The Four Helicopters chuffed urgently through the Khyber Pass, racing over the lights of Peshawar and down toward the quiet city of Abbottabad and the prosperous neighborhood of Bilal Town. In the dark houses below slept doctors, lawyers, retired military officers and perhaps the world's most wanted fugitive. The birds were on their way to find out.
Ahead loomed a strange-looking house in a walled compound. The pilots knew it well, having trained for their mission using a specially built replica. The house was three stories tall, as if to guarantee a clear view of approaching threats, and the walls were higher and thicker than any ordinary resident would require. Another high wall shielded the upper balcony from view. A second smaller house stood nearby. As a pair of backup helicopters orbited overhead, an HH-60 Pave Hawk chopper and a CH-47 Chinook dipped toward the compound. A dozen SEALs fast-roped onto the roof of a building from the HH-60 before it lost its lift and landed hard against a wall. The Chinook landed, and its troops clambered out.
Half a world away, it was Sunday afternoon in the crowded White House Situation Room. President Barack Obama was stone-faced as he followed the unfolding drama on silent video screens a drama he alone had the power to start but now was powerless to control.
At a meeting three days earlier, Obama had heard his options summarized, three ways of dealing with tantalizing yet uncertain intelligence that had been developed over painstaking months and years. He could continue to watch the strange compound using spies and satellites in hopes that the prey would reveal himself. He could knock out the building from a safe distance using B-2 bombers and their precision-guided payloads. Or he could unleash the special force of SEALs known as Team 6.
How strong was the intelligence? he asked. A 50% to 80% chance, he was told. What could go wrong? Plenty: a hostage situation, a diplomatic crisis a dozen varieties of the sort of botch that ruins a presidency. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter authorized a daring helicopter raid on Tehran to free American hostages. The ensuing debacle helped bury his re-election hopes.
To wait was to risk a leak, now that more than a hundred people had been briefed on the possible raid. To bomb might mean that the U.S. would never know for sure whether the mission was a success. As for an assault by special forces, U.S. relations with the Pakistani government were tricky enough without staging a raid on sovereign territory.
It is said that only the hard decisions make it to a President's plate. This was one. Obama's inner circle was deeply divided. After more than an hour of discussion, Obama dismissed the group, saying he wanted time to reflect but not much time. The next morning, as the President left the White House to tour tornado damage in Alabama, he paused on his way through the Diplomatic Reception Room to render his decision: send the SEALs.
On Saturday the weather was cloudy in Abbottabad. Obama kept his appointment at the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner, where a ballroom full of snoops had no inkling of the news volcano rumbling under their feet. The next morning, White House officials closed the West Wing to visitors, and Obama joined his staff in the Situation Room as the mission lifted off from a base in Jalalabad, southern Afghanistan. The bet was placed: American choppers invaded the airspace of a foreign country without warning, to attack a walled compound housing unknown occupants.
Obama returned to the Situation Room a short time later as the birds swooped down on the mysterious house. Over the next 40 minutes, chaos addled the satellite feeds. A hole was blown through the side of the house, gunfire erupted. SEALs worked their way through the smaller buildings inside the compound. Others swarmed upward in the main building, floor by floor, until they came to the room where they hoped to find their cornered target. Then they were inside the room for a final burst of gunfire.
What had happened? The President sat and stared while several of his aides paced. The minutes "passed like days," one official recalls. The grounded chopper felt like a bad omen.
Then a voice briskly crackled with the hoped-for code name: "Visual on Geronimo."