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Beginning of Osama's end

After Osama bin Laden disappeared into the snow-clad Tora Bora mountains of Afghanistan in December 2001, with the US special forces only hours behind him, the trail went cold for the next nine years, until last August.

world Updated: Mar 17, 2012 08:55 IST
Yashwant Raj

After Osama bin Laden disappeared into the snow-clad Tora Bora mountains of Afghanistan in December 2001, with the US special forces only hours behind him, the trail went cold for the next nine years, until last August.

Bin Laden was found living in a million-dollar palatial home 35 miles outside Islamabad in a sprawling upscale neighbourhood called Abbottabad, home to retired Pakistani military officials.

A small team of US Navy Seals killed him, one of his sons, two other men and a woman in an operation lasting under 40 minutes on Sunday afternoon. They carried back bin Laden's body, which was later buried at sea.

"Justice has been done," said Barack Obama in a late Sunday announcement.

The endgame of the world's most publicised manhunt started in August 2010.

The CIA had been looking for people in bin Laden's inner circle since he had first emerged as a threat to the US and post 9/11 detainees were flagging people working - such as couriers -- for bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al Zawahiri.

"One courier in particular had our constant attention," said a senior US administration official.

He was considered a protégé of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and a trusted assistant to then al Qaeda Number 3 Farraj al-Libby, who are both in US custody now, at Guantanmo Bay.

The US intelligence was told this courier was close to bin Laden and lived with him and protected him. They had a nom de guerre for him, but that's all. For years they didn't know his name or his location.http://www.hindustantimes.com/Images/HTEditImages/Images/111/storymap_osama.jpg

They finally had his name four years ago, but once again, not much else. The next step would come two years after when they could identify his area of operation in Pakistan, and that of his brother.

The courier was a careful man, and took great pains to cover his tracks. "The fact that they were being so careful reinforced our belief that we were on the right track," said the official.

The pieces began to fall in place last August.

The US intelligence found their residence. "We were shocked by what we saw."

The compound was roughly eight times the size an average home in the neighbourhood. Built at the edge of the town in 2005, it was located in a secluded area at the end of a dirt road.

More homes have come up since, but none matched its size and standout features.

The three-story building is surrounded by 12 to 18 feet high walls, and is almost window-less. The terrace is blocked from public view by a seven feet wall and there were internal walls for extra privacy.

And unlike other homes in the neighbourhood, this one burnt its trash.

The official said the house was worth $ I million but, strangely, had no phone or internet connection. And the courier and his brother had no known sources of wealth to own and run such a massive home.

"Intelligence analysts concluded that this compound was custom built to hide someone of significance," the official said. And they noted the presence on the compound of more people, other families.

A third family was noted, its members looked like those of bin Laden's family.

"Our best assessment, based on a large body of reporting from multiple sources, was that bin Laden was living there with several family members, including his youngest wife."

But they still didn't know for sure. It was only an assessment that the courier and his brother were hosting and hiding a high value target, and that that target was bin Laden and his family.

This was the assessment put before Obama to clear the operation.

"The President chaired no fewer than five National Security Council meetings on the topic from the middle of March -- March 14th, March 29th, April 12th, April 19th, and April 28th," the official said.

And he gave the go ahead on April 29.

(With agency inputs)