Osama bin Laden killed: Tampa military operation helped prepare squad

12:13 PM, May 2, 2011   |    comments
A U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker jet flies over MacDill Air Force Base in this Air Force photo.
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Tampa, Florida -- The military operation to bring down Osama bin Laden took mere minutes, and there were no U.S. casualties.

U.S. Blackhawk helicopters ferried about two dozen troops from Navy SEAL Team Six, a top military counter-terrorism unit, into the compound identified by the CIA as bin Laden's hideout - and back out again in less than 40 minutes.

Bin Laden was shot in the head, officials said, after he and his bodyguards resisted the assault.

Photo Gallery: Osama bin Laden is dead

President Obama personally authorized this strike and determined broad elements of how it would be carried out, such as sending ground troops instead of an airstrike.

The precise role in the assault played by men and women at South Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base is still unclear.

MacDill is home to SOCOM, or U.S. Special Operations Command -- the people ultimately responsible for training, equipping, and managing Navy SEALs and all other special operations forces in the U.S. military.

Because of their job supporting the SEALs, members of SOCOM's Tampa staff certainly played a crucial background role in making sure the men of this elite team were ready to carry out this mission so successfully.

But could the team in Tampa have been an even bigger direct player in bin Laden's downfall? Teams at MacDill routinely plan out and give the green light to dangerous special missions across the globe. Did our Tampa neighbors design the operation that took bin Laden out?

Col. Tim Nye, SOCOM's head spokesman, said he could not confirm at this point whether anyone in Tampa had a direct part in the mission to kill bin Laden, saying only, "This is a great day for SOCOM. This is a great day for America."

Military analysts say SEAL Team Six is one of a few units that sometimes work outside the chain of command and take orders straight from levels higher than SOCOM. With the bin Laden strike, that may have been the case.

CIA director Leon Panetta was directly in charge of the military team during the operation, according to one official, and when he and his aides received word at agency headquarters that bin Laden had been killed, cheers broke out around the conference room table.

Three adult males were also killed in the raid, including one of bin Laden's sons, whom officials did not name. One of bin Laden's sons, Hamza, is a senior member of al-Qaida. U.S. officials also said one woman was killed when she was used as a shield by a male combatant, and two other women were injured.

The U.S. official who disclosed the burial at sea said it would have been difficult to find a country willing to accept the remains. Obama said the remains had been handled in accordance with Islamic custom, which requires speedy burial.

"I heard a thundering sound, followed by heavy firing. Then firing suddenly stopped. Then more thundering, then a big blast," said Mohammad Haroon Rasheed, a resident of Abbottabad, Pakistan, after the choppers had swooped in and then out again.

"We have rid the world of the most infamous terrorist of our time," Panetta declared to employees of the CIA in a memo Monday morning.

The few fiery minutes in Abbottabad followed years in which U.S. officials struggled to piece together clues that ultimately led to bin Laden, according to an account provided by senior administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the operation.

Based on statements given by U.S. detainees since the 9/11 attacks, they said, intelligence officials have long known that bin Laden trusted one al-Qaida courier in particular, and they believed he might be living with him in hiding.

Four years ago, the United States learned the man's identity, which officials did not disclose, and then about two years later, they identified areas of Pakistan where he operated. Last August, the man's residence was found, officials said.

"Intelligence analysis concluded that this compound was custom built in 2005 to hide someone of significance," with walls as high as 18 feet and topped by barbed wire, according to one official. Despite the compound's estimated $1 million cost and two security gates, it had no phone or Internet running into the house.

By mid-February, intelligence from multiple sources was clear enough that Obama wanted to "pursue an aggressive course of action," a senior administration official said. Over the next two and a half months, the president led five meetings of the National Security Council focused solely on whether bin Laden was in that compound and, if so, how to get him, the official said.

Obama made a decision to launch the operation Friday, shortly before flying to Alabama to inspect tornado damage, and aides set to work on the details.

The president spent part of his Sunday on the golf course, but cut his round short to return to the White House for a meeting where he and top national security aides reviewed final preparations for the raid.

Two hours later, Obama was told that bin Laden had been tentatively identified.

Bin Laden was positively identified through "multiple methods," a senior Pentagon official said Monday, adding that he had personally seen a photo of the corpse. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record, declined to say what other methods were used.

The remains were taken to a U.S. warship, but the official declined to say which one or where the ship was.

Administration aides said the operation was so secretive that no foreign officials were informed in advance, and only a small circle inside the U.S. government was aware of what was unfolding half a world away.

In his announcement, Obama said he had called Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari after the raid, and said it was "important to note that our counter-terrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding."

One senior administration official told reporters, though, "we were very concerned ... that he was inside Pakistan, but this is something we're going to continue to work with the Pakistani government on."

The compound is about a half-mile from a Pakistani military academy, in a city that is home to three army regiments and thousands of military personnel. Abbottabad is surrounded by hills and with mountains in the distance.

Critics have long accused elements of Pakistan's security establishment of protecting bin Laden, though Islamabad has always denied it, and in a statement the foreign ministry said his death showed the country's resolve in the battle against terrorism.

Still, bin Laden's location raised pointed questions of whether Pakistani authorities knew the whereabouts of the world's most wanted man.

Whatever the global repercussions, bin Laden's death marked the end to a manhunt that consumed most of a decade that began in the grim hours after bin Laden's hijackers flew planes into the World Trade Center twin towers in Manhattan and the Pentagon across the Potomac River from Washington. A fourth plane was commandeered by passengers who overcame the hijackers and forced the plane to crash in the Pennsylvania countryside.

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The Navy Times and Associated Press writers Erica Werner, Ben Feller, Pauline Jelinek and Eileen Sullivan contributed to this story.

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