Osama bin Laden used his wife as a human shield in a last desperate attempt to save his own life before he was gunned down by US special forces in his hideout in Pakistan.
Armed with an automatic weapon, the al-Qaeda leader's last act was to force his young bride to sacrifice her life as he tried to fire back at the US Navy Seals storming the compound.
Bin Laden was killed with a single shot to the head after being tracked down to a million-dollar compound just 35 miles from the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, where he is thought to have been living for six years.
The extraordinary details of his last stand were disclosed by the White House as the 13-year hunt for the world's most wanted man finally reached its bloody end.
President Barack Obama, watching the raid in real time, turned to his advisers after the most significant moment in the war on terror, and said: "We got him."
Far from living in a cave or a tunnel, the terrorist mastermind had been "hiding in plain view" less than a mile from Pakistan's main military academy in Abbottabad.
The 54 year-old, whose body was identified using DNA and facial recognition techniques, was buried at sea to avoid any danger of his grave becoming a shrine.
News of bin Laden's death, conveyed on live television by Mr Obama at 4.30am British time yesterday, prompted scenes of wild celebration on the streets of New York, the city where al-Qaeda's worst atrocity took place, and throughout America.
Also killed in the raid, alongside bin Laden's wife, understood to be his youngest spouse, Amal al-Sadeh, 27, were the terrorist leader's son Khalid, 22, and two brothers who acted as his "couriers". Bin Laden had been shot several times.
In other key developments:
- Pakistan was facing growing questions over whether it knew anything about bin Laden's whereabouts
- Britain and the US were put on heightened terrorist alert amid fears of a "lone wolf" revenge attack.
- The White House was under pressure to release a photograph of bin Laden's body to head off conspiracy theorists.
- There were angry scenes in the Muslim world at the news of bin Laden's burial at sea. A video of the burial may be released by US authorities.
- It emerged that the raid was authorised by Mr Obama, despite the fact he was not certain bin Laden was at the compound. An adviser described the decision as the "gutsiest" by a US president in recent times.
The death of bin Laden meant the world was "a safer place", President Obama said last night. Earlier, the White House described it as a "defining moment in the war against al-Qaeda".
US intelligence officials believe the architect of the 9/11 attacks made a propaganda recording shortly before his death and expect that tape to surface soon. Intelligence indicated that the recording is already working its way through al-Qaeda's media pipeline, a US official said.
US security services are sifting through a treasure trove of intelligence gathered at the compound, although officials refused to say what they had found. Counter-terrorism officials said that up to 12 senior al-Qaeda officials are believed to be based in Pakistan. The country was only informed of the US operation after it scrambled jets in response to the attack at the compound.
John Brennan, the chief US counter-terrorism adviser, said it was "inconceivable" that bin Laden had not received support in the six years he had been at the compound. He said: "It is inconceivable that bin Laden did not have a support system in the country that allowed him to stay there for such an extended period of time. People are referring to it [the compound] as hiding in plain sight. We are looking at how he was able to hide there for so long.
"I'm sure that a number of people have questions about whether there was some kind of support provided by the Pakistani government." He added: "If we had the opportunity to take bin Laden alive, the individuals were able and prepared to do that." Last night David Cameron, who said bin Laden's death would "bring great relief around the world", chaired a meeting of the Cobra emergency committee to discuss the implications of the incident.
There were warnings of reprisals by al-Qaeda. Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, said al-Qaeda would "almost certainly" try to avenge the killing. "Though bin Laden is dead, al-Qaeda is not," he said. "The terrorists almost certainly will attempt to avenge him, and we must – and will – remain vigilant and resolute."
Since the US identified the compound in August last year Navy Seals have been conducting practice raids at a replica version of the compound.
US officials expressed incredulity that the Pakistani security services had failed to ask questions about the one-acre compound, which was eight times the size of any other building nearby and had walls up to 18ft-high topped with barbed wire.
Mr Brennan said: "It clearly was very different from any other house out there. It had the appearance of a fortress. We have had some indication that the family that was there tried to remain anonymous but it does raise questions about a compound of that size in this area not raising suspicions previously."
Mr Brennan said that before the attack there was only "circumstantial evidence" that bin Laden was present and several of the president's advisers had urged him not to go ahead. Referring to the moment the raid was watched in real time, Mr Brennan said: "It was one of the most anxiety-filled periods of time in the lives of any of the people assembled here yesterday. The minutes felt like days and the president was very concerned about the security of his personnel. It was clearly very tense."
Speaking of bin Laden's wife, who was "positioned" as a human shield, Mr Brennan said: "She fought back when there was an opportunity to get bin Laden. She got positioned in a way that she was being used as a shield.
"Living in this million-dollar-plus compound, in an area that is far away from the front, hiding behind a woman: it really speaks to just how false his narrative has been over the years." Mr Brennan said that al-Qaeda was a "mortally wounded tiger" but warned it "still has some life in it".
The US is considering whether to release photographs of bin Laden. Mr Brennan said: "We are going to do everything we can to make sure that nobody has any basis to try to deny that we got Osama bin Laden."