Home > Osama bin Laden death: How family scene in compound turned to carnage
Osama bin Laden death: How family scene in compound turned to carnageby Open-Publishing - Sunday 8 May 2011
by Robert Booth, Saeed Shah in Abbottabad and Jason Burke in Delhi
Osama bin Laden’s daughter cradled the head of her wounded mother in the room where the al-Qaida leader had just been killed.
"I am Saudi," she told Pakistani security officials shortly after US special forces had flown away with the terrorist’s bloodied body. "Osama bin Laden is my father."
The 12-year-old had herself been injured by a piece of flying debris in her foot or ankle during the night-time raid on Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, northern Pakistan, but she was comforting her father’s fifth wife, Amal Ahmed al-Sadah, 29, who was shot in the calf by commandos as they closed in on Bin Laden.
The woman lay quietly, her head in the girl’s lap, though she seemed conscious, the officials told the Guardian. Across the room stood another woman, hands tied behind her back and mouth taped, aged around 30 and initially identified as a Yemeni doctor for Bin Laden’s wife and children.
The scene after Bin Laden’s death emerged amid graphic new details about Monday’s raid, which now seems to be far more one-sided than US officials previously claimed. On Thursday it emerged that far from there being a sustained "firefight" in the compound, as senior White House officials had said, the Navy Seals drew fire from only one al-Qaida gunman and quickly killed him. Thereafter their progress to their target was largely unopposed. Graphic pictures also circulated of three dead men covered in blood, two in white salwar kameez and one in a white T-shirt, taken by Pakistani officials shortly after dawn. One appeared to be lying on top of a child’s bright green waterpistol.
The soldiers left four dead bodies, survivors bound with plastic ties and women and children injured.
The raid had begun on a moonless night, as highly modified "stealth" helicopters designed to avoid detection flew in secret through Pakistan airspace across the farmlands of the Orash valley towards their target.
On board were special forces soldiers from the Navy Seal Team 6 battle group whom Barack Obama had entrusted with taking on the world’s most wanted man face to face. The US president had eschewed a missile strike in favour of this kill-or-capture mission after US intelligence had discovered that the compound 35 miles from Islamabad ringed with 12- to 18-foot high walls. It was home to a Pakistani called Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, Bin Laden’s most trusted courier whose identity had been discovered by the US four years earlier after he was identified by detainees as a protege of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, alleged to be al-Qaida’s main architect of the 9/11 attacks.
Kuwaiti lived with his family in the complex’s guesthouse, divided from the main house by a high wall. Another family, including Kuwaiti’s brother, who was the co-owner of the complex, lived on the first floor of the main house with further women and children. Bin Laden was thought to be living with his fifth wife and some of his children on the second and third floors behind translucent windows. All in all, at the time of the raid the compound was inhabited by eight or nine children aged from two to 12, three women and at least four men.
Pakistani security officials arriving at the scene after the US raid found a spartan house. Each bedroom not only had an attached bathroom, which is common here, but also its own kitchen, an unusual feature that would have allowed its occupants to live independently in each bedroom. In a photograph, seen by the Guardian, of one of the bathrooms on the first floor there is a chair with the middle removed, which seemed to have been designed to allow a sick or elderly person to sit on the toilet more easily. Security officials speculated this may have ben the bedroom of Bin Laden, who has suffered for many years with kidney trouble.
Another room on the first floor was used as a classroom, with a whiteboard and numerous pieces of paper featuring Arabic writing, as well as children’s textbooks. Neighbours say that none of the children living at the house went to school. The foodstuffs found in the house also suggested a simple diet, consisting of dates, olive oil, walnuts, dried meat and eggs.
As the raid commenced, the US soldiers were divided by their commanders into two groups. Immediately they ran into trouble with one of the helicopters crashing to the ground on landing, but the commandos managed to get out and press on to their targets. The first group storming the smaller guesthouse met the sternest resistance and, it is now clear, the only hostile gunfire of the whole operation. Kuwaiti opened fire from behind the door of the guesthouse, and the troops returned fire, killing him and his wife, according to reports sourced to a US government official. According to both the New York Times and the Associated Press on Thursday, this was the only incoming fire the commandos received during the entire raid.
The second group poured into the main house before working their way, clearing room by room, up to Bin Laden’s quarters. Kuwaiti’s brother was killed as he prepared to fire a gun and as the troops moved to ascend the stairs to the second and third floors, they killed a fourth person, thought to be Bin Laden’s adult son Hamza as he "lunged" towards them, according to the New York Times report. One of the photographs released of a young unidentified man with a light beard lying in a pool of dark blood bears a resemblance to Bin Laden.
While ascending to Bin Laden’s quarters, the Seals were confronted with a family scene that soon turned to carnage. The terrorist’s daughter was immediately injured by a piece of shrapnel or flying debris to her ankle or foot, according to Pakistan intelligence, suggesting the commandos may have thrown in a grenade before entering the room. Other reports had the soldiers shooting through the door, which could have sent material flying round the room to the same effect. Either way, they were proceeding with great force. Once inside the room Bin Laden’s wife rushed towards one of the commandos as he entered the room and was shot in the calf.
Then they finally came to Bin Laden himself, who the White House eventually admitted was "unarmed", after initially saying he opened fire. Officials have since said that he in fact had two Russian made firearms within reach – an AK-47 assault rifle, most likely his personal short-barrelled version which Bin Laden supposedly seized from a Soviet general in 1987. The second weapon was a Makarov pistol.
Leon Panetta, the CIA director who was following the raid in real time from America, said on Tuesday that Bin Laden made "some threatening moves that … represented a clear threat to our guys. And that’s the reason they fired."
Whatever he did, the Seal unit opened fire and Bin Laden was hit once in the chest and once in the head.
There were unconfirmed reports that Bin Laden was shot through the left eye and it is likely the troops would have used low velocity ammunition, which does not pass through bodies. Such rounds prevent ricochets but cause messy wounds. A White House official described the image on Bin Laden as "gruesome" and said that it would not be released.
With the clock ticking and concerns that the Pakistani military may be scrambling aircraft to intercept the top-secret raid, the US troops now had to move quickly. A "treasure trove" of computers, CDs, data sticks, DVDs and paperwork was quickly pulled together to provide intelligence. They lugged out about 100 thumb drives, DVDs and computer disks, along with 10 computer hard drives and five computers to be pored over by computer forensic experts and intelligence officers for evidence of future plots and clues to the shape of the organisation Bin Laden was leaving behind.
They took survivors to a safe part of the compound so they weren’t hurt when the wrecked helicopter was blown up. They picked up the bloodied bodies of Bin Laden and his son and flew into the night, back to Afghanistan. They were out of sight by the time the first Pakistani officials arrived shortly afterwards to find four dead bodies – including an unnamed man thought perhaps to have been a guard or household retainer – and the bound survivors in reportedly hysterical mood. Several were injured, though only two seriously.
The police were first to arrive on the scene after the Americans left, followed by the military and then the ISI intelligence agency. There were communication problems at first as none of the Pakistanis spoke Arabic.
Back at the US military base in Afghanistan, comparison with pictures gave US intelligence officers a 95% certainty they had got Bin Laden, and a DNA check against family members gave a "virtually 100% DNA match", White House officials said.
By 11am on Monday, Bin Laden’s body had been wrapped in a white sheet, placed in a weighted bag, and eased off a flat board from the deck of the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier into the waves of the North Arabian Sea.
The US decided not to release images of Bin Laden’s body for fear of inciting additional violence or its use as a propaganda tool. But President Barack Obama put it simply in a TV interview broadcast on Thursday: "The fact of the matter is you will not see Bin Laden walking on this earth again."
• This article was amended on 6 May 2011. The fourth paragraph originally stated that the bound and gagged woman was possibly Bin Laden’s doctor from Yemen. This has been corrected, as has a reference to windows being opaque. The text has also been updated to include a reference to one of the dead, possibly a guard or household retainer; mention of this person was accidentally dropped from the original story.