Four of the five people shot to death in the operation that killed Osama bin Laden, including the al-Qaida leader himself, were unarmed and never fired a shot, U.S. officials told NBC News on Wednesday — an account that differs markedly from the Obama administration's original claims that the Navy SEALs came under heavy small-arms fire in a prolonged firefight.
According to the officials' account, as the first SEAL team moved into the compound, they took small-arms fire from the guest house in the compound. The SEALs returned fire, killing bin Laden's courier and the courier's wife, who died in the crossfire. It was the only time the SEALs were shot at.
The second SEAL team entered the first floor of the main residence and could see a man standing in the dark with one hand behind his back. Fearing he was hiding a weapon, the SEALs shot and killed the lone man, who turned out to be unarmed.
As the U.S. commandos moved through the house, they found several stashes of weapons and barricades, as if the residents were prepared for a violent and lengthy standoff — which never materialized.
The SEALs then made their way up a staircase, where they ran into one of bin Laden's sons. The Americans immediately shot and killed the 19-year-old son, who was also unarmed, according to the officials.
Hearing the shots, bin Laden peered over the railing from the floor above. The SEALs fired but missed bin Laden, who ducked back into his bedroom. As the SEALs stormed up the stairs, two young girls ran from the room.
One SEAL scooped them up and carried them out of harm's way. The other two commandos stormed into bin Laden's bedroom. One of bin Laden's wives rushed toward the Navy SEAL, who shot her in the leg.
Then, without hesitation, the same commando turned his gun on bin Laden, standing in what appeared to be pajamas, and fired two quick shots, one to the chest and one to the head. Although there were weapons in that bedroom, bin Laden was also unarmed when he was shot.
Instead of a chaotic firefight, the U.S. officials said, the American commando assault was a precision operation, with SEALs moving carefully through the compound, room to room, floor to floor.
In fact, most of the operation was spent in what the military calls “exploiting the site,” gathering up the computers, hard drives, cellphones and files that could provide valuable intelligence on al-Qaida operatives and potential operations worldwide.
The U.S. officials describing the operation said the SEALs carefully gathered up 22 women and children to ensure they were not harmed. Some of the women were put in “flexi-cuffs” the plastic straps used to bind someone’s hands at the wrists, and left them for Pakistani security forces to discover.
But despite the fact that only one of those killed was armed, everyone was considered a serious threat, the U.S. officials said.
Accounts of the operation had varied widely in the first few days after it was completed.
White House officials initially suggested bin Laden had been holding a gun and perhaps firing at U.S. forces. There was a report that he used his wife as a human shield.
The Associated Press quoted U.S. officials on Tuesday as saying that the SEALs shot him after they saw him appear to lunge for a weapon.
CIA Director Leon Panetta told "PBS NewsHour" that bin Laden "made some threatening moves" that "represented a clear threat to our guys" but was not more specific about what the he did.