TARGET: Bin Laden – The Death and Life of Public Enemy Number One

Exclusive excerpt from new ABC Enhanced eBook on Osama bin Laden

ByABC News
June 7, 2011, 6:29 PM

June 9, 2011— -- Just weeks after the U.S. took down Osama bin Laden, ABC News has released a new video eBook diving deep into the story of the mission, bin Laden's rise to power, the impact of his acts of terrorism on the U.S. and the world, and the future of al Qaeda.

"TARGET: Bin Laden – The Death and Life of Public Enemy Number One," by ABC News' Terry Moran, Martha Raddatz, Nick Schifrin, Brian Ross and Jake Tapper, is available for sale on the iBooks, Kindle and Nook eBook stores.

What follows is an exclusive excerpt from "TARGET: Bin Laden," a complete chapter by ABC News' Chief White House Correspondent Jake Tapper.

Chapter Six: The President Takes Aim

By Jake Tapper

There's a third family living in the compound, the CIA director told the president. And we think it could be the bin Ladens.

President Obama took in this news.

This was, potentially, huge. It was certainly the U.S. government's best lead on Osama bin Laden since 2001, when the terrorist leader had eluded U.S. troops in the mountains of Tora Bora. That was more than nine years ago.

President Obama was sitting in the Oval Office with CIA Director Leon Panetta, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan, and other members of his national security team. They were following up on a lead Panetta first shared with the president in August: after years of hunting, the agency had finally located a man called Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, thought to be bin Laden's favorite courier.

Al-Kuwaiti had received a phone call captured by intelligence agencies, one that must have seemed benign enough at the time. It was a friend of al-Kuwaiti's, calling to catch up. What was he up to?

"I'm back with the people I was with before," Al-Kuwaiti said.

That call allowed intelligence agents to trace al-Kuwaiti back to a compound in Pakistan. And this was where it got even more interesting.

Al-Kuwaiti's home was like a fortress, Panetta told the president, with highly unusual security features. Twelve- to-eighteen-foot walls surrounded the compound and a seven-foot wall blocked any view of the third-floor terrace. He said the agency would work to find out more.

They did.

CIA officers figured out that in addition to al-Kuwaiti, his wife, and children, and al-Kuwaiti's brother and family, a third family was skulking about, an "unaccounted for" family. Who were they? Why did they never leave the house? Why would they need a seven-foot wall on the terrace of the third floor?

The sketchy information they had about this third family matched one of the scenarios analysts had described for bin Laden, that he was living with his youngest wife, Amal Ahmed Abdel-Fatah al-Sada.

The president heard the information and told Panetta not only to keep gathering intelligence, but to start preparing options for what the CIA and the U.S. military could do if they were to become more certain bin Laden was at the compound in Abbottabad. He wanted to act. He wanted bin Laden dead.

As a presidential candidate, then-freshman Senator Barack Obama had told voters that President Bush had taken his eye off the ball by sending troops to Iraq. He said he'd send more troops to Afghanistan.

He put Pakistan on notice, saying in August 2007: "There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again...If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and (then-Pakistani) President Musharraf won't act, we will."

At the time, Obama's speech, delivered at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., seemed to many observers to be simply an attempt at deflection by a young senator criticized by rivals like then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY, as naive and potentially too soft on America's enemies. It was unclear how many of Obama's supporters even bought it when, in a debate with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in October 2008, Obama promised voters "we will kill bin Laden. We will crush al Qaeda. That has to be our biggest national security priority."

The reality was that all leads had gone cold long ago, and such a promise seemed foolish to many in the intelligence community. And after winning, the president had changed his tune, down-playing the importance of bin Laden, the individual.

"My preference obviously would be to capture or kill [bin Laden]," he said, shortly before taking office in January 2009. "But if we have so tightened the noose that he's in a cave somewhere and can't even communicate with his operatives then we will meet our goal of protecting America."

That wasn't how the president actually felt, but it was the public posture he took. Truth was, the U.S. government had no idea where bin Laden was, whether he was in a cave or a palace, whether he was cut off or in full operational control of al Qaeda and its many affiliates.

In the Oval Office in spring 2009, the president told his top intelligence officials that the U.S. needed to kill bin Laden, that al Qaeda could never be truly defeated if its iconic leader continued to elude the United States. The nation needed the closure bin Laden's death would provide.

"We need to redouble our efforts in hunting bin Laden down," the president said. "I want us to start putting more resources, more focus and more urgency into that mission."

On June 2, 2009, he sent a memo to Panetta stating "in order to ensure that we have expended every effort, I direct you to provide me within 30 days a detailed operation plan for locating and bringing to justice Usama Bin Ladin…"

Now, a year-and-a-half later, the president did not mince words in a December 2010 meeting."Even as you guys are building a stronger intelligence case, let's also start building an action plan," he told his national security team. "If we've got a good chance that this is him, we need to figure out what we do about that."

This was no easy puzzle. If this unknown person on the third floor of this compound was bin Laden, he was living deep in Pakistan, 100 miles inside the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, only about 40 miles from Islamabad, the nation's capital.

In January, the team reached out to Navy Vice Admiral William McRaven, commander of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), to talk about possible scenarios. The Pentagon and CIA huddled. One Friday night on February 25, a bunch of big guns came to Langley -- McRaven, Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Mike Vickers, General James "Hoss" Cartwright, vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- to go over the intelligence about the compound and to discuss a few potential courses of action.

Analysts arrived at two conclusions: First, the courier was harboring a high-value target (HVT) in Abbottabad Compound One, or "AC1." Second, there was a strong probability that the HVT was Osama bin Laden, code name "Cakebread."

But the case was completely circumstantial.

Could the HVT have been al Qaeda's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, or Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Omar? Could the compound have been shielding members of bin Laden's family, but not bin Laden himself? Could al-Kuwaiti have been harboring just some drug syndicate crime boss hiding from the law?

There was no history of al-Kuwaiti and his brother working for anyone else. But officials from the CIA, still nursing wounds from intelligence failures surrounding both 9/11 and the lack of weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq, wanted to be sure that their analysis was as clean and intellectually rigorous as possible. They ordered a "red team" analysis, essentially giving the case to a group of analysts who knew nothing about it and asking them to poke holes in it.

In early March, Donilon and others on the National Security staff pushed the intelligence officials even further. They needed more information about why they were becoming so convinced bin Laden was in the compound, more paper on the links between al-Kuwaiti and bin Laden.

On March 14, the national security team arrived at essentially two basic courses of action to present to President Obama.

The first option would have two B-2 stealth bombers dropping a few dozen 2,000-pound GPS-guided bombs on the compound.

The second option was a Special Forces-led helicopter assault on the compound.There were a few other options and variations of these two plans.

President Obama aggressively challenged the plans. What were the advantages of the B-2 strike?

The B-2 strike provided the strongest guarantee that bin Laden would not escape, and that there wouldn't be any U.S. casualties. The B-2s would be launched by the 509th Bombing Wing from Whiteman Air Base, located seventy miles outside of Kansas City, Missouri.

What were the disadvantages?

To make sure bin Laden wasn't able to walk away from the attack, so much ordnance -- tens of thousands of pounds -- would be dropped on the compound, reducing it to rubble. So not only would all twenty-two individuals in the compound be killed -- including the women and children -- but it was likely the blast effects would hit surrounding houses, killing innocent Pakistanis who had no idea bin Laden was there.

What about the heliborne assault by Special Forces?

This was an even riskier option, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates was perhaps its leading skeptic. Sending U.S. troops into Pakistan was a big risk, and doing so on helicopters wasn't a reassuring prospect. He made it clear he had serious reservations about any long-range helicopter insertion.

Looming large in the secretary of defense's mind was Operation Eagle Claw, the ill-fated April 1980 mission to rescue fifty-three U.S. hostages in Iran, during which a U.S. helicopter collided with a transport plane, killing eight crewmen. And, of course, he also thought of Operation Gothic Serpent, the 1993 mission to capture Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid in Mogadishu. That mission resulted in two U.S. helicopters being shot down and eighteen U.S. troops being killed, now unfortunately better known for its failure: "Black Hawk Down."

No one disagreed that sending Special Forces in by helicopter was clearly a riskier option for the U.S. The helicopters could be detected coming in. Bin Laden might be warned a few minutes out, and he could go into a hole, escape, set off a suicide vest, set a booby-trap bomb, prepare for a firefight.

To many at the meeting that day, President Obama seemed to be favoring the B-2 strike. He told his team they need to prepare, to act "with urgency" and "with haste." He wasn't going to make a decision at this meeting, but a decision was coming soon.

There remained another big decision for the president to make: whether the U.S. should conduct the raid bilaterally with the Pakistanis.

This would be a gamble. The relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan was not built on trust. For years the CIA had been conducting attacks on targets in Pakistan using unmanned predator drones, with the agreement that the U.S. would give the Pakistani government prior notice. After too many incidents where the targets had been tipped off, probably by components of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the U.S. government changed the policy to notification "concurrent with" the drone attack.

How could U.S. officials trust the Pakistanis with prior information about an attack on a much higher value target -- the highest value -- if they couldn't even trust them with information about some mid-level thug?

On the other hand, this was an operation that would be conducted far within the borders of a sovereign nation. And the U.S. and Pakistanis have conducted successful joint operations before, most notably the March 28, 2002, capture of Abu Zubaydah in Faisalabad, Pakistan, and the March 1, 2003, capture of the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.

It could be done.

Theoretically, the president was told, the U.S. could try to force Pakistani General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani to join the operation with the U.S. Kayani would be approached the morning of the attack, informed about the information on bin Laden and given twelve-to-twenty-four hours to join forces with the U.S., the president was told. Pakistan would only be asked to cordon off the area.After all, it wasn't as if the Pakistanis wouldn't know about the mission, especially if the president opted for the heliborne assault. Abbottabad is home to the Pakistan Military Academy and hundreds, if not thousands, of retired military officers. They would see the helicopters, and if there was a firefight, they would hear it. With a Pakistani buy-in, there would be no risk of retaliation.

The president said it would be great if we could trust another country with this and proceed with the raid bilaterally.

But, he then said, I don't think we can trust any other country.

Two weeks later, on March 29, President Obama called his team together again to walk through the two options, again.

The president had a pointed question at this meeting: If they proceeded with the B-2 option, would the U.S. be able to find bin Laden's body in the rubble? Would they be able to confirm that they had killed him? Would they be able to provide proof of his death to the world?

No, he was told. The attack would reduce the whole compound to rocks. There would be the remote possibility that the U.S. could send someone to the compound to kick through the rubble and look for traces of flesh or hair, but with twenty-two people at the compound the U.S. would have no real idea of what they were getting, and they certainly would not have a body to produce.

This is a problem, the president thought: we need to be able to know we definitely got the guy. We need to be able to exploit potential information in the compound. And we need to try to minimize collateral damage since this is a residential neighborhood.

He put McRaven through the paces on the heliborne assault proposal. How much time was needed to get the surgical strike going? How quickly could the team move? What would the Special Forces soldiers do if the compound has a safe room? What if bin Laden isn't there? How would you get bin Laden out?

McRaven answered every question as best he could.

We really ought to think harder about the helicopter option, as risky as it is, the president finally said.

The B-2 option had been removed from the table.

The president told McRaven to come back to him by April 18 with a more fully-fleshed out plan for a helicopter assault and a specific recommendation of whether Special Forces could pull this off.McRaven picked the Navy SEAL squadron from the legendary Team Six and worked in earnest with planners. On April 7 and April 13, the SEALs staged two rehearsals in the U.S. on a replica of the compound. On April 19, McRaven briefed President Obama on the helicopter mission.

Influenced in no small part by Gates' vivid memories of Eagle Claw and Black Hawk Down, President Obama's biggest question now was what they could do to make sure the SEALs could get out safely, especially if everything that could go wrong did go wrong. The Special Forces would be rappelling down from the helicopters and entering the compound of a terrorist not to be underestimated. What if the building were booby-trapped? What if the Pakistani military responded quickly to this sudden air assault from an unknown entity?

We need to be able to get our guys out, the president said.

McRaven had planned to have a QRF -- quick reaction force -- at the Afghanistan/Pakistan border in case everything went south. And the president had been told that if everything went wrong, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, could call Gen. Kayani and put it to him: Look, you want to get bin Laden, we got a tip, we attacked his compound, our boys are pinned down there, we need your help here.

But that was weak, the weakest part of McRaven's proposal. And everyone knew it. The Pakistanis were unpredictable. After all, in January 2011, authorities had completely disregarded agreements of diplomatic immunity when they incarcerated CIA contractor Ray Davis for more than two months. Davis allegedly had killed two thieves who he said had pulled guns on him in Lahore.

No one could know what they would do in this situation.

You've got to come up with something better, the president said.

It would need to be a "fight your way out scenario."

McRaven pledged to work on that.

President Obama told him he could pre-position his Special Forces at the U.S. base in Jalalabad in Eastern Afghanistan, not far from the Pakistan border, and the same general area where bin Laden had been lost nine years before.

Troops were on the move.

This was going to happen.

April 28 was an unusual meeting for the team, given that it was so conspicuous. Indeed, the president held a formal event in which he announced that he was switching around some members of his national security team: Panetta would replace Gates at the Pentagon, Afghanistan commander General David Petraeus would replace Panetta at the CIA, and so on.McRaven had been refining the "fight your way out" scenario, and Mullen explained what the new plans were: they would add two Chinook helicopters to the two stealth versions of the MH-60 Black Hawk.

The SEALs and helicopter pilots would be told to avoid engaging with the Pakistani military if at all possible. But they would be prepared to fight their way out if need be.

Others talked about how they could deal with Pakistani reaction if this happened. It would not be good, but a diplomatic crisis was the least horrible scenario.

The president thanked everyone.

"I'm not going to decide anything at this meeting," he told them.

He wanted to talk to McRaven one more time. McRaven told him his men could pull this off. This is what they trained for their entire lives.

The president thought about the men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, their dedication and sacrifice. He saw it whenever he went to Walter Reed Army Medical Center or Bethesda Naval Hospital, young men and women once in the prime of their lives now injured beyond repair.

It was an impossible decision. The case was completely circumstantial. No one knew that bin Laden was there. It seemed likely that he was, but then again intelligence agencies had said other things seemed likely that turned out to have been false. There was no unanimity among his aides. Gates, for one, thought the intelligence just wasn't there, and the president trusted Gates. Michael Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, thought the CIA was inflating the probability that bin Laden was there; he thought the odds were less than fifty percent. Panetta and Brennan thought they should do it. Panetta said the odds were between sixty and eighty percent. The president put the odds at maybe fifty-five percent.

The U.S. had devoted so much blood and treasure in the fight against al Qaeda. The president thought again about all those young men and women at the hospitals, at Arlington National Cemetery, those still fighting in Afghanistan. How did they factor into this decision? A victory for them -- the chance that the U.S. could badly disable al Qaeda -- was that worth both the political risks, as well as the risks to the troops?

He made his decision.

The president had a busy schedule ahead of him that Friday morning. He would be flying to Alabama to survey tornado damage, then to Cape Canaveral to watch the planned final Space Shuttle launch. The next night he would deliver a speech -- a roast of sorts -- at the White House Correspondents' Dinner.

Before he left for Alabama, he convened his team in the Diplomatic Room: Donilon, Brennan, Chief of Staff Bill Daley, Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough. It was 8:20 a.m.

"It's a go," he said.

The operation would take place the next day, Saturday.

Donilon then prepared the formal orders. The team, without the president, would convene for final planning at 3 p.m.

That evening on the way back from the South, the president was informed that because of cloudy weather, the operation would be moved from Saturday to Sunday.

On Saturday April 30, the president called McRaven. "I couldn't have any more confidence in you than the confidence I have in you and your force," he said. "Godspeed to you and your forces. Please pass on to them my personal thanks for their service and the message that I personally will be following this mission very closely."

The president went out for a round of golf on Sunday to clear his head, but he did not finish. By 1 p.m. Gates, Donilon, Brennan, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others had convened in the Situation Room. At 1:22 p.m. on Sunday, May 1, Panetta, acting on the president's orders, directed McRaven to move forward with the operation.

"Our prayers and confidence are with you and your men," Panetta told him. "Go in and find bin Laden, and if he's not there, get the hell out."

That afternoon, shortly after 3 p.m., the president and his team huddled in the Situation Room. Vice President Joe Biden twisted his rosary ring.

On the screen in front of them they watched night-vision images from a drone, while Panetta, at CIA headquarters, was in a corner of the screen narrating what was happening. Audio reports came in from McRaven.

The raid started out poorly. One of the stealth Black Hawks crashed, luckily with no serious injuries. It was a serious white-knuckle moment, but the pilot was a pro and everyone was OK. The rappelling was scrapped.

Then someone started firing at the SEALs from the compound. The SEALs fired back.

Flashes and flares filled the screen. There was no audio, only McRaven off in the distance, relaying the sounds to Panetta, who explained what they were watching.

The SEALs were getting off the choppers. The SEALs were returning fire. One of the SEALs had a specially trained dog that could attack on command, a Belgian Malinois. The SEALs were exploding walls. Some of the SEALs were entering one house where one courier lived, others were entering the bigger house, where bin Laden might be.

It was excruciating in the Situation Room. Everyone was nervous, and there was nothing they could do but watch. When the SEALs entered the buildings, there were around twenty-to-twenty-five minutes that passed when the screen in front of them showed nothing happening.

The codeword for securing bin Laden was "Geronimo." McRaven reported that one of the men had said the word. Bin Laden was there.

The minutes lasted for hours. This was the most nervous President Obama had ever been, with the possible exception of when his daughter Sasha got meningitis at three months old, and he could only wait for the doctor to tell him she wasn't going to die.

Finally came the good news: "Geronimo-E-KIA," the president was told.

Bin Laden, the "E" – enemy -- had been "KIA," killed in action.

But they weren't out of the woods. Pakistani's military scrambled fighter jets looking for the helicopters, trying to figure out who was in their country and why. After all, its relations with neighboring India are tense and Pakistan routinely is on high alert.

This was the scenario the SEALs had prepared for. What would happen?

The SEALS detonated the crashed Black Hawk and took off in the one surviving stealth Black Hawk. The two Chinooks and the SEALs in the Black Hawk motored back to Jalalabad.

The operation on the ground lasted only forty minutes, but no one breathed easy until the troops were all back on the Afghanistan side of the border, around 5:45 p.m. ET. They carried with them bin Laden's corpse, and a trove of computers and other data storage devices from his house. They left behind the crashed chopper, which they had detonated.

Once they were safe, then came the other dilemma. How sure were they that they had got their man? The SEALs were certain that it was Osama bin Laden, and women who lived at the compound had identified him. Pictures from the scene indicated it was him.

The corpse was over six feet tall, the president was told, matching bin Laden's reputed height of six-foot-four. Back at Jalalabad, one of the SEALs who stood at six feet lay down next to the body. The corpse was well over six feet tall.

We can afford to expend a $60 million plane on this operation, but we can't afford a tape measure? the president joked.

Also in Jalalabad, a SEAL took a picture of bin Laden and sent it back to the U.S. for facial recognition analysis. At 7:01 p.m. the results came back: the analysis indicated a ninety-to-ninety-five percent certainty that the corpse was bin Laden's.

A DNA sample had also been electronically delivered back to the U.S. for scientists to compare with DNA samples from multiple blood relatives of bin Laden. Those results, however, would not be ready for another day.

President Obama's instinct was to wait. Yes, this looked like it was a successful operation. But there was no need to rush out tonight to tell the world. Let's wait until we get that DNA evidence back. Let's tell the Pakistanis, make sure they understand our perspective, he said. Let's get all of our ducks in a row.

Mullen was told to call Kayani. Panetta called ISI Chief Ahmad Shuja Pasha.

The story is going to get out, the president's advisers said.

The president didn't care. It wouldn't be official until it came from the White House.

You can't contain this, they told him. This is the biggest story of the decade.

The president was calm, serene. He eventually was convinced. They would make the announcement that night.

Mullen reported back: Kayani was of the opinion that the sooner they announced what they had done, the better. There was a downed U.S. helicopter in his country. That this had been a successful mission to kill bin Laden should come out as soon as possible.It did.

"Good evening," the president said to the nation at around 11:35 p.m. ET. "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 Qaeda, and a terrorist who's responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women and children."

The information for this chapter came from numerous interviews with administration officials who spoke under condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly about classified events, and in some cases public statements by or interviews with President Obama.

The full video eBook, "TARGET: Bin Laden," is available for sale on the iBooks, Kindle and Nook eBook stores.

And for more about ABC Video Books, please visit

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events