The United States revealed on Tuesday that Osama bin Laden was unarmed when US commandos shot him dead, and that Pakistani authorities had been kept in the dark because they might have tipped off the Al-Qaeda leader.
Unusually frank remarks from the CIA chief portrayed the extent of the distrust between the US and Pakistan, a nuclear-armed ally and key partner in the war against the resurgent Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan.
“It was decided that any effort to work with the Pakistanis could jeopardise the mission,” Leon Panetta said. “They might alert the targets.”
US officials, meanwhile, debated whether to scotch conspiracy theories by releasing a “gruesome” photo of the dead bin Laden, conscious that such an image would likely inflame strong passions in some Muslim countries.
The White House gave the fullest account yet of the dramatic and momentous raid on Sunday night that killed the architect of the September 11, 2001 attacks and sparked scenes of relief and joy around the Western world.
But officials did not clearly explain why bin Laden was shot dead and not captured given that he was unarmed, fuelling speculation that the elite Navy SEAL team had been ordered on a kill mission.
“In the room with bin Laden, a woman – bin Laden’s wife – rushed the US assaulter and was shot in the leg but not killed,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
“Bin Laden was then shot and killed. He was not armed.”
When pressed further, Mr Carney said there had been significant resistance, a “volatile firefight,” and insisted: “We were prepared to capture him if that was possible.”
The fact that, after a years-long manhunt, bin Laden turned up in an fortified compound in Abbottabad, home to the Pakistani equivalent of the West Point and Sandhurst elite military academies just two hours’ drive north of Islamabad, has been greeted with incredulity.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari rejected as “baseless” charges that his country extends safe haven to extremists, but outraged US lawmakers are calling for billions of dollars in aid to be cut back or dropped entirely.
US analysts were scouring documents and computer files seized from bin Laden’s hideout for evidence after top counter-terrorism official John Brennan said it was “inconceivable” he had not had some kind of support network in Pakistan.
In the operation, which lasted less than 40 minutes, Navy SEALs approached in two helicopters and stormed bin Laden’s compound, which stood out from other properties because of its towering perimeter walls and heavy security.
In addition to the bin Laden family, two other families resided there: one on the first floor of the main residence and another in a second building.
“There was concern that bin Laden would oppose the capture operation and indeed he resisted,” Mr Carney said.
He noted that two Al-Qaeda couriers and a woman were killed on the first floor of the building, while bin Laden and his family were found on the second and third floor. The fifth person killed in the raid was believed to be one of the Al-Qaeda leader’s sons.
US officials have revealed how the trail for bin Laden had gone cold for years until August 2010, when the CIA tracked a courier and his brother to the large compound in Abbottabad, north of Islamabad.
After months of top-secret planning, the operation came down to a simple command delivered by Obama on Friday – “it’s a go.”
The US says bin Laden received Muslim rites before his body was “eased” into the Arabian Sea on Monday so no one could turn his grave into a shrine. Muslim leaders have condemned the sea burial.