Just who was living in the compound in Pakistan where al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden had been hiding out in his last months had become a source of suspicion for American intelligence officials, according to two senior officials in the U.S. administration and the country's intelligence agencies.
U.S. President Barack Obama confirmed late Sunday that American forces had killed the al-Qaida chief in a raid at the compound, and recovered his body. Four helicopters swooped in early Monday and killed bin Laden in the fiery American assault on his fortress-like compound in a town that is home to three army regiments.
American analysts had checked the information that piled up "from every possible angle" and came to the conclusion that there was no possible candidate that matched the profile of a potentially significant resident as well as bin Laden. "We were confident there was a high-value target hidden in the compound," an official said.
"We tried to establish whether the terrorist who lives there is Osama Bin Laden," a senior administration official said in a briefing to reporters. "We tracked his personal couriers. One courier in particular got our attention, the protégé of Khaled Sheikh Mohamad, the mastermind of the September 11 attacks."
The official said that detainees also recognized this man as a courier of bin Laden. "Four years ago we uncovered his identity. We identified the areas in Pakistan where they operated."
The official said that the heavy security surrounding the compound aroused the suspicions of intelligence officials as far back as eight months ago. "In August 2010, we found the residence. It is an extraordinary, unique compound, eight times larger than the other homes in the town," the senior U.S. official added.
"In the last six years some residential homes were built there. The security was extraordinary. Access to the compound was restricted by two security gates," the official continued. There was no internet installed on the premises, the official said, and could not ascertain the source of the wealth of the compound's owners.
"Our best assessment is that bin Laden was living there with several wives, including his youngest wife," the official said.
The house in the town of Abbottabad was, according to a U.S. official, custom built to hide someone of significance. Abbottabad is around 96 km (60 miles) from the capital Islamabad, far from the remote mountain caves along the Pakistan-Afghanistan tribal border where most intelligence assessments had put bin Laden in recent years.
The house was close to the gate of the Kakul Military Academy, an army run institution where top officers train.
An American administration official said the compound was built in 2005 at the end of a narrow dirt road with extraordinary security measures. He said it had 12 to 18-feet walls topped with barbed wire with two security gates and no telephone or Internet service connected to it.
A Pakistan intelligence official said the property where bin Laden was staying was 3,000 square feet. His location raised pointed questions over whether Pakistani authorities knew the whereabouts of the world's most wanted man.
Critics have long accused elements of Pakistan's security establishment of protecting bin Laden, though Islamabad has always denied this. Ties between the United States and Pakistan have hit a low point in recent months over the future of Afghanistan, and any hint of possible Pakistani collusion with bin Laden could hit them hard even amid the jubilation of getting American's No. 1 enemy.
One Pakistani official said the choppers took off from a Pakistani air base, suggesting some cooperation in the raid. But President Barack Obama did not thank Pakistan in his statement on bin Laden's death.
Pakistan's foreign office hailed the death as a breakthrough in the international campaign against militancy, and noted al-Qaida had declared war on Pakistan and killed thousands of Pakistani civilians and security officers.
It stressed that the operation to kill bin Laden was an American one, and did not mention any concerns that Pakistani officials may have been protecting bin Laden in some way. Domestically, the government may yet face criticism by political opponents and Islamists for allowing U.S. forces to kill bin Laden on its soil.
Pakistani officials said a son of bin Laden and three other people were killed. Other unidentified males were taken by helicopter away from the scene, while four children and two women were arrested and left in an ambulance, the official said.
A witness and a Pakistani official said bin Laden's guards opened fire from the roof of the compound in the small northwestern town of Abbottabad, and one of the choppers crashed. However U.S. officials said no Americans were hurt in the operation. The sound of at least two explosions rocked Abbottabad as the fighting raged.
It was not known how long bin Laden had been in Abbottabad, which is less than half a days drive from the border region with Afghanistan.
Salman Riaz, a film actor, said that five months ago he and a crew tried to do some filming next to the house, but were told to stop by two men who came out. "They told me that this is haram [forbidden in Islam]," he said.
Abbottabad resident Mohammad Haroon Rasheed said the raid happened about 1:15
A.M. local time.
"I heard a thundering sound, followed by heavy firing.Then firing suddenly stopped. Then more thundering, then a big blast," he said. "In the morning when we went out to see what happened, some helicopter wreckage was lying in an open field."
Intelligence analysts concluded that this compound was custom built to hide someone of significance, he said.
A Pakistani official in the town said fighters on the roof opened fire on the choppers as they came close to the building with rocket propelled grenades. Another official said four helicopters took off from the Ghazi air base in northwest Pakistan.
Last summer, the U.S. army was based in Ghazi to help out in the aftermath of the floods.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information.
Pakistan has in the past cooperated with the CIA in arresting al-Qaida suspects on its soil, but relations between its main intelligence agency and the CIA had been very strained in recent months amid tensions over the future of Afghanistan.
In late January, a senior Indonesian al-Qaida operative, Umar Patek, was arrested at another location in Abbottabad.
News of his arrest only broke in late March. A Pakistani intelligence official said its officers were led to the house where Patek was staying after they arrested an al-Qaida facilitator, Tahir Shahzad, who worked at the post office there.
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