Monitor editor's note - May 5: New facts have emerged on this story. A Monitor update can be read here.
U.S. officials weighed the pros and cons of releasing secret video and photos of Osama bin Laden, killed with a precision shot above his left eye, as fresh details emerged Tuesday of an audacious American raid that netted potentially crucial al-Qaida records as well as the body of the global terrorist leader.
White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said the U.S. already was scouring items seized in the raid — said to include hard drives, DVD's, documents and more that might tip U.S. intelligence to al-Qaida's operational details and perhaps lead the manhunt to the presumed next-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri.
As for publicly releasing photos and video, Brennan said in a series of appearances on morning television: "This needs to be done thoughtfully," with careful consideration given to what kind of reaction the images might provoke.
At issue were photos of bin Laden's corpse and video of his swift burial at sea. Officials were reluctant to inflame Islamic sentiment by showing graphic images of the body. But they were also eager to address the mythology already building in Pakistan and beyond that bin Laden was somehow still alive.
Patience and persistence — characteristics normally attributed to al-Qaida — proved decisive in America's decade-long hunt for bin Laden, whose fate was sealed in 40 minutes of thunderous violence, years in the making.
Obama, who approved the extraordinarily risky operation by Navy SEALs against bin Laden's Pakistan compound and witnessed its progression from the White House Situation Room, his face heavy with tension, reaped accolades from world leaders he'd kept in the dark as well as from political opponents at home.
Republican and Democratic leaders alike gave him a standing ovation at an evening White House meeting that was planned before the assault but became a celebration of it, and an occasion to step away from the fractious political climate.
"Last night's news unified our country," much as the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, did, Republican House Speaker John Boehner said earlier in the day. Obama later appealed for that unity to take root as the U.S. presses the fight against a terrorist network that is still lethal — and now vowing vengeance.
The episode was an embarrassment, at best, for Pakistani authorities as bin Laden's presence was revealed in their midst. The stealth U.S. operation played out in a city with a strong Pakistani military presence and without notice from Washington. Questions persisted in the administration and grew in Congress about whether some elements of Pakistan's security apparatus might have been in collusion with al-Qaida in letting bin Laden hide in Abbottabad.
Brennan asked the question that was reverberating around the world: "How did Osama bin Laden stay at that compound for six years or so and be undetected?"
"We have many, many questions about this," he said. "And I know Pakistani officials do as well." Brennan said Pakistani officials were trying to determine "whether there were individuals within the Pakistani government or military intelligence services who were knowledgeable." He questioned in particular why bin Laden's compound hadn't come to the attention of local authorities.
In an essay published Tuesday by The Washington Post, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari denied suggestions his country's security forces may have sheltered bin Laden, and said their cooperation with the United States helped pinpoint his whereabouts.
As Americans rejoiced, they worried, too, that terrorists would be newly motivated to lash out. In their wounded rage, al-Qaida ideologues fed that concern. "By God, we will avenge the killing of the Sheik of Islam," one prominent al-Qaida commentator vowed. "Those who wish that jihad has ended or weakened, I tell them: Let us wait a little bit."
In that vein, U.S. officials warned that bin Laden's death was likely to encourage attacks from "homegrown violent extremists" even if al-Qaida is not prepared to respond in a coordinated fashion now.
U.S. officials say the photographic evidence shows bin Laden was shot above his left eye, blowing away part of his skull.
He was also shot in the chest, they said. This, near the end of a frenzied firefight in a high-walled Pakistani compound where helicopter-borne U.S. forces found 23 children, nine women, a bin Laden courier who had unwittingly led the U.S. to its target, a son of bin Laden who was also slain, and more.
Bin Laden had lived at the fortified compound for six years, officials said, putting him far from the lawless and harsh Pakistani frontier where he had been assumed to be hiding out.
The only information about what occurred inside the compound has come from American officials, much of it provided under condition of anonymity.
They said SEALs dropped down ropes from helicopters, killed bin Laden aides and made their way to the main building. Obama and his national security team monitored the strike, watching and listening nervously and in near silence from the Situation Room as it all unfolded.
"The minutes passed like days," Brennan said.
U.S. officials said the information that ultimately led to bin Laden's capture originally came from detainees held in secret CIA prison sites in Eastern Europe. There, agency interrogators were told of an alias used by a courier whom bin Laden particularly trusted.
It took four long years to learn the man's real name, then years more before investigators got a big break in the case, these officials said. Sometime in mid-2010, the man was overheard using a phone by intelligence officials, who then were able to locate his residence — the specially constructed $1 million compound with walls as high as 18 feet topped with barbed wire.
U.S. counterterrorism officials considered bombing the place, an option that was discarded by the White House as too risky, particularly if it turned out bin Laden was not there.
Instead, Obama signed an order on Friday for the team of SEALs to chopper onto the compound under the cover of darkness.
In addition to bin Laden, one of his sons, Khalid, was killed in the raid, Brennan said. Bin Laden's wife was shot in the calf but survived, a U.S. official said. Also killed were the courier, another al-Qaida facilitator and an unidentified woman, officials said.
Some people found at the compound were left behind when the SEALs withdrew and were turned over to Pakistani authorities who quickly took over control of the site, officials said. They identified the trusted courier as Kuwaiti-born Sheikh Abu Ahmed, who had been known under the name Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti.
Within 40 minutes, the operation was over, and the SEALs flew out — minus one helicopter, which had malfunctioned and had to be destroyed. Bin Laden's remains were flown to the USS Carl Vinson, then lowered into the North Arabian Sea.
Bin Laden's death came 15 years after he declared war on the United States. Al-Qaida was also blamed for the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa that killed 224 people and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 American sailors in Yemen, as well as countless other plots, some successful and some foiled.