It all started, and ended, with a courier. For more than two years, the US had been working to unmask the mysterious man who was trusted by Osama bin Laden and who ferried messages to and from the evasive al-Qaida leader. This courier – whose name has so far not been released – also provided a home where bin Laden lived. And on Sunday, the courier was one of at least four people who died in the raid that killed bin Laden.
ABC has this video showing scenes inside the kill site, and we are learning more about how the CIA came to the conclusion that this was where the bin Laden family was living. The Americans had long suspected that bin Laden was living in remote tribal areas near the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. But he wasn’t. He was living in a large, $1m house in a suburb of a popular Pakistani tourist city. So when the Americans continually insisted that bin Laden was living in tribal regions, were they just putting up a smokescreen? Were they trying to ensure that bin Laden didn’t realise how close they really were?
The house apparently raised suspicions among locals for some time, even if they didn’t anticipate its ultimate secret. The 3,000 square foot compound had high walls topped with barbed wire, large gates with security guards, few windows and a terrace with a privacy wall. None of these features is particularly unusual. But there were other, more peculiar signs. The residents of the house burned all their rubbish, rather than leaving it out for collection. And the two brothers who owned it had no obvious source of income.
It was on Friday morning, while the world was focused on the royal wedding in London, that Barack Obama gave the order to move in for the kill. The current US president has a reputation for taking a long time to make decisions, but this time he was decisive. Unlike his predecessor, George W. Bush, Obama seems to have known when to just go for it. Plans were swiftly drawn up on Sunday. Obama played golf in the morning, then returned early to the White House to be briefed on the mission, which was due to be launched in a matter of hours.
It’s hard to say how much of this is spin, but the early impression is that Obama was very involved in the whole thing, being kept constantly up to date and making critical decisions. For a man characterised by many as a ditherer, this is a stunning turnaround. You can criticised Obama for a lot of things, but when it came to this, he was ready to make the tough choices, and make them fast. He succeeded where W and the Republicans failed. That will give him a boost, though not an endless one.
The US was so concerned about bin Laden being tipped off, it was decided that no-one would be told in advance of the mission. That included the Pakistani government and special forces, including many in the US. It seems that only a dozen or so people around the world knew what was about to happen. A slap in the face for the Pakistani secret service? Undoubtedly. But the US has long had suspicions that the ISI and other Pakistani agencies had, to put it politely, a problem with leaks. In the end, giving them advance warning was too great a risk.
When 40 US special forces marines attacked the compound, with orders to kill rather than capture, the occupants resisted. Osama bin Laden himself, it is said, “resisted”, thought it’s not clear what is really meant by that word. The al-Qaida leader died, it is reported, from a single bullet to the head. That bullet is rumoured to have been removed, and will undoubtedly turn up somewhere as a trophy. Bin Laden was identified by facial recognition, but DNA samples were reportedly also taken. But for Obama to announce the kill, it’s clear that the US is absolutely sure that they got their man. Even bin Laden’s associates have seemingly accepted that their former leader is dead.
The courier? He was killed. So was his brother. So was one of bin Laden’s sons, possibly Hamza. Another woman is believed to have died after a male combatant used her as a shield. Two other women were injured. No US soldiers were killed or, it seems, even injured. Other unidentified males were captured alive.
Bin Laden’s body was buried at sea. The US did not want him to be buried anywhere, because any grave would become a shrine. Islamic tradition permits a burial at sea only if the body is decomposing, or if there is a risk that the body would be dug up by enemies. The latter, certainly, would have been a distinct possibility. In such circumstances, Islamic law demands that the body is protected from fish. We’ll just have to take the Americans’ word on that count.
If it sounds like an action movie, well, yes, it does. US special forces storm a top secret compound and kill the most wanted man in the world with a bullet to the head. Americans who have dreamed of this moment for a decade could not have hoped for a more bombastic and dramatic end to this saga. Al-Qaida is not dead, but its leader is. He will become a martyr to some. Many in the west will be glad that he’s dead. And now there are an awful lot of bones to pick as more details of the kill emerge. Who pulled the trigger and fired the shot that killed bin Laden? Where is the bullet? And what happens next?