Over the last three decades, every American President has attended the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner — until President Donald Trump broke that streak this year. In 2011, the then-President Obama showed up to the annual event and did his usual comedy routine on a Saturday and all seemed pretty normal. However, it wasn’t.
The very next day, an elite team of Navy SEALs raided Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abottabad, Pakistan, killing the most dangerous man in the world, the then leader of the terrorist organization Al Qaeda and the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks.
A Pakistani citizen, Mr. Hussain Jaffri was watching television with his family when he heard the noise of a helicopter swooping low overhead on the night of Operation Blue Spear.
Despite being in the garrison town of Abbottabad, the timing and height of the helicopter seemed unusual. Mr. Jaffri rushed to the roof of his house for a better view of the situation. He saw a helicopter hovering above a compound a few hundred yards away from his house. Much later, he realized that he was a witness to the conclusion of the biggest manhunt in modern history.
Two US Black Hawk helicopters, heavily modified to reduce detection by radar, had crossed over to north-western Pakistan from American bases in Afghanistan after the then American President Barack Obama gave the final approval for Operation Neptune Spear.
They were carrying two dozen commandos from the Team Six unit of the Navy SEALs special forces – an elite unit so secretive that the US authorities have never publicly acknowledged their existence. Two Chinooks carrying back-up forces followed behind. And it all had to happen.
They had been trained for several weeks at a compound with a three-storey building at its heart, resembling the one occupied by Osama Bin Laden.
Their plan to descend into the compound was abandoned when one of the helicopters suffered a technical snag and the pilot was forced to conduct a controlled hard landing, striking a wall on the way down.
Back in the White House control-room, the mishap raised the ghosts of the failures to rescue hostages held at the US Embassy in Tehran in 1980, and the disastrous “Black Hawk Down” 1993 assault in Somalia.
The other helicopter landed safely and all commandos jumped to the ground, accompanied by a translator and a sniffing dog. The men split into smaller teams and one group swept towards a guesthouse. This building was home to the compound’s owner, known locally as Arshad Khan, a Pashtun businessman. Reserved but polite, he would give pet rabbits to local schoolchildren but did not generally encourage visitors. The high perimeter walls outside his compound were necessary because of a bitter family feud, according to him.
The other commandos stormed the main building, killing Tareq Khan on the ground floor and then shooting dead bin Laden’s 20-year-old son Khalid as he rushed down the stairs towards them. Both were unarmed and surprised. A fourth person was also shot dead, although his identity remains unclear as of now. US officials said that it was a woman, believed to be the wife of one of the brothers.
The commandos, equipped with night vision goggles, helmet-mounted video cameras and communications equipment linking them to aircraft overhead, surged upstairs past barricades, blowing up blocked doorways with explosives. Amid the chaos, they got their first sight of their target as he peered out from a doorway. Bin Laden ducked back inside the room as the commandos opened fire.
With bullets flying, a piece of shrapnel then struck his screaming 12-year-old daughter Safia in her foot or ankle. Her mother, Bin Laden’s fourth wife, rushed at the advancing men and was shot in the lower leg. With Bin Laden retreating into the room, two shots to the chest and above the left eye cut him down – a “double tap” in military terminology. He turned out to be unarmed but there was an AK-47 assault rifle and Russian Makarov pistol in the room.
The message “Geronimo EKIA” was relayed to then CIA director Leon Panetta at the agency’s headquarters. He in turn passed the historic message to President Barack Obama and his national security team, who were following events from the White House’s top-security Situation Room.
After 38 mins on the ground, eight minutes longer than expected because of the crashed Black Hawk, they took off. There was an additional “passenger” on the way out, the body of bin Laden. The American forces first took his body to the USS Carl Vinson for DNA tests to confirm a match with members of his extended family. His body was then wrapped in a white shroud and dropped into the Arabian Sea in a weighted bag to ensure his final abode could not become a shrine for extremists.
The Pakistani Army arrived to chaotic scenes in the compound. Three women – all believed to be wives of bin Laden and at least 12 children were left behind. Four bodies were lying in the compound, covered with blood.
For those involved in such historic hunts, the success of Operation Neptune Spear is a picture of the tenacious intelligence work of the Americans.