ISLAMABAD // Residents of the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad were shaken from their beds early yesterday by the whirr of helicopter blades and crack of gunfire. It turned out to be a commando raid that prompted relief and euphoria in the White House and dismay and grief for the target's thinning ranks of supporters.
It was 12.45am when, witnesses said, they were stirred by the sound of helicopters skimming the rooftops and then gunfire, as an elite US military unit mounted their assault against Osama bin Laden, the al Qa'eda chief who had evaded US intelligence operatives since the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
Long believed to be hiding in caves on the Afghan-Pakistani border, bin Laden was instead holed up in a mansion in the working-class suburb of Bilal, down the road from the Pakistani army's premier officer training school at Kakul.
The military operation took less than 80 minutes and there were no US casualties. After taking DNA samples that US officials later said confirmed bin Laden's identity, his remains were buried at sea yesterday, less than 12 hours after his death. "Justice has been done," President Barack Obama said from the White House.
For his enemies, the death of 54-year-old bin Laden marks a triumph in a long struggle that began well before the September 11 attacks. Al Qa'eda was also blamed for the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in East Africa that killed 224 people and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 American sailors in Yemen.
The helicopters ferried about two dozen special forces troops into the compound, which is located deep in the heart of Pakistan, inside a sizeable city. Bin Laden's hideout was virtually drone-proof.
Three adult males were also killed, including one of bin Laden's sons, and US officials said one woman was killed when she was used as a shield by a male combatant.
The operation was not free of mishaps. Unnamed US officials told the online newspaper Politico that one of the US Blackhawk helicopters carrying the Americans malfunctioned as it approached bin Laden's compound, stalling as it hovered. The pilot set it down gently inside the walls, then could not get it going again.
It was a tense moment for Mr Obama, who had been monitoring the raid in the White House Situation Room surrounded by members of his war cabinet.
Nevertheless, the goal was achieved. Bin Laden was shot in the face by US commandos during a firefight after resisting capture, according to an unnamed senior administration official quoted by Politico. His body was taken to an US aircraft carrier, where it was buried at sea. The troops left behind bloodstained mattresses and carpets and discarded medication bottles in the room where bin Laden was shot, according to a video taken at the scene.
The official who disclosed the burial at sea said it would have been difficult to find a country willing to accept the remains. Mr Obama said the remains had been handled in accordance with Islamic custom.
Muslim clerics said later yesterday that the burial at sea was a violation of Islamic tradition because the death did not occur aboard a ship. Although there appears to be some room for debate over the burial, a wide range of senior Islamic scholars interpreted it as a humiliating disregard for the standard Muslim practice of placing the body in a grave with the head pointed toward the holy city of Mecca.
Bin Laden's burial at sea "runs contrary to the principles of Islamic laws, religious values and humanitarian customs," said Sheikh Ahmed al Tayeb, the grand Imam of Cairo's al-Azhar mosque, Sunni Islam's highest seat of learning.
At the CIA, which had hunted bin Laden for years, the satisfaction of a successful mission was tempered by the prospect of revenge.
"We have rid the world of the most infamous terrorist of our time," CIA director Leon Panetta declared to employees of the agency in a memo yesterday. He warned that "terrorists almost certainly will attempt to avenge" the killing of a man deemed uncatchable. "Bin Laden is dead. Al Qa'eda is not," Mr Panetta said.
Mr Obama said that the operation could not have happened without Pakistani co-operation. But an administration official said the Pakistanis did not know about the raid until after it occurred, citing the need for the "utmost operational security".
Secrecy seemed to shroud the house where bin Laden was killed, too.
Majid Mirza, a 38-year-old teacher in Abbottabad, said it was "strange" that the owners first built a 20-foot wall, topped it with electrified razor wire and then built the house out of sight.
But not nearly as strange as the sights and sounds he saw and heard from the roof of his house.
"Three helicopters came, one after the other, and we saw soldiers descend from one chopper into the compound," Mr Mirza said.
Across the valley, Ehtesham-ul-Haq, a 30-year-old businessman, was relaxing on the terrace, when an explosion echoed across the valley.
"We watched as one of the helicopters was shot down and exploded when it hit the ground," he told The National.
Express 24/7, a Lahore-based television station, last night showed video of what it said was the compound in Abbottabad in flames. Bilal Town residents said they rushed into the street to find out what was happening, only to be ushered back inside their homes by soldiers and policemen, who had cordoned off the area.
Residents were warned to stay off the rooftops or risk being shot by army snipers.
US officials in Washington told the Associated Press that intelligence officials discovered the compound in August while monitoring an al Qa'eda courier.
The CIA had been hunting the courier for years, ever since people detained by Pakistan told interrogators that the courier was so trusted by bin Laden that he might very well be living with him.
Agents became increasingly interested in the Abbottabad compound, which had no telephone lines or television cables, and whose occupants burnt their trash rather than put it out for collection. As residents pointed out, one-and-a-half stories of the three-storey building were hidden behind the mansion wall, while a second privacy wall shielded the top storey.
Residents had been speculating about the fortified 1,500-square-metre compound. They said it had been purchased eight years ago for Rs900,000 (Dh39,100) by a man who identified himself as Akbar Khan, a resident of Buner. Afghan Taliban sources yesterday identified Mr Khan as the "courier". They described him as a "close, personal friend" of bin Laden.
It was he who persuaded bin Laden to come to Pakistan from Afghanistan for treatment of a long-standing kidney condition, and for crippling leg pain, they said. They believe the militants detained in Karachi tipped off Pakistani intelligence operatives of Mr Khan's invitation and bin Laden's imminent journey to Abbotabad.
The sources said bin Laden entered Pakistan either on Thursday or Friday, and travelled non-stop to Abbottabad.
By mid-February, agents had enough convincing information that Mr Obama wanted to "pursue an aggressive course of action," an administration official said. Over the next two and a half months, Mr Obama 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.
Muzammil Pasha reported from Abbottabad, Amjad Hadayat reported from Karachi, and Ehsanullah Wazir reported from Dera Ismail Khan.
* With additional reporting by the Associated Press