Welcome to a city of 90,000 people; a lush, touristy suburb situated in the Orash Valley just an hour’s drive north of the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. Sitting at an altitude of 4100 feet, the air is thin and the summers warm. Since colonial times, Abbottabad has been a major transit point to all major tourist regions of Pakistan. In fact, tourism makes up one of the largest portions of the local economy. 

Abbottabad is also the home of the Pakistani Military Academy, referred to by some as the Pakistani West Point. As such, it is also a very popular town for former Pakistani military officials to retire in relative comfort. 

It is also worth noting that Bin Laden, chosen enemy of the West and all things having to do with western culture, chose as his hiding place, a town founded by a British Major, James Abbot, back in 1853. 

It was here in Abbottabad that the CIA tracked a courier down a dirt road to a sprawling hilltop compound eight times larger than any of the other properties in the area. Months earlier, Pakistani operatives working for the U.S. had clandestinely pulled up behind a white Suzuki and took note of its license plate. The unsuspecting driver turned out to be Bin Laden’s most trusted connection to the outside world. 

Immediately, the rush to discover the truth about that compound was on. 

Records and satellite images showed Bin Laden’s house had been built in 2005. Though no one is quite sure yet how long the al-Qaeda leader had been living there, it has been speculated Bin Laden had called this acre-wide fortress home for years while many of his foot soldiers still slept in caves in the harsh terrain of Pakistan’s mountainous border regions. 

The property’s previous owner, a doctor named Qazi Mahfooz Ul Haq, claims he sold it to someone named Mohammed Arshad, a sturdily built man with a soul patch below his lower lip and a thick accent indicating he was from Waziristan. The doctor was told the purchase was for “an uncle.” In total, Arshad purchased four adjoining plots of land for a total of $48,000. 

Neighbors claimed they knew Mohammed Arshad by a different name, Arshad Khan. However, this name was also an alias as Arshad was definitely not who he seemed to be. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, al-Qaeda’s number two in charge and one of the masterminds behind the 9/11 plot along with the murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl, requested Arshad train Maad al-Quhatani, the man who was to have been the 20th hijacker on 9/11. Using an Internet cafe in the middle of Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, Arshad attempted to show al-Quhatani how to communicate with Mohammed Atta, the financier of the 9/11 attacks, and one of the other 19 hijackers, who was already living in the United States. However, Arshad must have been a poor teacher because al-Qahtani raised too many eyebrows among immigration officials and was turned away when he tried to enter the U.S. illegally in Orlando, Florida just 11 days before the attacks. 

Documents from Gitmo also show that Arshad was one of the men who was with Bin Laden in Tora Bora before he escaped in December 2001. 

This man, who neighbors knew as Arshad, was an al-Qaeda operative of great importance who the al-Qaeda leader trusted with his life. Ultimately, it would be Arshad’s white Suzuki that would help the U.S. to pinpoint the whereabouts of Bin Laden in August of 2010.

However, the exact trail that led to Arshad began years earlier. During questioning of al-Qaeda “high value” detainees held inside a secret CIA black prison deep inside Eastern Europe, one tiny detail emerged. Months after being put through waterboarding, a form of what Bush-era intelligence personnel called “enhanced interrogation techniques” and some others describe as “torture,” KSM himself gave up the nicknames of several of Bin Laden’s couriers. 

Just nicknames, nothing more. 

One of those nicknames in particular, “al-Kuwaiti,” became of great interest to the CIA upon being mentioned again in 2004 by Hassan Ghul, a top al-Qaeda operative who had been arrested in Iraq. Ghul told authorities that al-Kuwaiti was indeed someone crucial to the terrorist organization and was close to al-Qaeda’s Director of Operations, Abu Faraj al-Libi. 

The following year, U.S. agents intercepted a cell phone call made by al-Libbi that allowed them to pinpoint his location on the outskirts of Mardan, some 70 miles northwest of Islamabad. Pakistani authorities were tipped off. They ambushed al-Libi, who had been riding with a driver on a motorbike, and apprehended him, even as he tried in vain to destroy a coded notebook he had been carrying.  

Under interrogation, Abu Faraj al-Libi, claimed that when he was promoted to succeed KSM as al-Qaeda's operational leader, the order came via courier. U.S. Intelligence officials speculated that a promotion of such magnitude could only have been given to al-Libi by the man in charge, Osama Bin Laden. 

This courier was how Bin Laden maintained contact with the outside world. The problem was figuring out the true identity of the one man who could lead them to their target. 

With still only a nickname to go with, the lead appeared to be akin to finding a needle in a haystack. 

Again, they went back to the data. There had to be something. 

Using years of raw intelligence work, in 2007 U.S. Intelligence eventually deduced that the courier was Sheikh Abu Ahmed, a Pakistani man born in Kuwait. Problem was, Ahmed was nowhere to be found and nobody on the U.S. Intelligence payroll could ascertain where this mid-level al-Qaeda operative may be hiding. While being questioned about Ahmed’s whereabouts, one Gitmo detainee claimed Ahmed had suffered fatal wounds fleeing U.S. military forces in Afghanistan and later died in his arms. A claim that, of course, proved to be yet another lie told under the duress of enhanced interrogation. 

It was two years later, only after a U.S. wiretap on a known al-Qaeda member turned up a conversation with Ahmed that the trail finally picked up again. With this one phone call, U.S. Intelligence now knew the geographic location where Ahmed and his brother, also an al-Qaeda courier, were operating. Once Amad’s license plate had been tagged by the CIA, constant surveillance was placed on him. Investigators crossed their fingers and hoped Ahmed would lead them to paydirt. 

For months, they waited and watched, using drones, satellites and surveillance on the ground. Finally the breakthrough they had been hoping for arrived as they tracked Ahmed right to the front door of the Abbottabad compound he purchased under the name of Mohammed Arshad. 

CIA analysts began to comb through intelligence reports and satellite photos of the peculiar house to ascertain the identities of those inside. This place was far too large and too extravagant to be housing just a lowly courier. 

One thing quickly stood out. Despite its location in what is regarded as an affluent community, and a property value of over $1 million, the home had neither an Internet nor a telephone connection. 

Another odd thing noted by surveillance of the property was that all the household trash was being routinely burned. A small detail that probably wouldn’t have seemed so darned suspicious if it hadn’t been for the fact that everyone else in the neighborhood just put their trash by the curb. 

Investigators wondered, was it a safehouse? And if so, for whom? 

Certain odd physical details about the residence, including a seven-foot tall privacy wall obscuring a third-floor balcony from view, pointed toward the house being used to hide someone. Someone say like, Osama Bin Laden who measured at least 6’ 4” in height. 

The Abbottabad compound was fishier than week old trout and the CIA began licking its lips over what it had found through good old-fashioned detective work. There could be little doubt from the circumstantial evidence that, at the very least, they had discovered another extremely high-value al-Qaeda target. How high up the wanted-terrorist food chain though, was still anyone’s guess. 

Aerial surveillance was called in. An array of unmanned drones and satellites kept a watchful eye 24 hours a day, tracking who was coming in and out. Those feeds were then continuously downloaded to an Air Force ground station at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, where even more analysts pored over the data and streamed it live to intelligence officers with the National Counterterrorism Center.

The NCTC, housed in an office complex just across the Potomac River from Washington D.C., worked with the military’s Joint Special Operations Command Targeting and Analysis Center, and with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to develop several four-dimensional renderings of the compound. They scanned over every photo, every frame of video, to create a profile of who was living there and what their daily patterns were. 

What was later discovered about the compound was that it had been designed and built with deception in mind. Barricades and false walls on every floor were created to bewilder potential intruders. A door, masquerading as the main entrance of the complex, opened only to brick wall.

By September, the CIA began operating under the assumption of a “strong possibility” that hiding inside this mini fortress was none other than Osama Bin Laden himself. 

Though many more months of intelligence work would follow to ascertain the exact identity of the high-value al-Qaeda target located in the compound, the CIA meticulously ran and reran the raw data trying to decode the mystery of the Abbottabad house. There had been little doubt from the beginning that the compound was built to protect a major terrorist figure. Surveillance revealed two families living there but it was satellite images that depicted a third group, one whose size and makeup matched the Bin Laden family. 

Senior intelligence officials pegged the chances of this being their man at 50 percent at best. 

By February 2011, this intelligence along with that culled from multiple sources including those from CIA “red teams” on the ground, made the picture clear enough to President Obama. The Commander-in-Chief decided an aggressive course of action would indeed be required to bring down this most-hated enemy of all Americans everywhere. 

At first, the plan to kill Bin Laden involved targeting him through an air strike on the compound. Two B-2 stealth bombers would drop a few dozen one-ton JDAMs (Joint Direct Attack Munitions) reducing the compound to little more than a pile of rubble inside a gaping crater. However, President Obama was wary of this idea, fearing that all the evidence inside would be destroyed as well as their ability to positively identify their man. Notwithstanding, the potential for collateral damage was high given the 22 people cited living inside the compound, including women and children. Bin Laden had been responsible for enough innocent casualties. It was the President’s desire that no non-combatants were harmed unnecessarily. 

However, it would be wrong to categorize this reticence to pull the trigger at first sight as a failure to act on Obama’s part. The intel being received was constantly being revised until the White House was certain they could execute a flawless attack. Predator drone strikes on the target, like the ones used to take out al-Qaeda operatives Abu Lais al-Libi back in 2008 and Mustafa Al Yazid just months earlier in May 2010, were also quickly ruled out. This was an operation that would require pinpoint accuracy and Obama wanted Bin Laden to face his killers and look them in the eye.

The President and his team then asked the mission be revised to allow for a Special Forces unit to enter the compound by helicopter. Obama instructed CIA Director and Obama nominee for Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta to proceed under Title 50, meaning this would be the most tight-lipped of covert operation with zero margin for error. Only one team of elite warriors could handle a job of this magnitude; the Joint Special Operations Command or JSOC. 

Based out of Pope Air Force Base and Fort Bragg in North Carolina, and established in 1980 after the devastating failure of U.S. Special Forces to rescue American hostages being held captive at the Iranian embassy during Operation Eagle Claw, JSOC is made up of a highly classified, handpicked group that can only be described as the “best of the best.” Among them are the top U.S. Army’s Rangers and Delta Force, Naval Special Warfare Development Group and 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, a.k.a. the “Night Stalkers.” These are the soldiers tasked with performing counterterrorism strike operations and reconnaissance in hostile territory often far behind enemy lines. What in military jargon is often referred to as “denied areas.”

These are the men who refuse to be denied. 

A duty that requires the constant risk to one’s life without recognition for one’s work, all for the pitiful salary of about $54 thousand dollars. That, my friends, is less than the average schoolteacher earns in a year. 

It would be up to a team of Navy SEALS to “find, fix and finish” (intelligence community shorthand for a black bag op) Bin Laden in a highly effective and ruthless surgical strike worthy of any summer tentpole blockbuster spy movie. However, Jack Ryan or Jack Bauer this is not.

Originally known as SEAL Team Six, the United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DevGru) would be the ones who to bring Osama Bin Laden to justice. Like its ops undertaken in hostile territory, the details of DevGru are kept highly secret. All potential members are subjected to grueling training at the Naval Special Warfare Center (NSWC), Coronado, California. Graduates of Basic Underwater Demolition School/SEAL (BUD/S) where a 25-week curriculum pushes each candidate to the brink of their mental, physical and emotional endurance. Beyond just becoming a SEAL, DevGru candidates receive advanced instruction in counterterrorism techniques and explosive ordinance disposal before undergoing a rigorous selection process. 

Still there were those among the senior White House staff who believed that bombing the compound was their best bet to get Bin Laden. Known to only stay in one place for short periods of time, the concern was great that if they didn’t act quickly, they could lose the al-Qaeda leader to the wind yet again. 

However, Obama was undeterred. Navy SEALs had rescued American freighter captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates back in April of 2009. Held openly in a boat with an AK-47 barre pressed to the back of his head for five days, Phillips’ captors were all killed simultaneously by SEAL sharpshooters firing from over 100 feet away on rolling seas. 

Three shots, each one piercing the skull of a different Somali pirate in perfect sync. 

Obama had all the confidence a surgical strike could be executed. The decision was risky. At home, the President had not endeared himself to those who pointedly repeated the criticism that he had been softer on terror than his predecessor. This would be the biggest decision of his term so far. If this mission failed, he would wear the stigma for the remainder of history, much like Jimmy Carter had for the failure to rescue those American Embassy hostages in Iran.

Under orders from the Commander in Chief, JSOC would begin training for a surgical black bag mission. A strike team of special operators was assembled. As soon as they were given the name of their intended target and told that their job was to kill him, a cheer broke out from everyone in the room. 

A replica of the one-acre compound was built at Camp Alpha, a segregated section of Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Dress rehearsals for this most secret of covert missions began in early April. For two weeks, DevGru practiced two to three times a night, dropping into what would possibly be a very dangerous situation, not knowing exactly what would be waiting for them when they got there, or if their mission would result in success or death. 

Back home, Obama’s team reiterated this was in no way a slam dunk. The President pondered the possible worst-case scenarios: civilian casualties, a hostage situation, worsening our already tenuous relationship with Pakistan whom it seemed like was an ally now in name-only.  

Three options were put forth on the table: wait and gather more intel, attack from the ground or strike from the air. There was no consensus. John Brennan, the President’s senior counter-terrorism adviser, made it known he favored an immediate ground strike. The room was divided down the middle. 

Obama told his advisors he would sleep on it. The next morning, Friday April 29, at 8:20 a.m., before leaving on a busy day of travel with three stops in two states, the President gave the final go-ahead to eliminate Osama Bin Laden.