As President Obama made his pilgrimage to Ground Zero in New York, new details emerged yesterday suggesting that the commando raid that killed the world's most wanted terrorist in Pakistan on Monday was a far more one-sided affair than original official US accounts suggested.
According to a new version provided by Pentagon officials, of the five people killed in the commando raid in which Osama bin Laden was shot dead, only one was armed and fired a shot. He was Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, the courier whose identification and shadowing led American agents to the fortified compound on the outskirts of Abbottabad where the al-Qa'ida leader was hiding.
After shooting Mr Kuwaiti dead in the guest house, along with a woman who was there, the US Navy Seals moved on to the main building and no further shots were fired in resistance, the officials said, painting a somewhat different picture from the prolonged firefight initially described. The raid culminated with the killing of Bin Laden on the top floor of the compound residence proper.
The raid lasted approximately 40 minutes. But at the moment of his death, the terrorist leader was not carrying a weapon, though some accounts suggest an AK-47 rifle and a pistol were on a table close by. The officials now describe the assault on the main residence as a "precision, floor-by-floor operation" in which the courier's brother and Bin Laden's son Khaled were shot dead, before the commando team reached the room containing Bin Laden.
Officials blame the confusion on the "fog of war", and their desire to provide as much early information as possible to the media. They say that what precisely happened has been established only now that the Seals who took part in the raid have been properly debriefed.
But the changing story has removed a little lustre from the most triumphal national security moment of the Obama presidency. Originally, Bin Laden was supposed to have died in a massive gunfight, using his wife as a human shield, cornered in a house that was supposed to be the lap of luxury.
The Obama administration now says it will give no further details of the raid – which appears to have used "stealth" helicopters, fuelling worries that the wreckage of one that crashed could be shipped to China to reveal its technological secrets – following the President's decision not to release death photos of Bin Laden.
But the impression persists that the administration sought to cast the operation in the most heroic light possible, at the expense of the facts. That in turn could stoke new demands for publication of the photos, should further discrepancies emerge.
Meanwhile, another Saudi terrorist – Khaled Hathal al-Qahtani, linked to Al Qai'da and the 13th most wanted man in his home country – was apprehended in a less violent manner earlier this week when he handed himself in. In any case, it will soon be partisan business as usual again in US politics. Yesterday, Vice-President Joe Biden opened talks with top congressional leaders on how to reduce the federal deficit.
The debt argument, pitting Republicans demanding spending cuts against Democrats determined to protect key social programmes such as Medicare and Social Security, is the issue that may above all decide whether Mr Obama wins a second term in November 2012.
Even as the President was in New York, the Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, declared his party would not vote to raise the US debt limit, due to be hit within weeks, without "trillions of dollars" of spending cuts.
The death of national enemy No 1 Osama bin Laden has created a rare moment of unity between the parties. It is unlikely to last.
Who was the raid's four-legged hero?
As the clamour for answers over the shooting of Osama bin Laden grows, one unexpected mystery is emerging from the fog of war: was the 80th member of the elite commando squad a German Shepherd or a Belgian Malinois? And was it decked out in its tan or camouflage green waterproof vest?
Soon after the raid in the early hours of Monday morning, US security officials revealed that one dog had taken part in the operation to kill or capture the al-Qa'ida chief. It has since been hailed as America's most courageous canine, but like the rest of the elite Seal Team 6 that descended from helicopters and into the fray, its identity remains classified.
Dogs used by US Navy Seal teams were last year kitted out in waterproof tan or camouflage vests equipped with night-vision cameras and speakers so their handlers can shout orders at them remotely, according to a report in the New York Times. Nij Islam, head trainer with the UK-based Elite K9, which trains dogs for security services worldwide, said that although a parachuting canine may seem far-fetched, all it takes is solid training – and a plucky disposition.
"You just need a dog with a stable temperament – not a nervous dog – with a lot of confidence, a very strong nerve," he said. In a situation such as the Pakistan raid, the dog could have been used to sniff out the human target, ensure there were no explosives, or bring down any suspect trying to flee. Mr Islam said only German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois or Dutch Herders would be up to the job.
Dogs are increasingly being deployed in war zones, where they are often used to hunt out deadly roadside bombs.
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