The White House came under increasing pressure on Tuesday to release video footage of the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound after the official version of events began to fall apart.
A lengthy and detailed description of Operation Geronimo on Monday by John Brennan, the chief US counter-terrorism adviser, was seriously undermined when, less than 24 hours later, the White House was forced to give a contradictory account.
Officials blamed the “great haste” with which information about the operation had been gathered for errors in the briefing.
The picture of what happened both before and during the raid became even more confused when government sources in Pakistan and Afghanistan disputed key facts about the commando mission.
These are the main questions:
Did he use his wife as a human shield?
In his televised White House briefing on Monday, Mr Brennan made repeated references to bin Laden using his wife as a “human shield” in a last, desperate attempt to save his own life.
The adviser, whose comments made front-page news around the world, said the terrorist leader’s spouse was killed as US Navy Seals forced their way into a top-floor room.
“She served as a shield, that’s my understanding,” he said. “She was positioned in a way that she was being used as a human shield. She met her demise and my understanding is that she was one of bin Laden’s wives.”
Another official suggested that the dead woman was bin Laden’s fifth and youngest spouse, a 27-year-old Yemeni called Amal al-Sadah.
But yesterday the US government withdrew the account. Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, disclosed that bin Laden’s wife was in the same room as her husband but was not killed. She was shot in the leg after “rushing” at special forces.
Was bin Laden armed?
Mr Brennan said on Monday that bin Laden had picked up a gun and was “engaged in a firefight” when he was shot. Although he said he did not know whether bin Laden managed to fire any rounds, officials were adamant that the al-Qaeda leader had pulled the trigger.
“He was firing behind [his wife],” one said. In a separate background briefing, another source said: “He did resist the assault force. And he was killed in a firefight.”
But last night the picture had changed. Mr Carney said bin Laden was unarmed and was fired upon after one of his guards attacked one of the US team.
“[The Seal] was rushed by one individual in the room and the resistance was constant from the moment they landed to the end of the operation,” he said. “He [bin Laden] was not armed. Resistance does not require a firearm.”
Which son was killed?
Early reports of the raid suggested that five people were killed — bin Laden, a woman, two al-Qaeda “couriers” and bin Laden’s youngest son, Hamza, 20. But in his White House briefing, Mr Brennan said it was another son, 22-year-old Khalid, who died. Mysteriously, an official transcript of Mr Brennan’s comments replaced Khalid’s name with Hamza’s, suggesting Mr Brennan had named the wrong son, but this has not been clarified.
How many people were in the compound?
On Monday, White House sources suggested that there were 22 people living in the compound, of whom five were killed. Pakistan’s intelligence service, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), said there were 17 or 18 people in the compound.
But a third version of events has also emerged from Pakistan, in which there were 17 or 18 children inside the compound, as well as the adults.
It remains unclear which is the correct version of events. Mr Carney said last night that there were three families living in the compound, including bin Laden’s.
Did the Pakistanis raid the same building in 2003?
White House briefings on Monday stated that the building in Abbottabad where bin Laden was living had been built in 2005, and that it had been purpose-built for him.
But an ISI official in Pakistan made an extraordinary claim yesterday that the same compound had been raided by Pakistani forces as long ago as 2003, when it was still being built.
According to the ISI source, the Pakistanis were looking for Abu Faraj al-Libi, who became bin Laden’s No 3, and was later captured by the CIA.
If Pakistan’s account is correct, the US’s entire story about how they found the building would be undermined.
Mr Carney described the US relationship with Pakistan as “complicated” last night. He said they had contributed to the “mountain of intelligence” that had led to the discovery of bin Laden’s hiding place
There was still confusion over who owned the compound, with the US saying it was the two “couriers” who were killed in the raid, and Afghanistan saying it was an Afghan national.
Who identified the body?
There was growing confusion yesterday over who identified bin Laden after the Navy Seals stormed the compound.
According to US security sources, he was named by one of his wives. Senior intelligence officials in Pakistan were briefing yesterday that he was in fact identified by his daughter Safia, aged 12 or 13. She is currently being questioned by Pakistani intelligence officials.
How many times was he shot?
US officials initially said bin Laden was shot once in the head above the left eye and once in the chest.
Yesterday, however, they were briefing that he was in fact shot twice in the head to ensure he was dead in what special forces describe as a “double tap”, with one of the shots hitting him side-on in the head.
Were US forces ordered to kill or capture bin Laden?
Mr Brennan insisted at his briefing on Monday that US special forces were instructed to take bin Laden alive unless he posed a threat.
“Our goal was to prepare for all contingencies and if we had the opportunity to take bin Laden alive, if he didn’t pose any threat, then the individuals involved were ready and able to do that,” he said.
“We had discussed that possibility in the White House but the concern was that bin Laden would attempt to evade any capture operation, and indeed he did. There was a firefight.”
But yesterday it emerged that bin Laden was unarmed, raising questions about why the Navy Seals team decided to shoot him.
Several US national security officials have briefed that there was in fact no intention to capture bin Laden, contrary to Mr Brennan’s statement. “This was a kill operation,” one official said.
Retired Navy Seals told The Daily Telegraph that the airborne raid had all the hallmarks of a “kill” operation, as the helicopters would inevitably alert those inside the compound to what was coming and give them a chance to fight back. The former soldier said that if the intention had been to take bin Laden alive, a silent ground assault would have been the only option.
Did one of the helicopters used in the raid suffer a mechanical failure or was it shot down?
The US said one of the Black Hawk helicopters carrying the Seals team was grounded after a mechanical failure. One official said the pilot suffered a “loss of lift” as he came in to land and had to make an emergency landing.
The Seals destroyed the helicopter with explosives and left the compound with bin Laden’s body in another helicopter.
There have been suggestions, however, that the helicopter was damaged after being shot at by bin Laden’s bodyguards as it flew over the compound. Reports in Pakistan suggest it was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, and photographs of the scene show the tail section of the aircraft hanging over the wall of the compound, suggesting it hit the wall as it came down in what would have been a heavy crash-landing rather than a “loss of lift”.
Was bin Laden’s body DNA tested?
Officials said on Monday that bin Laden’s body had initially been identified using facial recognition technology on a photograph wired back to Washington from Abbottabad, before a DNA test was carried out that proved with “99.9 per cent certainty” that it was the al-Qaeda leader.
But yesterday a US congressman cast doubt on whether the DNA tests had yet been carried out. Representative Ron Paul, a Republican presidential candidate and a doctor, said: “I understand he was killed Sunday afternoon and by Sunday nine o’clock it was announced that the President would speak and they had DNA proof of the individual. I didn’t know they could do DNA that quickly. Then they came back and said it was facial features and we’ll get the results of the DNA later.”
How much did Pakistan know about the raid?
The US says it decided not to inform Pakistan about the raid because it feared information would leak out and bin Laden would escape.
But Pakistan claimed yesterday it had been sharing information about the compound where bin Laden was staying since 2009.
While unaware of the raid itself, the ISI provided the US and other allies with intelligence on individuals at the compound.
Officials said they were not aware that bin Laden was staying there. The US is convinced that bin Laden received support from members of the Pakistani authorities.