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Reprinted from The Sunday Times.
OSAMA BIN LADEN was killed within 90 seconds of the US Navy Seals landing in his compound and not after a protracted gun battle, according to the first account by the men who carried out the raid. The operation was so clinical that only 12 bullets were fired.
The Seals have spoken out because they were angered at the version given by politicians, which they see as portraying them as cold-blooded murderers on a “kill mission”. They were also shocked that President Barack Obama announced bin Laden’s death on television the same evening, rendering useless much of the intelligence they had seized.
Chuck Pfarrer, a former commander of Seal Team 6, which conducted the operation, has interviewed many of those who took part for a book, Seal Target Geronimo, to be published in the US this week.
The Seals’ own accounts differ from the White House version, which gave the impression that bin Laden was killed at the end of the operation rather than in its opening seconds. Pfarrer insists bin Laden would have been captured had he surrendered.
“There isn’t a politician in the world who could resist trying to take credit for getting bin Laden but it devalued the ‘intel’ and gave time for every other al-Qa’ida leader to scurry to another bolthole,” said Pfarrer. “The men who did this and their valorous act deserve better. It’s a pretty shabby way to treat these guys.”
The first hint of the mission came in January last year when the team’s commanding officer was called to a meeting at the headquarters of joint special operations command. The meeting was held in a soundproof bunker three storeys below ground with his boss, Admiral William McRaven, and a CIA officer.
They told him a walled compound in Pakistan had been under surveillance for a couple of weeks. They were certain a high-value individual was inside and needed a plan to present to the president.
It had to be someone important. “So is this Bert or Ernie?” he asked. The Seals’ nicknames for bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri are a reference to two Muppets in Sesame Street, one tall and thin and the other short and fat. “We have a voice print,” said the CIA officer, “and we’re 60 per cent or 70 per cent certain it’s our guy.” McRaven added that a reconnaissance satellite had measured the target’s shadow. “Over 6ft tall.”
When McRaven added they would use Ghost Hawk helicopters, the team leader had no doubt. “These are the most classified, sophisticated stealth helicopters ever developed,” said Pfarrer. “They are kept in locked hangars and fly so quiet we call it ‘whisper mode’.”
Over the next couple of months a plan was hatched. A mock-up of the compound was built at Tall Pines, an army facility in a national forest somewhere in the eastern US.
Four reconnaissance satellites were placed in orbit over the compound, sending back video and communications intercepts. A tall figure seen walking up and down was named “the Pacer”.
Mr Obama gave the go-ahead and Seal Team 6, known as the Jedi, was deployed to Afghanistan. The White House cancelled plans to provide air cover using jet fighters, fearing this might endanger relations with Pakistan.
Sending in the Ghost Hawks without air cover was considered too risky so the Seals had to use older Stealth Hawks. A Prowler electronic warfare aircraft from the carrier USS Carl Vinson was used to jam Pakistan’s radar and create decoy targets.
Operation Neptune’s Spear was initially planned for April 30 but bad weather delayed it until May 1, a moonless night. The commandos flew on two Stealth Hawks, codenamed Razor 1 and 2, followed by two Chinooks five minutes behind, known as “Command Bird” and the “gun platform”.
On board, each Seal was clad in body armour and nightvision goggles and equipped with laser targets, radios and sawn-off M4 rifles. They were expecting up to 30 people in the main house, including Bin Laden and three of his wives, two sons, Khalid and Hamza, his courier, Abu Ahmed al- Kuwaiti, four bodyguards and a number of children. At 56 minutes past midnight the compound came into sight and the code “Palm Beach” signalled three minutes to landing.
Razor 1 hovered above the main house, a three-storey building where bin Laden lived on the top floor. Twelve Seals abseiled the two metres down onto the roof and then jumped to a third-floor patio, where they kicked in the windows and entered.
The first person the Seals encountered was a terrified woman, bin Laden’s third wife, Khaira, who ran into the hall. Blinded by a searing white strobe light they shone at her, she stumbled back. A Seal grabbed her by the arm and threw her to the floor.
Bin Laden’s bedroom was along a short hall. The door opened; he popped out and then slammed the door shut. “Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo,” radioed one Seal, meaning “eyes on target”.
At the same time lights came on from the floor below and bin Laden’s son Khalid came running up the stairs towards the Seals. He was shot dead.
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