when interrogations of Guantanamo Bay detainees produced the nicknames of a pair of highly trusted couriers, used by the captured 9/11 architect Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Bin Laden, who had learned his electronic communications could be monitored by the U.S.

It took nearly two years of CIA analysis to determine the men's real names and to begin ....

... tracking them, ultimately to and from the housing compound that was built in 2005. The compound, according to senior administration officials, was eight times larger than others in the area.

Its occupants burned their trash, rather than putting it out for collection. And strangely, although apparently wealthy from no visible income sources, the occupants had no telephone or Internet links to the outside world.Celebrants of Osama bin Laden's death in Times Square 5-1-11

According to a variety of sources, the raid on the compound was authorized last Friday by President Obama just before he left for Alabama and Florida.

The carefully rehearsed operation struck about 1:30 a.m. Monday local time.

It involved flights from an Afghanistan base by four Blackhawk and Chinook helicopters, one of which suffered mechanical failure and made a hard landing within the compound.

It was later destroyed by the commandos.

About 40 troops, largely Navy SEALs, were involved, with 24 rappelling into the compound from the hovering Chinooks. Officials said the firefight was fierce and significant.

The armed resistance also reportedly came from Bin Laden himself, who was identified by....

....a resident. The U.S. troops gave Osama what was described as a brief opportunity to surrender before firing several times, at least once into the head. During the operation, a photo of his face was transmitted to analysts, who confirmed the identification.

According to Pentagon officials, photos of Bin Laden's dead face do exist but those widely distributed on the Internet are fake. At some point, if only to convince die-hard Bin Laden followers, officials are expected to release a corpse photo, as has been done in the past when famous villains such as Che Guevara and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein were killed or captured. Additionally, such special ops are typically videotaped by mini-helmet cams to document a sensitive mission and assist in debriefing and future training.

Three other adult males died in the 40-minute raid, believed to be Bin Laden's adult son and the two unidentified couriers. One unidentified woman also died as she was being used as a human shield by one of the dead men.

All Americans left safely, loading Bin Laden's body onto the choppers that had landed outside.

The usual protocol for such raids is to have intelligence experts along to comb through and retrieve whatever information they can find onsite. Pakistani television showed the compound burning Sunday night (see photo above), possibly from the helicopter's destruction.

The next tricky maneuver was disposing of Bin Laden's body, which according to Muslim ritual must be buried by sundown Monday. Sunday, American sources said that tradition would be honored, presumably after obtaining DNA samples to match with his known relatives.

However, where to put the body was problematic. Any burial in the ground or mausoleum could become a pilgrimage site for sympathizers of Bin Laden's 22-year-old Al Qaeda operation. So, a burial at sea reportedly ocTwo U.S. Chinooks over Afghanistan's Kandahar provincecurred Monday morning local time at an as yet undisclosed location.

An additional upcoming complication is the possible connection between officials of Pakistan, which has nuclear arms, and the terrorist leader.

The city of about 1 million where the immense Bin Laden compound stood is well-known as a favorite retirement spot for Pakistani generals, meaning the world's most wanted man was living among them. Is it possible they would not know of their infamous neighbor?

In his Sunday statement (full text here) Obama said Pakistan was not informed until after the raid, but praised its president as an ally in the war on terror for helping lead the U.S. to Bin Laden.

One Army veteran who was a longtime operative involved in numerous similar aerial black ops across that region was apprised of the Obama administration's account of the mission.

He said two themes struck him: First was the ability of Bin Laden to live in comfort some 60 miles from Pakistan's capital.

The other theme that struck this career soldier, who participated in the hunt for Bin Laden, could perhaps be expected in political Washington the year before a presidential election.

But it was that such an inherently complex military team operation was being framed by Obama aides to steer way too much credit to the spectators in the White House and away from the unidentified operatives and their vast military support network.

Bin Laden's death ignited immediate spontaneous celebrations in front of the White House, in Times Square and at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan. It also prompted warnings of increased possibility of threats against Americans and American targets abroad.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photo: Associated Press via GeoTV; Chip East / Reuters (Times Square celebrants of Bin Laden's death); Peter Parks / AFP / Getty Images (Two U.S. Chinook helicopters over Afghanistan's Kandahar province).

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