The Abbottabad Commission was charged with ascertaining the facts of what happened on the night of May 1, 2011, when the United States unilaterally launched a raid to capture or kill al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in northern Pakistan.
While all previous accounts released to the public have been the stories of SEAL team members, or sourced mainly through Washington’s squad of analysts from the CIA and similar agencies, the Commission pieced together testimony from local and provincial officials, police and security personnel – and, indeed, captured members of Bin Laden’s family themselves – to tell the story of that warm May night through the eyes of those who found themselves in the targeting crosshairs.
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This is that account.
It is ten minutes past eleven in the evening. Amal Ahmad Abdul Fattah al-Sadah, a 29-year-old Yemeni woman, sits with her three-year-old child, Hussain, in a second-floor bedroom. Near to her is her husband, Osama bin Laden. About 250km away, at a US airbase in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, the rotor blades of two stealth Black Hawk helicopters begin to turn.
The Black Hawks, coated with special radar-evading paint and panels, as well as noise suppression devices, fly low and fast, entering Pakistani airspace in the Khyber tribal area between 11:15pm and 11:30pm. They are closely followed by two other helicopters, mostly likely Chinooks. All four fly along the route of the River Kabul, above Chakdarra to Kala Dhaka, where one touches down, ready to provide refuelling and additional support to the Navy SEALs now en route to their target in Abbottabad.
In the skies on the Afghan side of the border, US aircraft maintain a Combat Air Patrol (CAP) and an AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) presence, in order to respond swiftly to any Pakistani military response to the raid.
There is none.
The Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) radar is on “peacetime deployment”, and low-level coverage is sparse on the western border. PAF controllers at Air Defence Command in Chaklala track the US CAP and AWACS in Afghan airspace, but log the activity as routine.
Approximately an hour and ten minutes after leaving Jalalabad, the US helicopters arrive at the compound in Abbottabad’s Nawan Sheher neighbourhood. Navy SEALs rappel down ropes to the street below. Some head towards the residential buildings, while others, including Urdu and Pashto speakers, form a cordon around the compound to keep locals away.
Having unloaded its soldiers, one of the Black Hawks develops a fault, or encounters unexpected wind or temperature conditions. It crash lands – or “settles with power” – on the compound area, around ten minutes after the operation begins. It is forty minutes past midnight.
They hit the annexe first.
The storming of the compound
In their cramped rooms on the second floor, Bin Laden and Sadah hear what they initially think is the sound of a storm outside. They go to the balcony to see what is happening, but the night of May 1 is a moonless one, and it is pitch dark.
Sadah, Bin Laden’s third wife, reaches to switch on a light, but her husband says “No!” He calls to his son, Khalid, who is in a first-floor bedroom. Sadah goes to see to her five children. When she returns upstairs moments later, Bin Laden has been joined by two of his daughters, Mariam, 21, and Sumayya, 20. They are reciting the Kalma – the Muslim declaration of faith – and verses from the Holy Quran.
Osama bin Laden tells his family that US helicopters have arrived and that they should all leave his room immediately.
In the annexe, meanwhile, Ibrahim al-Kuwaiti, a Pakistani bodyguard and courier for Bin Laden, is asleep with his wife, Maryam, and their children. They are awoken by a loud noise. As he attempts to calm his children, Kuwaiti receives a phone call. He asks if it is his brother, Abrar – also a guard and courier – who lives with his family in the main house. He gets no response.
“Abrar, I cannot hear you. I am coming,” he says into the phone, according to his wife.
There is a knock on the door.
“Is that you, Abrar?” he asks, opening the door.
A bullet hits him through the window, and he falls to the floor. As he falls, his feet hit the door, shutting it.
Maryam is shot in the right shoulder, and falls to the floor. Her children rush to her, and she can hear soldiers outside, shouting at her to open the door.
“You have killed my husband, and now only my children and I are in the room,” she tells them. In Arabic, a soldier demands that she open the door. She complies, and is told to sit on the stairs outside the building with her children, where two soldiers keep guard over them.
Back in the main building, some of Bin Laden’s family members refuse to leave him, as ordered. His daughter, Mariam, goes out on the balcony with her children to see what is happening outside. Bin Laden reaches for his weapon.
That’s when they hear the sound of an explosion – whether it is the helicopter crashing or charges being used to blast through a door is unclear. They hear soldiers on the roof, and footsteps on the stairs. Sadah sees a US soldier, on the landing outside the bedroom, aiming his weapon at Bin Laden. A red laser dot appears on his body, and she throws herself at the soldier.
He screams “No! No!” and shoots her in the knee. More shots follow.
As she lies injured on the bed, she recalls hearing the soldiers asking Sumayya and Mariam the name of the man they just killed.
Sumayya says she grappled with a US soldier. She did not see her father fall, but did see his body on the floor.
She testifies that he was hit in the forehead, and his face was “clear” and recognisable. According to her, “blood flowed backwards over his head”. After asking both her and her sister Mariam to confirm Bin Laden’s identity, they are told to stand in a corner, and later led out of the room.
“Sharifa” Siham Sabar, Bin Laden’s second of three wives, was in her room on the second floor with her son, Khalid, for the initial part of the raid. She saw Khalid rush with his weapon to his father’s aid when he realised that US forces were raiding the compound. She was with Khairiyyah, Bin Laden’s eldest wife, when they were detained by US forces shortly afterwards.
When the soldiers forced their way in, Khairiyyah said that one of them “looked as if he had seen a witch!” The women and their rooms were searched, and then led downstairs by the soldiers.
That was when Sabar saw the body of her son, Khalid, lying in a pool of blood on the staircase. They also came across the bodies of Abrar al-Kuwaiti, the courier, and his Pakistani wife, Bushra.
Sabar knelt down to kiss her dead son’s forehead as she passed.
The dust settles
According to the Commission’s findings, by 1:06am, the US operation in Abbottabad was over, and US forces left the compound in a stealth Black Hawk and a Chinook helicopter, simultaneously destroying the downed stealth Black Hawk with planted explosives. The operation lasted approximately 36 minutes.
The first Chinook left Pakistani airspace at approximately 2:16am, with the support Chinook and remaining stealth Black Hawk following ten minutes later, at 2:26am. US forces were in Pakistani airspace and territory for a little more than three hours.
The Pakistani security and military response to the raid, according to the Commission, amounted to a “collective failure”. Not only was the country’s airspace compromised without the immediate knowledge of the military, but there was also “a grave dereliction of duty” on the part of the civil security establishment – that is, the police and civilian administration.
Police Constable Nazar Mohammad, on patrol in the compound’s neighbourhood in Abbottabad, was one of the first to reach the scene, arriving shortly after the Black Hawk explosion at 1:06am.
He saw flames and smoke billowing from the compound, and alerted the local police station. At about the same time, army officials from the Quick Response Force (QRF) of the 19th Frontier Force Regiment arrived on the scene, along with other police officials. The police were relegated to forming a cordon around the scene, with the army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) taking ownership of the site. The commission refers to the conduct of the police as being like “spectator[s]”. Senior police officials, including a Deputy Inspector General (DIG), later arrived, and were allowed access to the interior of the house, testifying that they saw four dead bodies in the main house – presumably those of Khalid bin Laden, Ibrahim al-Kuwaiti, Abrar al-Kuwaiti and Bushra, Abrar’s wife.
They were then all asked to leave the premises by the commandant of the nearby Pakistan Military Academy, who had established de facto control over the crime scene.
According to the DIG, Khairiyyah, Bin Laden’s eldest wife, angrily said to him in broken English: “Now you come, when everything over!”
The commander of the military’s QRF received information about the raid at 12:40am, when US forces were still inside the compound. By the time he, along with his commanding officer, arrived at the scene at about 1:20am, however, the Black Hawk had just been destroyed and US forces had left. The commandant of the PMA, who is also the army garrison commander in Abbottabad, arrived at 1:40am. Rescue crews were ordered to put out the flames and see to people’s injuries, and all remaining inhabitants of the compound were taken into ISI custody.
By this time, it had become clear that a major operation had just taken place. Superior officers in the military were informed, and at about 2:00am, Major-General Ashfaq Nadeem, the Director-General of Military Operations (DGMO) called General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff.
Kayani then rang the Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Rao Qamar Suleman at 2:07am – two hours and 47 minutes after the initial incursion – to inform him that Pakistani airspace had been violated, asking him to “shoot down the intruding helicopters”, according to the DGMO’s testimony. Pakistani news media by now were already reporting “a helicopter crash” in Abbottabad.
It took an additional 43 minutes for the Pakistani Air Force to scramble F-16s from its Mushaf Air Base (in Sarghoda, about 240km away). This was approximately three and a half hours after the initial incursion.
It is also approximately 24 minutes after the last US helicopter had left Pakistani airspace.
General Kayani then spoke with then-Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and the Foreign Secretary, apprising them of events.
It was not until 5:00am that Admiral Michael Mullen, the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (JCSC) called General Kayani, explaining what had happened. Significantly, that is the only phone call made between US and Pakistan authorities, and it occurs between two senior military officers.
General Kayani then waited a further hour and 45 minutes to make his final phone call of the night, at 6:45am.
And who is that phone call to? Who is the last person in the Pakistani government command structure to know about the raid?
President Asif Ali Zardari.
Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim