Account Tells of One-Sided Battle in Bin Laden Raid*
By MARK LANDLER and MARK MAZZETTI
May 4, 2011
Warrick Page for The New York Times
On Wednesday, people passed the entrance to the compound where Osama bin Laden was killed by American forces in Abottabad, Pakistan.
WASHINGTON — President Obama decided Wednesday not to release graphic photographs of Osama bin Laden’s corpse, as new details emerged about the raid on Bin Laden’s fortified compound that differed from the administration’s initial account of the nearly 40-minute operation.
Mr. Obama, after a brief but intense debate within his war council, concluded that making the images of Bin Laden public could incite violence against Americans and would do little to persuade skeptics that the founder of Al Qaeda had been killed, White House officials said.
The new details suggested that the raid, though chaotic and bloody, was extremely one-sided, with a force of more than 20 Navy Seal members quickly dispatching the handful of men protecting Bin Laden.
Administration officials said that the only shots fired by those in the compound came at the beginning of the operation, when Bin Laden’s trusted courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, opened fire from behind the door of the guesthouse adjacent to the house where Bin Laden was hiding.
After the Seal members shot and killed Mr. Kuwaiti and a woman in the guesthouse, the Americans were never fired upon again.
This account differs from an official version of events issued by the Pentagon on Tuesday, and read by the White House spokesman, Jay Carney, which said the Seal members “were engaged in a firefight throughout the operation.”
In a television interview on PBS on Tuesday, Leon E. Panetta, the director of the C.I.A., said, “There were some firefights that were going on as these guys were making their way up the staircase of that compound.”
Administration officials said the official account of events has changed over the course of the week because it has taken time to get thorough after-action reports from the Seal team. And, they added, because the Special Operations troops had been fired upon as soon as they touched down in the compound, they were under the assumption that everyone inside was armed.
“They were in a threatening and hostile environment the entire time,” one American official said.
When the commandos moved into the main house, they saw the courier’s brother, who they believed was preparing to fire a weapon. They shot and killed him. Then, as they made their way up the stairs of the house, officials said they killed Bin Laden’s son Khalid as he lunged toward the Seal team.
When the commandos reached the top floor, they entered a room and saw Osama bin Laden with an AK-47 and a Makarov pistol in arm’s reach. They shot and killed him, as well as wounding a woman with him.
The firefight over and Bin Laden dead, the team found a trove of information and had the time to remove much of it: about 100 thumb drives, DVDs and computer disks, along with 10 computer hard drives and 5 computers. There were also piles of paper documents in the house.
The White House declined to release any additional details about the operation, saying that further information would jeopardize the military’s ability to conduct clandestine operations in the future. The administration’s reticence came after it was forced on Tuesday to correct parts of its initial account of the raid, including assertions that Bin Laden had used his wife as a “human shield.”
“We’ve revealed a lot of information; we’ve been as forthcoming with facts as we can be,” Mr. Carney said.
Mr. Carney said the president expressed doubts early on about releasing the photos, but consulted his senior advisers. All of them, Mr. Carney said, voiced concerns about the risks. Based on its monitoring of worldwide reaction to the announcement of Bin Laden’s death, Mr. Carney said, the administration also concluded that most people viewed the reports of his death as credible and that publicizing photos would do little to sway those who believed it was a hoax.
Mr. Obama was direct in an interview with the CBS News program “60 Minutes,” to be broadcast Sunday, according to a transcript released by the network. “It is very important for us to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence — as a propaganda tool.”
“That’s not who we are,” Mr. Obama added. “You know, we don’t trot out this stuff as trophies.” He said, “We don’t need to spike the football.”
“Certainly there’s no doubt among Al Qaeda members that he is dead,” he said on “60 Minutes.” “And so we don’t think that a photograph in and of itself is going to make any difference. There are going to be some folks who deny it. The fact of the matter is, you will not see Bin Laden walking on this earth again.”
The deliberations were reminiscent of Mr. Obama’s decision in May 2009 to fight the release of photos documenting the abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan by American military personnel. The administration said originally that it would not oppose releasing the pictures, but the president decided he would fight making them public after his military commanders warned that the images could provoke a reaction against troops in those countries.
The White House said Mr. Obama would take part in a wreath-laying ceremony at the site of the Sept. 11 memorial in Lower Manhattan on Thursday. He is also to meet with relatives of the victims of the terrorist attacks, but he will not make a speech. The next day, he is to travel to Fort Campbell in Kentucky to speak to troops returning from Afghanistan.
Seeking to quell any legal questions about the raid, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said, “It was justified as an act of national self-defense,” citing Bin Laden’s role as the architect of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
There were divided opinions on Capitol Hill about the photographs, with some lawmakers saying the United States needed to show proof that Bin Laden was dead, while others worried about the possibility of blowback against American troops.
“The whole purpose of sending our troops into the compound, rather than an aerial bombardment, was to obtain indisputable evidence of Bin Laden’s death,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina. “The best way to protect and defend our interests overseas is to prove that fact to the rest of the world.”
Helene Cooper and Thom Shanker contributed reporting.