It took 10 years, two wars, billions of dollars—and thousands of American lives. But finally, on May 1, 2011, the United States extracted sweet revenge for the deadly attacks on its soil. Cornered in the middle of the night in his secret compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, by a commando team of U.S. Navy SEALs, Osama bin Laden was finally brought down by bullets to the chest and head. Targeting Bin Laden, a new documentary airing Sept. 6 on the History channel, tells the story of the fight to find bin Laden, chronicling the anxiety surrounding the decision to raid the bin Laden compound and the tension in the White House as the men of Team Six carried out their life-or-death mission half a world away. Here, in their own words from the documentary, several of those who watched the drama unfold from inside the White House Situation Room recount the historic mission.
Barack Obama: Some of our intelligence officers thought that it was only a 40 or 30 percent chance that bin Laden was in the compound. Others thought that it was as high as 80 or 90 percent. At the conclusion of a fairly lengthy discussion where everybody gave their assessments, I said, “This is basically 50–50-.” It was circumstantial—we couldn’t know for certain.
At the end of that meeting, which was fairly tense, I told folks I would sleep on it. And I would give an order in the morning.
Ben Rhodes, deputy national-security adviser for strategic operations: We were all waiting with bated breath to get the final decision back from him.
John Brennan, assistant to the president for counter-terrorism and homeland security: The stakes were just too damn high.
Thomas Donilon, national-security adviser: He gathered us in a semicircle around him. And he said, “I’ve thought about the options. I’ve considered the decision and it’s a go.”
Obama: Even though I thought it was only 50–50 that bin Laden was there, I thought it was worth us taking a shot.
Rhodes: I remember a feeling of trying to pass the time because these minutes felt like hours ... and you’re really not in a state of excitement, but rather of extraordinary concern.
Brennan: Might there be a quick reaction force that bin -Laden may have had, security that we didn’t know about? Would there have been a series of detonations that could have killed our forces? So it was nail-biting time.
Rhodes: I realized after those helicopters took off that I wouldn’t be sitting in the room where I was if it weren’t for 9/11. I saw those two Twin Towers get hit with airplanes ... And that’s when I decided that I wanted to move down to Washington and try to be a part of whatever was going to happen next. You’re sitting there thinking through all those things. Your personal story, the story of the country, what’s going to be going through the minds of the people who lost loved ones. All those things I think were weighing very heavily on all of us in the Situation Room.
Obama: We were able to monitor the situation in real time. We could see that there were problems, especially with one of the helicopters landing. So right off the top, everybody I think was holding their breath.
Obama: Everything was quiet, and we were just listening and trying to work out what had happened. We had a sense that despite the helicopter landing in a violent way, the passengers inside had not been hurt and they were still going through with the mission.
We were really in a blackout situation—and it was hard for us to know what exactly was taking place. We knew that gunshots were taking place, and we knew some explosions were taking place.
Brennan: A lot of our minds were racing towards worst-case scenarios.
Rhodes: There was a lot of concern about, was the compound going to be booby-trapped? Were there going to be explosions? Was bin Laden going to be wearing a suicide vest?
Obama: It was announced that Geronimo, the code name they had developed for bin Laden, was EKIA [enemy killed in action].
Rhodes: Gasps, literally ... The president just said, “We got him, we got him.”
Obama: This was a big gamble, and I think at the time I said something very brief. I said, “We got him.” But there was no whooping, there was no hollering, there was no high-fiving inside the Situation Room. All of us were focused on, are these guys going to get out safely?