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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    Ultimately, the plan devised by McRaven's troops called for about 80 men aboard four helicopters. "I don't want you to plan for an option that doesn't allow you to fight your way out," Obama told his military planners. Darkness was the cloak and speed essential; the force had to be in and out of Pakistan before the Pakistani military could respond. They rehearsed against a 30-minute clock. The orders were capture or kill.

    Meanwhile, the pace of secret White House briefings accelerated in March and April, culminating in the April 28 session at which Obama weighed the conflicting advice of his senior circle. When the decision was made to strike the compound, bin Laden still had not been spotted among the residents behind the walls.

    The raiders found him near the end of their search through the house. The courier was already dead on the first floor, along with his brother and a woman caught in the cross fire. When the SEALs encountered bin Laden, he was with one of his wives. The young woman started toward the SEALs and was shot in the leg. Bin Laden, unarmed, appeared ready to resist, according to a Defense Department account.

    In an instant it was over: in all, four men and one woman lay dead. Bin Laden was shot in the head and in the chest. One of bin Laden's wives confirmed his identity even as a photograph of the dead man's face was relayed for examination by a face-recognition program. As the SEAL team prepared to load the body onto a helicopter, at Langley McRaven delivered the verdict. His voice was relayed to the White House Situation Room: "Geronimo: E-KIA," meaning enemy — killed in action.

    "We got him," Obama said.

    The strike force had eluded Pakistani radar on the flight into the country, but once the firefight erupted, the air force scrambled jets, which might arrive with guns blazing. A decision was made to destroy the stricken chopper. Surviving women and children in the compound — some of them wounded — were moved to safety as the explosives were placed and detonated. In the meantime, SEALs emerged from the house carrying computer drives and other potential intelligence treasures collected during a hasty search.

    Aloft, the raiders performed a head count to confirm that they hadn't lost a man. That news sent a second wave of smiles through the Situation Room. "They said all the helicopters are up, none of our people are hurt," a senior Administration official told TIME. "That was actually the period of most relief." DNA from the body was matched to known relatives of bin Laden's — a third form of identification.

    According to officials, the dead man's next stop was the U.S.S. Carl Vinson, an aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea. There, his body was washed and wrapped in a white sheet, then dropped overboard. There would be no grave for his admirers to venerate. The face that haunted the Western world, the eyes that looked on the blazing towers with pride of authorship, sank sightless beneath the waves.

    What He Leaves Behind
    On Sept. 17, 2001, the same day that President Bush promised "dead or alive," Secretary of State Colin Powell — already a seasoned veteran of the hunt for bin Laden — had this to say: "We are after the al-Qaeda network. It's not one individual; it's lots of individuals, and it's lots of cells. Osama bin Laden is the chairman of the holding company, and within that holding company are terrorist cells and organizations in dozens of countries around the world, any one them capable of committing a terrorist act."

    The hunt for bin Laden was only one aspect of the war that he unleashed. It has been a war unlike any other, one that defies definition. It has persisted in Afghanistan long after bin Laden and his enabler Mullah Omar were driven from the country. It bled into Iraq without Americans being able to agree whether we had chased or created it there. It is a gray war, without borders or uniforms, fought on frontiers ranging from the rocky highlands of the Silk Road to the aisles of the suburban beauty-supply warehouse where an al-Qaeda trainee bought chemicals to make a bomb. You can't ignore the war, because it can come and find you when you least expect it.

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