The Last Days of Osama bin Laden

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Aamir Qureshi / AFP / Getty Images

Pakistani media personnel and local residents gather outside the hideout of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden following his death by US Special Forces in a ground operation in Abbottabad on May 3, 2011.

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accounts, interviews with Pakistani investigators and U.S. officials and an examination of some of bin Laden's unpublished writings, as well as an exclusive tour of the compound given to this journalist before it was destroyed by Pakistani authorities, reveal the contradictions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.

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