IN the moonless night, two Black Hawk helicopters skimmed close to mountainsides and headed low towards the garrison city of Abbottabad. On board, two dozen US commandos sat tense, their bodies bristling with grenades and ammunition, night-vision goggles pulled over their eyes.

As the white-walled three-storey building came into their sights, it would have appeared just as they had seen in photographs and at the mock-up on which they had practised their mission two or three times a day for the past few weeks. They gripped their weapons, and muttered some final prayers, ready to abseil down ropes into the compound.

Down below, Aslam Khan, a businessman who lives in the next door house, was rudely awoken. It was 1am. He was disoriented by the noise and the power cut that had hit the area. "At first I thought it was a tractor ploughing a field," he said. "Then my son told me it was a helicopter."

Moments later came a blast from his neighbours’ courtyard that shattered his windows. "My daughter was very afraid and I took my family and we ran out of the house," he said.

He was not the only one to be woken. About 2.5km away, near the Jalal Baba park, Sohaib Athar, 33, was jolted awake by the whirr of helicopters. An IT consultant, he instantly reached for his phone and typed a post on Twitter. "Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1am (a rare event)," it said.

He had recently moved from Lahore, fed up with its frequent terrorist bombings, to what he thought was a safe, sleepy area. "Go away helicopter – before I take out my giant swatter," he added, followed by: "A huge window-shaking bang here in Abbottabad Cantt (cantonment). I hope it’s not the start of something nasty."

For the next half hour, Athar tweeted everything he heard, without the faintest clue his musings were the first public record of the final moments of Osama bin Laden.

Another Pakistani to be rudely awoken was the country’s army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani. On hearing reports that a helicopter had crashed within 1.6km of a major military facility, he had scrambled F16 jets. By the time they arrived at the scene, the helicopters were heading into Afghanistan.

Back in bed, Kayani was woken again at 5am by a phone call from Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, who until recently he had considered a friend. Kayani was told the terrorist had been found on his patch, and dispatched.

In the US capital, Americans watching Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice reality TV show were bemused to see a news flash at about 10.30pm eastern time announcing that President Barack Obama was to address the nation.

Word started to spread that something big was up and 57 million Americans tuned in to the President’s speech an hour later.

Standing at a podium on a red carpet in front of the East Room, Obama announced: "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-Qa’ida, and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children."

After nine years, seven months and 19 days, the world’s most expensive manhunt had been brought to an end with a 38-minute operation.

The operation sounded simple. But as the week went on Washington’s version of events would change repeatedly. Almost a week later, it is possible to get close to a definitive account of how the world’s most wanted man was found in an army garrison city of a US ally and how he met his end.

HUNT FOR ‘ELVIS’

On paper it didn’t seem so difficult to find bin Laden. The FBI’s "most wanted" poster described him as "between 6 foot 4 (193cm) and 6 foot 6 (198cm), olive complexioned, left-handed and walks with a cane". He had one of the world’s most recognisable faces, and he put out regular videos.

Yet for years the trail had gone cold. CIA agents had taken to calling him "Elvis".

By 2005, many inside the CIA had concluded the bin Laden hunt had reached a dead-end. But a couple of things had caught the agency’s attention.

First, all the other senior al-Qa’ida leaders picked up had been living in Pakistani cities. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11, was caught in Rawalpindi in 2003 and Ramzi Binalshibh, a co-conspirator, was found in Karachi the year before.

Second, those scrutinising bin Laden’s videos did not think his face showed the strain of someone covering rough terrain and living in constant fear of airstrikes.

There was one more clue. The last senior al-Qa’ida figure arrested was Abu Faraj al-Libbi, in May 2005. Libbi was picked up while waiting at a shop in the Pakistani town of Mardan, a drop point for a "designated courier" of bin Laden’s, according to his Guantanamo "detainee assessment" recently released by WikiLeaks.

The CIA realised that if they could track his human pigeons, perhaps they could find him.

The problem was they didn’t know who these couriers were. A few names had surfaced from the interrogations of prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay in 2002 and 2003. One was Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. However, in 2004, Hassan Ghul, an al-Qa’ida operative at the camp, said Kuwaiti was close to bin Laden, Mohammed and Libbi. Ghul added that Kuwaiti had not been seen for some time, which suggested to his interrogators that he could be in hiding with bin Laden.

Mohammed had been captured in March 2003, but accounts vary as to the part he played in revealing Kuwaiti as bin Laden’s courier.

Some suggest Mohammed admitted having known him, but said Kuwaiti was retired and of little significance. Then, when subjected to extreme interrogation – including being waterboarded 183 times – Mohammed stuck to his story that Kuwaiti was an unimportant figure.

Libbi said he had never heard of Kuwaiti, suggesting someone else, Maulawi Jan, a figure never traced by the CIA, was bin Laden’s courier. According to this account, it was the combination of these two very senior al-Qa’ida figures so obviously steering them away from Kuwaiti that alerted the CIA to his importance.

Others, primarily Republicans keen to suggest that the Bush administration’s notorious torture sessions bore fruit, tell a different story. Michael Mukasey, who was attorney-general from 2007-09, insisted the breakthrough came from Mohammed: "KSM (Khalid Shaikh Mohammed) broke like a dam under the pressure of harsh interrogation techniques that included waterboarding. He loosed a torrent of information – including eventually the nickname of a trusted courier of bin Laden."

Either way, the Americans had a name, or at least a nickname, al-Kuwaiti, to work with.

When Leon Panetta was appointed director of the CIA by Obama in February 2009, he decided not to share his agency’s intelligence with its Pakistani opposite number, ISI, believing it had previously tipped off targets when the US was about to swoop.

He took advantage of a massive new US aid package to Pakistan as a cover to send in more agents, some of whom were Pakistani-Americans. Current estimates by intelligence officials suggest about 1000 are in Pakistan (of whom 300 were working below ISI’s radar).

At the same time, they also turned to one of their greatest investigative tools: Task Force Orange, a highly secretive US special operations unit that was set up in 1980 in the wake of the failed US commando raid to rescue the US embassy hostages held in Iran. It specialises in scoping and tracking down "high-value targets" such as bin Laden.

Task Force Orange works closely on the ground in "fusion cells" with the National Security Agency. The NSA began intercepting telephone calls and email messages between Kuwaiti’s family and anyone inside Pakistan. It set up equipment that could intercept mobile phones by infiltrating the wireless network and acting as a bogus base station. Then, last northern summer, they got a key break. Although bin Laden did not use a mobile telephone, both the couriers shot dead in last Monday’s raid and members of their families did. They were cautious, however. US officials were stunned to find that the men travelled at least 90 minutes away from bin Laden’s hiding place before even putting the batteries back in their mobile phones.

They took their avoidance of snoopers seriously, but not seriously enough. Last summer, Kuwaiti received a call from an old friend who was under surveillance. He asked where the courier had been, what had been going on in his life. "I’m back with the people I was with before," Kuwaiti said. There was a pause on the line as the friend pondered the import of those words. "May God facilitate," he replied.

This intelligence was combined with other advances. Last July, Pakistani agents working for the CIA spotted Kuwaiti driving his white Suzuki four-wheel-drive near Peshawar and wrote down the registration number. They began tracking him throughout central Pakistan. An al-Qa’ida trainee called Ahmed Siddiqui was picked up. He told his US interrogators that bin Laden was hiding in a compound in Abbottabad. After a few weeks of surveillance, Kuwaiti, blissfully unaware he was being tailed, drove down the long dirt track to a compound surrounded by white walls topped with barbed wire, 65km from the Pakistani capital.

HIDEOUT IN PLAIN SIGHT

To the Americans, House No 3, Street No 8-A, Garga Road, Thanda Chowa, Hashmi Colony, Abbottabad, stuck out. Set amid fields of cabbage patches, the 0.4ha compound was triangular and surrounded by 3.6m walls topped with barbed wire. Inside stood a small guesthouse and a three-storey house with eight bedrooms. The windows were of opaque glass and the upper balcony had an incongruous 2m wall.

Pakistanis often live in fortress-like compounds, particularly Pathans who have frequent feuds with other tribes. Neighbours assumed the two Pathan brothers, Arshad and Tariq Khan, who had built the house and moved into it in 2005, were smugglers. In fact, these were the names adopted by Kuwaiti and his brother.

Property deeds showed the land was sold to Arshad Khan in 2005 by two local men; Qasi Mehfusal Haq, who runs a clinic on Abbottabad’s main street, and businessman Raza Imtiaz Ahmad. Sitting in his basement clinic last week, Haq said he had bought the land in 2004 at the bargain price of 1.4m rupees. He often visited the plot to inspect it and was approached several times by Arshad Khan, who had bought the neighbouring plot, and who urged Haq to sell his own.

The doctor had little contact with him after the sale, but saw Khan a few times at the market, and once when he came for medicine. "He was a humble and polite man," he said. "I didn’t see any guests go into the house in one and a half years. They didn’t have any security guards, either."

Abed, a builder who was constructing a house next door to the compound, said he saw Tariq take three boys to school every day.

Newspapers and milk were delivered at the compound as well as two goats a week. Two water buffalo and chickens were kept inside. Its self-sufficiency is underlined by its not being connected to the common water mains.

Unbeknown to the locals, there were nine children inside, the children and grandchildren of bin Laden, according to the survivors of last week’s raid. One of the rooms was a classroom where they were home-schooled. It contained textbooks and a whiteboard with writing in Arabic.

WATCHING ‘THE PACER’

Once the Americans had spotted the compound in August last year, they quickly began monitoring it with spy satellites.

"We put 24/7 eyes on it," said an intelligence source. Pakistani CIA agents began renting a nearby house, with windows made up of two-way mirrors, while Task Force Orange focused on providing the intelligence that would be required to ensure that any eventual operation went as smoothly as possible.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, one of the most sophisticated non-violent weapons in America’s armoury, swung into action. Using satellite images, information from sources and transcripts of intercepted phone calls, it produced imagery analysis that described in detail the compound’s dimensions, features and even the "pattern of life" behaviour of its inhabitants.

Yet the spies were unable to capture an image of the al-Qa’ida leader. Panetta told the PBS television network: "We noticed an individual who was pacing in the courtyard who at least had some of the appearances (of bin Laden), but we were never able to verify that, in fact, it was him."

The watchers began referring to this man as "The Pacer". His routine suggested that as much as he never left the compound he was practically a prisoner within it.

The White House asked the NGA to estimate his height. They came back at between 5ft 8in (172cm) and 6ft 8in (203cm). It was a broad range, caused by the extreme vertical angle of the satellite picture, but consistent with bin Laden. Panetta told Obama it was the best "window of opportunity" they had had since Tora Bora.

In September, Obama summoned a secret meeting of his key staff, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Defence Secretary Robert Gates. Those present were told the hunt for bin Laden was, in all likelihood, over. "It was electric," said an official. "For so long we’d been trying to get a handle on this guy. All of a sudden, it was like, wow, there he is."

‘GET BIN LADEN’

Panetta called Vice-Admiral William McRaven, commander of the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command, to CIA headquarters in February and asked him to prepare some options. The President then held a series of five meetings with his top national security advisers in March and last month to decide what to do. It was an unenviable choice.

Obama was presented with four options: to launch a heliborne assault; to wait and continue monitoring until they were more certain bin Laden was really there; a special forces raid with the Pakistanis; or to bomb the building with a drone attack or a cruise missile from an aircraft carrier. While he weighed up his choices, a B2 bomber was put on standby with a 907kg bomb in case the man thought to be bin Laden decided to pack his bags and leave.

McRaven was told to choose a team for a possible "boots-on-the-ground" raid, a course of action that rapidly became known as "the McRaven option".

A former navy SEAL, he chose the elite SEAL Team Six, otherwise known as Devgru, despite the failure of its last operation to rescue the British hostage Linda Norgrove from Afghanistan last October, which ended in her death by one of the team’s grenades.

The team started rehearsing, first in the US, then at Bagram, the US base in Afghanistan, on a hastily built mock-up of the compound based on NGA analysis of the site, not knowing who the high-value target was. A "fight-your-way-out" option was built into the plan, with two Chinook helicopters following the two main helicopters as back-up in case of trouble.

On April 26, Panetta – who estimated the likelihood as 60-80 per cent – held his last meeting with 15 team leaders from the CIA counter-terrorism centre. He went round the table. They had a rough show of hands and were divided over whether to go ahead with the raid.

The timing was getting critical. Panetta was getting worried because already 100 people knew of the plans for the raid including 16 members of congress, and he feared the news would leak.

On the morning of Friday, April 29, while the world was watching the royal wedding at Westminster Abbey, Obama called McRaven to say: "It’s a go."

Panetta gave him a longer but no less emphatic briefing. The CIA boss said: "My instructions to Admiral McRaven were: ‘Admiral, go in and get bin Laden – and if he’s not there, get the hell out’." When the SEALs were told their objective, they cheered.

‘VISUAL ON GERONIMO’

Saturday night was chosen for one of the oldest of reasons: it was moonless. But the SEALs were left kicking their heels at Bagram. It was too cloudy in Abbottabad.

In Washington on May 1, Obama played golf at Andrews Air Force Base. Instead of his usual 18 holes, he played only nine. When he returned at about 3.30pm he was told that conditions in Abbottabad were perfect and the SEALs were lifting off from Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan.

Still wearing his golf shoes and windcheater, Obama joined staff in the basement Situation Room and they stared at screens beaming back footage from helmet cameras and the helicopters.

In the helicopters speeding low over the mountains towards the target, the SEALs would have sat silently. "It is very, very quiet before a mission," said Greg Daniels, 40, (not his real name), a SEAL who served until recently in Afghanistan.

"Not a lot of machismo. A block of silence. It’s all goes back to the Samurai: if I throw a knife at you and tell you to catch it, every ounce of your being will be focused on catching that knife. That’s how it is in the helicopter."

As the Black Hawks swooped down over the compound, one set of commandos was supposed to fast-rope down on to the roof of the main building. Almost immediately they ran into trouble. One of the helicopters stalled over the compound’s walls and crashed.

Those watching the soundless feed on a big screen back in the White House gasped. Obama looked "stone-faced", one aide said. Vice-President Joe Biden fingered his rosary beads. No one was hurt, however, and the commandos managed to scramble out.

The 24 SEALs leading the assault split into two. One group headed for the smaller guesthouse where they were fired upon by Arshad Khan, the courier, with an AK-47 assault rifle, from behind the door. The troops returned fire, killing him and his wife.

The second group had headed for the main house. They were shocked when the first door they opened left them facing a brick wall. Was the place booby-trapped? Entering the ground floor, they were confronted by Khan’s brother, who had his hands behind his back. Fearful that he would produce a weapon or detonate a bomb, he was shot dead. Later he was found to be unarmed but a pistol was lying nearby.

As the troops ran up through the house, a man charged at them on the stairs. The man, named as bin Laden’s son, Khaled, 22, was quickly dispatched.

Then a first glimpse of the mother lode. On the top floor, where bin Laden’s quarters were, a man poked his head around a door or over a balcony. A shot from a SEAL whizzed past his head. He retreated into the room, which officials later said was considered a hostile act. Perhaps he was trying to find a weapon or a bomb.

According to his wife, who was speaking to Pakistani interrogators over the weekend, the couple had just turned off the lights and gone to bed when they heard the first shots.

As the SEALs stormed their way in, bin Laden’s wife rushed towards them and was shot in the leg, leading to initial reports that she had been used by the al-Qa’ida leader as a human shield. A girl, who later told Pakistani police she was bin Laden’s 12-year-old daughter Safia, was also injured.

Bin Laden was felled instantly by a "stop" shot to the chest, followed by a "kill" shot to the head, the bullet entering in or around his

left eye. According to Daniels, the SEALs would not have paused once bin Laden had been shot, but continued their search of the property.

"I guarantee you that the guy who pulled the trigger, he didn’t stop even for a second," he said. "It’s a fluid movement through the building. The site has to be clear and, when it is, then you have to move back through the rooms to collect the intel (intelligence) and the package (in this case bin Laden’s body)."

Back in the White House, there was confusion for up to 25 minutes over what was happening. Much of the time was spent in silence. Then a radio crackled into life. "Visual on Geronimo" came the message with the codename for bin Laden.

The world’s most wanted terrorist was caught wearing his pyjamas and unarmed, though there were a rifle and pistol in his bedroom.

According to Panetta, bin Laden made "some threatening moves that . . . represented a clear threat to our guys. And that’s the reason they fired".

Whatever he did, the next message from the SEALs will enter books of quotations: "Geronimo EKIA (enemy killed in action)". The silence at the White House continued. Then the President spoke. "We got him," he said.

The Sunday Times has been told by Pentagon sources that the operation was always meant to be a kill raid. "There wasn’t even a code for capturing him," the source said.

Saxby Chambliss, chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, who was briefed on the raid, said later: "I hope they went in with the idea of killing him, not capturing him. We needed to take this guy out. And I know that’s what the executive order said."

At Abbottabad, there was no time for discussion. The fire fight, such as it was, had lasted less than seven minutes. But the troops were aware that they were working against the clock. It would be only a matter of time before the Pakistani military arrived.

With the troops were "techies" – many from Task Force Orange – to help collect a "treasure trove" of intelligence. The SEALs are also trained to pick up equipment.

"The rules are simple: if you can write on it or if it’s electronic, it goes out the door," Daniels explained. Ten computer hard-drives, about 100 USB cards, DVDs and various notebooks were quickly gathered up.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani military had scrambled F16 fighter jets. The soldiers herded several women and children to the side of the compound, cuffing their hands with plastic ties, then blew up the damaged helicopter.

An early check was conducted to determine whether the victim was indeed bin Laden. A soldier who was about 183cm tall lay down next to the body. It was considerably taller.

"We donated a $US60 million helicopter to this operation. Could we not afford to buy a tape measure?" Obama joked later.

By then the SEALs were in the air, having taken bin Laden’s body with them.

The operation had taken 38 minutes. Before the bemused Pakistanis could engage, the SEALs were back into Afghan airspace.

Back in Bagram, a DNA check against "multiple relatives" was carried out by transmitting material electronically to Washington. According to John Brennan, Obama’s counter-terrorism adviser, the DNA evidence provided a match with "99.9 per cent confidence". Sewn into bin Laden’s pyjamas they discovered E500 ($670) and two phone numbers.

The body was then flown to the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier, waiting south of Karachi.

Before the raid, one of the discussions had been what to do with bin Laden’s corpse. US officials were anxious to avoid him being buried anywhere that could become a shrine for would-be terrorists. By 11am, US time, last Monday, bin Laden’s body had been wrapped in a white sheet, placed in a bag weighed down with stones and dispatched into the depths of the North Arabian Sea, after the reading of some religious verses.

A NATION EMBARRASSED

The Pakistani police were first to arrive after the Americans left, followed by the military and then ISI to find four bodies in pools of blood and a group of terrified women and children. Toys were scattered thorough the main house.

A 12-year-old girl was cradling the head of her mother, who was injured but conscious. "I am Saudi. Osama bin Laden is my father," she said. Later, the mother, a Yemeni, said she was bin Laden’s fifth wife, Amal, and told the Pakistanis she had not been out of the house in five years. She added bin Laden had been living in Pakistan’s for longer than initially thought. Before moving to Abbottabad near the end of 2005, he had spent nearly 2 1/2 years in Chak Shah Mohammad Khan, a village in the nearby district of Haripur.

This only adds to the problem of Pakistan’s relationship with the US.

In Washington, which has given Pakistan $US18 billion since 9/11, there was fury at the idea their allies may have been protecting their greatest enemy. "They are either incompetent or complicit," Panetta told congress members. "Neither is a good place to be."

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