In Depth

Death of Osama Bin Laden: how the raid unfolded

The al-Qa’eda founder was killed in a controversial raid by by US intelligence services eight years ago this week

On 2 May 2011, Barack Obama made a televised statement from the White House in which he announced that Osama bin Laden had been located and killed by US navy Seals. 

“Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qa’eda, and a terrorist who was responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children,” the then-president said.

The death of the world’s most wanted terrorist at a remote compound in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad “sent an unmistakable message that the US will wreak vengeance on those who attack it, no matter how long it takes or how far it has to go”, according to CNN.

The CIA website says that bin Laden had been a “key focus” of intelligence services since the 1990s, but became almost impossible to track after going into hiding following the 9/11 attacks, which he is believed to have orchestrated. 

The breakthrough came when US intelligence linked a “kunya”, an operational pseudonym, associated with bin Laden to a compound 35 miles north of Islamabad.

The CIA reports that upon further investigation, the complex was found to have “security features unusual for the area”, including “high walls topped with barbed wire, double entry gates, opaque windows, no apparent internet or telephone connections, and all trash was burned rather than collected”.

A subsequent surveillance operation led Washington to conclude that bin Laden, who topped the US Most Wanted list, was hiding in the house - triggering preparations for a midnight raid on the compound. Here’s a rundown of how that fateful evening unfolded:

29 April

8:20 US Eastern Daylight Time (EDT)

President Obama gives the go-ahead for Operation Neptune Spear, the code name for the raid on the Abbottabad compound. The operation, which had been carefully planned in the preceding months, is scheduled to take place on the evening of the following day.

15:00 EDT

National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon, who was present when the president approved the raid, convenes a meeting of his team to finalise the plans, NPR reports.

Obama is informed later that evening that poor weather conditions in northern Pakistan mean the operation will be delayed by a day.

1 May

13:25 EDT (22:25 Pakistan Time PKT)

Obama, along with other top officials, formally approves the launch of Operation Neptune Spear.

22:51 PKT

Two stealth Black Hawk helicopters take off from Jalalabad in neighbouring Afghanistan, carrying a group of 25 Navy Seals. The helicopters, code-named Chalk 1 and Chalk 2, “flew under cover of darkness and at stealth altitude to avoid Pakistan’s radar systems”, reports story mapping site Arcgis

2 May

00:30 PKT

The two helicopters descend on the compound in Abbottabad. One clips its tail rotor on the compound walls, causing it to crash. Although the helicopter is badly damaged, nobody on board is injured and the raid continues as planned.

Shortly after, the Seals enter the compound.

00:39 PKT

A man believed to be bin Laden is located on the third floor of the house. Reports differ as to the exact circumstances of his death, but later photographs show that he was shot multiple times, including a fatal shot above his left eye.

History.com reports that during the operation, “three other men (including one of bin Laden’s sons) and a woman in the compound are also killed”.

00:53 PKT

President Obama, watching the raid unfold in the White House Situation Room, receives tentative confirmation that a man identified as bin Laden has been killed.

Two minutes later, the soldiers move bin Laden’s body to the first floor of the house in the compound and place it in a body bag for removal.

01:10 PKT

Following a sweep of the compound for intelligence, including a search of bin Laden’s computer hard drive, the undamaged helicopter takes off with bin Laden’s body and some of the Seals on board.

The remaining operatives blow up the crashed helicopter, to destroy the confidential stealth technology on board. Five minutes later, a backup helicopter scoops up the remaining team members and leaves the area. The raid ends.

Despite being the culmination of years of calculated planning and training, the entire raid has taken just 40 minutes from start to finish.

02:53 PKT

The team touches down in Afghanistan, formally bringing Operation Neptune Spear to a close.

04:01 PKT (19:01 EDT 1 May)

Obama is informed that there is a “high probability” that the dead target is bin Laden. The president receives several more briefings over the coming hours.

23:35 EDT

Obama addresses the US in a televised address from the White House.

“A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability,” he said. “No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.”

00:59 EDT (09:59 PKT)

The body of bin Laden is wrapped in a white sheet and placed in a weighted plastic bag before being dumped into the northern Arabian Sea by members of the US armed forces.

This burial proved controversial. Although bin Laden’s body was disposed of within 24 hours of his death in accordance with Islamic custom, many Islamic scholars protested that burials at sea are not usually permitted for Muslims.

However, the US government later clarified that it buried bin Laden at sea because no country would accept his remains for a land burial. These countries included his home nation of Saudi Arabia, whose government approved the sea burial when contacted shortly before the disposal of the body, according to CBS News

20:00 PKT

DNA evidence confirms that the dead body was that of bin Laden. However, this did not prevent the emergence of outlandish online accusations that the operation had not actually taken place.

For years following the operation, the killing of bin Laden would remain a topic of debate among international observers. From a diplomatic perspective, the extrajudicial killing of a foreign national on Pakistani soil prompted concerns that the US had violated international law.

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