PESHAWAR: Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed along with his son and three bodyguards in a helicopter assault on a mansion in the northern city of Abbottabad late Sunday night to bring to an end the biggest-ever manhunt by the United States.
Reports suggest that Bin Laden was shot dead with a single bullet to his head when he resisted capture, but an official indicated that the 54-year-old mastermind of the biggest and most devastating attack on US soil might have been killed by one of his own guards in line with his will to avert his capture.
“From the scene of the gunbattle it doesn’t look like he could have been killed at point blank range from such a close angle, while offering resistance,” said an official, who visited the scene of the night assault soon after the departure of the US assault team from the sprawling compound in Thanda Choa, now called Bilal Town, at stone’s throw from Pakistan Military Academy, Kakul.
Details are sketchy about the circumstances leading to the raid on the living quarters inside the large compound surrounded by unusually high walls and fences, but background discussions with government and security officials do help in reconstructing the high drama that culminated in the death of America’s most wanted man.
These officials tell Dawn that helicopters were hovering over the area at around half past midnight and it took the US assault team of 25 Navy SEALs and CIA hitmen about 40 minutes to “clear the area” and take away the body of the man they had been hunting for nearly a decade.
One of the two helicopters involved in the assault went down during action and one official who visited the scene said there was no evidence to suggest that it might have been hit by a rocket or shot from the ground.
“There was no evidence of the helicopter having been shot down,” the official said. “From the wreckage it appears to be more a case of a crash,” he said.
But he said the one loud explosion heard during the gunbattle might have been caused by the departing assault team which bombed the chopper into pieces after retrieving their men and completing their mission.
The body of one of Bin Laden’s guards, whom the official described as either an Afghan or a tribesman, was lying in the compound.
Bodies of Bin Laden’s two other guards were found in the living quarters, the official said. Interestingly, the US assault team took away Bin Laden’s body, leaving behind a number of women and children.
Officials said that one of those killed was Osama’s son.
This has shattered the long-held belief and myth that the Al Qaeda leader was surrounded by a group of heavily-armed diehard fighters.
Bin Laden’s two wives, both in their early 50s and one of them of Yemeni origin, were among those left behind, the official said. A third woman, who was wounded in the late-night attack, was taken to a military hospital.
The official said that a total of nine children were also seized from the compound. They are said to be boys and girls aged between 2 and 12 years.
Among the children, the official said, one was Bin Laden’s 11-year-old daughter. The women and children are now in the custody of Pakistan’s security agencies and a senior security official said that those rounded up would be subjected to interrogation to reach to the bottom of the whole story.
“We would want to know the whole story. How and when did the entire band come to this part of the region? Where was Bin Laden all these years? And was he actually there when the assault took place?” the official said. “There are a whole set of questions which need to be answered,” he said.
“One of the women who spoke a smattering of English said they had moved to the compound a few months ago,” the official said. “But we would want to know how did they come to this place,” he said.
The compound known as Waziristan Haveli among the locals, said a local resident, was owned by a transporter from Waziristan.
“The Waziristanis were good people. They used to socialise with the local community, attend their weddings and funerals,” the resident said. “But nobody had a clue to the presence of Osama and his family there,” Jehanzeb Jadoon said.
But even by the local standards, Jadoon said, the forewalls were 15 to 20 feet high with barbed wire. “This was unusual for a place like Abbottabad,” the official concurred.
But a security official said that the Waziristani transporters’ connection could give them clues as to how the Bin Ladens managed to travel all the way to this place. Security agencies have now launched search for the Waziristani owner of the sprawling compound, adjacent to an agricultural land that provides the shortest route to the nearby military academy.
The mansion was built some five years ago, Jadoon said and the official acknowledged that it might have been built close to a high security zone to protect it from the prying eyes of foreign intelligence operatives and electronic surveillance and predator drones.
This would make sense, an analyst said. “Osama was known to suffer from kidney ailment and was always in need of dialysis,” the analyst said. “But that he would live a quiet family life with his wives and children, away from the rugged hot-zones of the tribal regions, in a picturesque and scenic place like Abbottabad was beyond anybody’s imaginations.”