Killing bin Laden: How the U.S. Finally Got Its Man

After more than a decade of hunting, the U.S. eliminates its most hated enemy

  • Brooks Kraft for TIME

    A jubilant crowd of mostly college students celebrated in front of the White House the night bin Laden's death was announced by the President

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    That proved his undoing. In 2005 an unknown benefactor built the strange compound where bin Laden was eventually found. The site was a triangle-shaped piece of farmland. Walls ranging from 10 ft. (3 m) to 18 ft. (5.5 m) high and topped with barbed wire enclosed the 1-acre (0.4 hectare) property, which lay less than a mile from the military academy that is Pakistan's answer to West Point. An interior wall 12 ft. (3.7 m) high separated the house from the rest of the grounds. Thus to reach the living areas, it was necessary to pass through two locked gates. A pit in the yard was used for burning household trash, leaving nothing for snooping garbage collectors. On the north side of the house, where the windows were visible, the glass was opaque.

    Bin Laden took up residence soon after the compound was finished. Perhaps he knew of other terrorists in the area. Earlier this year, Umar Patek, an Indonesian linked to the 2002 al-Qaeda bombing in Bali, was arrested at the home of an Abbottabad retiree. Patek's capture came not long after Pakistani authorities arrested an alleged al-Qaeda facilitator named Tahir Shehzad. According to documents published by WikiLeaks, bin Laden's senior lieutenant in the period after Tora Bora, Abu Faraj al-Libbi, lived for a time in Abbottabad before his capture in 2005 and was visited there by one of bin Laden's trusted couriers.

    But if bin Laden knew that this pretty town with its rolling golf course was home to sympathizers, he should have surmised that it was also home to his enemies. And a person who truly wants to stay hidden should not live in a big house behind towering walls in an otherwise sparsely populated field. People are bound to grow curious — including people working for the CIA.

    "Once we came across this compound, we paid close attention to it because it became clear that whoever was living here was trying to maintain a very discreet profile," a senior U.S. intelligence operative explained. Brennan summed it up more tersely: "It had the appearance of sort of a fortress."

    In Plain Sight
    By the time of the raid, Bin Laden had been living in the compound for some five years, surrounded by members of his extensive family, including the adult son who died with him. Why did it take so long for the fortress to come under suspicion? Obama's view was clear in his televised address from the East Room late Sunday night, when he delivered the news of bin Laden's death to a stunned global audience. He subtly reprised the charge he had made during his campaign for the presidency: the Bush Administration took its eye off the ball. "Over the last 10 years, thanks to the tireless and heroic work of our military and our counterterrorism professionals, we've made great strides" in the war against al-Qaeda, he said. "Yet Osama bin Laden avoided capture."

    Obama continued, "And so shortly after taking office, I directed Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, to make the killing or capture of bin Laden the top priority of our war against al-Qaeda, even as we continued our broader efforts to disrupt, dismantle and defeat his network."

    The implication wasn't lost on Bush's supporters. While the former President and his senior advisers were quick to praise the successful raid, other Republicans groused about the way it was framed. "That's Obama politics," Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told Time. He continued, "I can tell you I was involved in a very close way with the Bush Administration — Director [Michael] Hayden when he was at the CIA, as well as Director [Porter] Goss when he was there, and Director [George] Tenet. I know that the focus of everyone in the Bush Administration was to take out bin Laden irrespective of what it took. They never lost their focus."

    A larger and more pressing question was the failure of Pakistan to note the terrorist chieftain's luxury digs. Abbottabad is just 75 winding highway miles (120 km) from the capital, Islamabad, and teems with Pakistani military brass — current, future and retired. It is home to an entire brigade of the Pakistani army. How could the world's most wanted terrorist spend five years in a fortress compound under the nose of the government? White House adviser Brennan said it is "inconceivable" that bin Laden didn't have a support system inside Pakistan. "The United States provides billions of dollars in aid to Pakistan," says Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey." Before we send another dime, we need to know whether Pakistan truly stands with us in the fight against terrorism."

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