From the moment it was announced by President Barak Obama on the evening of May 1, 2011, the killing of Osama bin Laden became a legendary special forces operation.
The head of the al-Qaeda terrorist network that had carried out the 9/11 attacks a decade before, bin Laden had since managed to avoid capture, death or justice.
His hiding place in a compound less than a mile from the Pakistan Military Academy in Abbottabad, a city of over 200,000 residents, was therefore somewhat unexpected.
In the early hours of May 2, local time, one local resident - an IT consultant named Sohaib Athar - was watching out of his window and commented on Twitter about the unusual presence of a helicopter. His tweet read:
“Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM [is a rare event].”
Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event).— Sohaib Athar (@ReallyVirtual) May 1, 2011
Athar of course could not have known it at the time, but he was witnessing the opening phase of a 38-minute raid of a nearby compound that aimed to either kill or capture Osama bin Laden. (Indeed, the goal actually included the possibility of capturing the al-Qaeda leader).
And as Peter Panzeri explains in ‘Killing bin Laden: Operation Neptune Spear 2011’, Athar was witnessing and tweeting about the event despite a myriad of pre-operation measures meant to keep it as secret as possible. These included a CIA-induced outage of power and mobile networks in the area right before the raid started.
Though these were of course the tip of a much larger iceberg. Intelligence and preparation for the raid had been immense.
The film ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ has told the tale of how bin Laden was tracked down after his courier was identified and tailed back to the compound by the CIA. This led in turn to efforts to try and definitively establish if bin Laden was indeed at the site, all of which were unsuccessful. In fact, the advantage of a commando raid over a drone strike, quite apart from sparing the myriad family members of bin Laden and his associates who were also present, was that it allowed for Navy SEALs to confirm if bin Laden certainly did lay within the compound. Before the raid, the CIA had 60 – 80% confidence bin Laden was there.
As well as Athar and other nearby residents of Abbottabad, the raid also came as a surprise to the Pakistani authorities, as did bin Laden’s presence.
Panzeri points out that even though the US chose to keep Pakistan in the dark about the operation, they had provided assistance to the Americans in tracking down bin Laden’s courier. Still, Panzeri points out:
“Although Pakistan was a US ally in the region, as a sovereign nation there is no doubt that it would have insisted on controlling or conducting any potential special operations. As a nation with a certain number of jihadist sympathizers within its security establishment, Pakistan had an extremely limited ability to conduct highly sensitive operations without a high risk of security compromise.”
Hence, the stealth helicopters emerging out of a moonless night that surprised both Sohaib Athar and, in due course, his government.
“SEAL Team Six”
The men aboard the helicopters that night were members of Red Squadron, one of four assault squadrons apparently within DEVGRU (again, the official name of SEAL Team Six), the others being Gold, Blue and Silver Squadrons. These are further supported by a reconnaissance and surveillance (Black) squadron and an SBS-like maritime (Gray) squadron.
Since April 2011, 24 members of Red Squadron had been practicing for the raid in a mock-up of the compound set up in North Carolina (just as members of the SAS had practiced for the Iranian Embassy siege in a mock-up of that building.)
The rehearsals had also given the raiders a chance to practice riding aboard the specialist stealth helicopters they would be using (known as the MH-X.) These were flown by the US Army’s 160 Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), pilots who were at the top of their game, something that would prove to be a life saver during the mission.
The SEALs were arrayed in two assault teams – Chalk One and Chalk Two – and distributed as follows aboard the two helicopters:
Lead stealth helicopter: Prince 51
10 assault SEALs divided into two five-man teams (A and B), 1 SEAL sniper, mission senior master chief
Trail stealth helicopter: Prince 52
10 assault SEALs (Teams C and D), 1 SEAL sniper, tactical mission commander, interpreter, combat-assault dog (“Cairo”) and handler
The plan was for the helicopters to fly low, through valleys, to avoid detection by Pakistani radar.
Prince 52 was to land first outside the compound, and to have a small group from Chalk Two, which included the interpreter, the dog Cairo and his handler patrol around it.
Prince 52 would then drop the rest of the SEALs from Chalk Two onto the roof of the compound’s main building while Chalk One’s SEALs would drop by fast rope into the courtyard outside. The idea was to assault both ends of the building, top and bottom, simultaneously.
That, however, is not quite how it worked out.
A Rough Landing
Panzeri notes that the planning and preparation and the raid itself were all carried out very well, with simple and clear objectives that were well supported.
But it was not perfect, and one of the major oversights became apparent right as the SEALs were about to be dropped into the compound.
Chalk Two’s helicopter, Prince 52, came down first, north of the compound, as planned, dropping four SEALs, the interpreter, the dog Cairo and his handler outside the walls. They quickly split up, with the interpreter and one of the SEALs setting up a security position to control any cars that might approach. The other three SEALs, including the dog handler, took Cairo and circled the compound with the dog sniffing for anyone who might try and escape.
The Chalk One helicopter, Prince 51, then got ready to drop its SEALs by fast rope into the courtyard below.
But the helicopter suddenly lost lift power, with it lurching to one side and spinning awkwardly as the pilot tried desperately to stop it slamming to earth.
As it turned out, it had been caught in what is called a hazardous airflow vortex whereby the downdraft from the helicopter’s own rotor blades was rebounded or channelled upwards by the solid walls of the compound - something that interfered with its ability to remain airborne.
The mock-up rehearsals had only involved a fake compound with a chain-link fence, and this had evidently failed to replicate the kinds of dangers the pilots would face from the concrete walls of the real compound during the raid itself.
In any event, it might have worked out for the best that this aspect of the raid was not replicated in too much detail, because by dropping suddenly, a helicopter is liable to tip over and then rip itself apart as the rotor blades hit the earth. This could have caused an explosion that would have killed everyone on board, and presumably was liable to have occurred in training for the raid as well as during the raid itself.
When it did happen, the pilot managed to wrestle the helicopter over the clear courtyard to one side of the main compound building and brought it down so that its nose settled in the soft farmed soil, and its tail was supported by the compound wall.
There was then a “Go! Go!” from the helicopter crew chief and the SEALs got out while the pilot and copilot continued to use what lift they had left to keep the helicopter level while they brought the rotor blades to a gradual stop. These in fact skimmed the soil on one side and flung up dirt until they did so.
It was all of this that Sohaib Athar was witnessing from his window. It was almost 1 am, and the mission to get bin Laden was just commencing.
Seeing what had happened to the Chalk One helicopter, the pilot of the Chalk Two helicopter, Prince 52, dropped its remaining SEALs in a field to the northwest of the compound.
Meanwhile, the Chalk One team had exited Prince 51 and made their way to the edge of the courtyard where they blew open the gate and went through to the guesthouse, a small building outside the main building. (This is visible at the bottom of the diagram just above).
Their sniper, who was meant to remain airborne with the helicopter during the operation, instead set up position on a nearby shed roof covering his team as they continued their advance towards the guesthouse.
For their part, the SEALs in Chalk Two also tried to blow open a gate so they could enter the compound but they found it was bricked-up and they were forced to try the main gate instead.
Chalk One continued their advanced and tried to force entry into the guesthouse. Mark Owen (who would later put down his account of the raid in the book ‘No Easy Day’) placed an explosive charge to blow the door open. As he did this, a flurry of AK-47 bullets came ripping through the door, narrowly missing him.
Owen’s comrades fired back, trying to guess the position of the shooter through the still-closed door. The SEALs then called through the door to those left inside telling them to open it. A woman came out and said:
“He is dead. You killed him.”
They then cuffed her and took her back inside. The shooter was the courier the CIA had followed to the compound: Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti (also known as Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed.) His children were also inside and the SEALs put them in a back room.
They then redeployed to the main house, with their sniper then moving from the shed roof to the guesthouse roof so he could cover their advance.
By this point it was 01:05 am – seven minutes had passed since the commencement of the mission.
Chalk Two was planning to blow open the main gate, but the commander of Chalk One told them over the radio to “Belay that”, meaning not to do it. He was inside and simply went and opened the gate for them.
The SEALs then moved on the main building.
Near the south door, they encountered Abrar al-Kuwaiti, the courier’s brother. It was very dark inside with the power still out but the SEALs had night-vision goggles. A melee erupted and in the firefight the SEALs shot Abrar and his wife (Zero Dark Thirty depicts her going for his gun.) Here, they likewise found other children who they moved into a room on the first floor.
The SEALs then managed to get around a metal door and up the main stairwell.
On the second floor they cleared the building, carefully, room by room – then, at some point, the point man (the one in front) saw someone bolt up the stairs to the third floor.
The SEALs pre-mission intelligence had taught them that bin Laden had a 23-year-old son named Khalid and that he might be here, so the SEAL called his name twice.
It evidently was him, because the young man, who was armed with an Kalashnikov, stuck his head around the corner.
Panzeri explains that the SEALs had infrared lasers that could only be seen through their night-vision goggles, and this enabled them to zero in on their targets without the targets themselves having any idea.
Additionally, the SEALs carried silenced weapons - Heckler and Koch MP7a1s and Heckler and Koch 416s (as well as silenced Sig Sauer P226 pistols as back up weapons.) This meant that it was easy to distinguish between friendly as unfriendly fire, since the former would be silenced and the latter not.
In this case though, Khalid did not get off a single round – he was shot in the head by the SEALs, who then double tapped his body as they moved past to ensure he was dead.
Their pre-operation intelligence had indicated that there were only four males in the compound. With three of them now dead, that meant the remaining one was very likely Osama bin Laden.
As the point man made his way to the third floor, Panzeri explains that accounts of what happened next vary – which is understandable, given the importance and complexity of the raid and it being experienced by multiple participants.
Apparently, a shadowy figure was seen disappearing into a doorway and the point man fired after him.
One version of events has it that as the point man advanced into the bedroom the mysterious figure had disappeared into, two women accosted him and he pushed them to one side, clear of his trailing teammates (i.e. because they might have had suicide vests on.)
His teammate then took the lead, saw bin Laden, yet also saw that he had a woman in front of him (his youngest wife Amal.) The SEAL fired two sounds over her into bin Laden’s head.
Another account, from Mark Owen, states that when the point man saw the figure disappear into the bedroom, he either knew or suspected it was bin Laden, fired after him and hit him in the head at that point. Then, when he and his comrade entered the room, there were two women wailing over a now-fallen bin Laden who was twitching on the floor.
One of the SEALs moved the women out of the way while the SEAL behind shot him several times in the chest to ensure he was dead.
However bin Laden was killed, part of the confusion seems to have been that SEALs on the second floor still managed to hear gunfire from the third. Since bin Laden’s weapons were later found to be unloaded, this presumably means that they were able to hear their comrades’ silenced weapons.
Whatever the truth of bin Laden’s death, once the brief melee was over, the SEALs on the third floor moved on to ensuring it was him.
One SEAL, named “Will”, treated the leg wound on bin Laden’s youngest wife Amal (which may have been from a round fragment or a piece of floor tile picked up by a bullet.) As he did so, he asked her and then some of the children who were present (and who the SEALs had moved out onto the balcony) who the dead sheikh was. They told him:
“Osama bin Laden.”
One of bin Laden’s wives also identified him, while the other SEALs cleaned his face (i.e. since he had a head wound) and took pictures and DNA samples. The rationale here was that even though they were going to take his body away, they wanted to ensure they had genetic and photographic proof he had been killed in a different helicopter, so that if the one carrying his body crashed then proof of his death would still get out.
At that point, the mission commander used at satellite phone to report back to Vice Admiral McRaven, the architect of the mission. He said:
“Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo. For God and country, I pass Geronimo.”
This was the codeword for the mission objective of Osama bin Laden being either killed or captured. He was asked to clarify which one, and said:
This meant “Enemy – Killed in Action”.
Meanwhile, the rest of the SEALs on the second floor had been gathering up as much material as they could find – files, physical and computer files – were all swept up amongst folders, hard and disk drives, discs and tapes that they shoved into as many bags as they could.
They also discovered duffel bags filled with opium.
Somewhere along the way, the order to “prep it to blow” was given, "it" being the downed stealth helicopter.
But one of the SEALs misunderstood the order and began putting C4 charges around the first floor of the main building. He had to be told this meant the helicopter outside the building, and not the building itself.
Outside, the perimeter team had been keeping a vigilant watch and were by this point warning off Pakistanis who had begun to gather outside, telling them that it was a police operation and that they should go back inside their homes.
Back inside, the mission commander knew that the fuel on the remaining MH-X was running low, and that that the downed MH-X was due to be blown up imminently. Despite the goldmine of intelligence material his men we stealing inside, he said over the radio:
“Hey guys! Drop what you’re doing NOW and move to EXFIL HLZ.”
(Exfiltration Helicopter Landing Zone).
The women and children were led to the safety of the guesthouse while the helicopter was destroyed, and the other bodies were left for the Pakistani authorities. Bin Laden’s corpse was carried out in a body bag.
Chalk One went with the body onto Prince 52, the remaining MH-X, while the crew of Prince 51 and those in Chalk Two remained for the Chinooks of the QRF (Quick Reaction Force) to pick up. This was a backup force of helicopters and SEALs who had flown in after the two stealth helicopters and were on hand to help with the exfiltration.
They were on their way in, with one Chinook getting close to the compound. But one SEAL named “Tom” came charging out and announced that the explosives on the downed MH-X were about to go off and any nearby helicopters were at risk.
The Chinook delayed, pulling back and circling the compound while Prince 52 took off as quickly as possible to get away from the imminent blast.
When the charges detonated, the blast illuminated the sky and everything around it.
The escape too was tense because the Pakistanis, not knowing what was going on, had scrambled fighter aircraft and the SEALs were at risk of being shot down.
Though after refuelling the sole MH-X, the escaping helicopters remained low, close to ground and within valleys where radar found it hard to detect them, and they were soon back in Afghan airspace.
The aftermath of the raid led to huge celebrations within the US and praise for President Obama from across the political spectrum. Though Panzeri explains that within military and intelligence circles, analyses of the materials taken from the compound were less clear cut. He says that one interpretation indicated that bin Laden was still very much involved directly as an ongoing leader of al-Qaeda’s affairs; another interpretation was that by 2011 he had become a rather marginal figure.
Panzeri’s view is that the truth possibly lies somewhere between the two, and this certainly seems reasonable. It is also hard is disagree with him that no matter how significant bin Laden was at that point, his killing certainly represented a moral victory.
It quite clearly also brought closure for those who had lost loved ones in the 9/11 attacks masterminded by bin Laden a decade before.
For more on the bin Laden raid, read ‘Killing bin Laden: Operation Neptune Spear 2011’ by Peter Panzeri and visit Osprey Publishing for more military history.