Osama bin Laden went down firing at the US special forces who stormed his compound, a US official revealed last night.
The White House said the elite Navy Seals team that killed bin Laden would have taken him alive had they been given the opportunity.
Counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan said one of bin Laden's wives was used as a human shield to try to protect him and she was killed too as a result.
He added that the White House thought bin Laden would resist but that there was a “remote” possibility he could be captured alive. The senior adviser to President Barack Obama — who monitored the raid from the White House Situation Room — said that it would have happened only if bin Laden did not pose any threat to the Americans sent to take him out.
Since he fought back, he was killed.
“It was probably one of the most anxiety-filled periods of time in the lives of the people who were assembled here,” Mr Brennan said from the White House. “The minutes passed like days.”
Mr Brennan also said it was inconceivable that bin Laden did not have some support in Pakistan, where he was hiding when he was killed by US forces.
No photographs of bin Laden were released yesterday but Pentagon officials said the at-sea burial of Osama bin Laden was videotaped and that it probably will be released soon. The decision to quickly dispose of the body from the deck on the USS Carl Vinson into the waters of the northern Arabian sea was taken to avoid a burial site on land becoming a shrine for his followers.
The US and its allies stepped up security last night, amid fears of a possible revenge attack from al-Qaida militants. Security for Mr Obama's visit to Ireland this month has also been stepped up.
Hours after the celebrations that broke out across the US after Mr Obama announced that bin Laden had been killed, officials warned of the possible repercussions that could follow.
“Though bin Laden is dead, al-Qaida is not,” said Leon Panetta, director of the CIA. “The terrorists almost certainly will attempt to avenge him, and we must — and will — remain vigilant and resolute.” Prime Minister David Cameron said the West would need to be “particularly vigilant” in the weeks ahead.
The warnings came after a remarkable day in which it was revealed that the man who had waged war on the West in such spectacular and deadly fashion when his network struck in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, had been killed.
Bin Laden was discovered in a compound in Abbottabad with few outward-facing windows and no internet or telephone access, and killed after an operation that lasted 48 minutes.
While many experts had suggested the al-Qaida leader may have been hiding in Pakistan, it was always assumed it would have been in the wild tribal areas close to the border with Afghanistan and not in the centre of a garrison town that is home to thousands of Pakistani troops.
His presence there is hugely embarrassing to Pakistan and while US officials were last night quoted as saying they did not believe the Pakistani authorities were aware of his location, Islamabad will struggle to convince its critics that it was innocent.
The operation on Sunday night, which was carried out by helicopter-borne US special forces, followed a months-long intelligence operation in which the CIA had monitored the three-storey residence around the clock. They had been alerted to it after monitoring the movements of a man, long suspected of being a courier for bin Laden.