Osama bin Laden's Life in Hiding

11.06.11

Myths of the Bin Laden Raid

There was no running gunfight. And the SEALs did not have a kill order. Richard Miniter on the new book detailing the night al Qaeda’s chief died—and the headaches it could cause Obama.

Osama bin Laden did not hear the SEALs’ stealthy helicopter until it hovered over the roof of his three-story home and the chopper’s spinning blades smashed his plastic patio chairs against his bedroom window.

In less than 10 seconds, the SEALs had jumped onto the roof, crawled across the rain-stained tiles, and descended onto bin Laden’s patio. The bearded terror leader sleepily opened his bedroom door and then, spotting two armed men with night-vision gear coming down the hall toward him, quickly slammed it.

They were right behind him.

As the SEALs forced open the bedroom door, they heard bin Laden’s youngest wife screaming in Arabic while raising a blanket to block their view. Behind the rising blanket, they saw bin Laden scrambling for an AKSU machine pistol.

As she tried to shield him, bin Laden shoved his wife into the line of fire. It was the last thing he did.

The first round went into the mattress behind bin Laden. The other three rounds found their mark as the two SEALs fired as one.

Bin Laden’s pistol now hangs on the wall of SEAL Team Six’s Virginia base, beside the photos of comrades killed in action.

These are the kinds of inside details that emerge from Chuck Pfarrer’s new book SEAL Target Geronimo.

Pfarrer certainly had access. A SEAL Team Six assault-element commander in the 1980s, he is known inside the intelligence community for his well-regarded first book, Warrior Soul, and inside Hollywood for writing and producing movies including Navy SEALs, Hard Target, and Virus. He clearly had detailed conversations with senior officers in the SEALs’ chain of command (especially Adm. William McRaven and then–SEAL Team Six commander Scott Kerr) and understands the vocabulary and the culture very well.

But some details in his book could complicate the 2012 presidential race. Pfarrer reports that the White House overruled the Navy plan to have two F-18 Hornets provide air support for SEALs helicopters, which would have been easily shot down if found by Pakistan’s Air Force. Also scrubbed were the latest-generation stealth helicopters, known as “ghost hawks.” The SEALs would have to make do with the older Stealth Hawks, which had mechanical problems. Ultimately, one crash-landed due to faulty electronics and had to be demolished on the site. Each of these decisions—to deny fighter support and to use older helicopters—may have been sound. Putting fighters in Pakistani airspace or allowing the Pakistanis to see the latest technology might have complicated relations between America and its Janus-faced ally, Pakistan. Republicans may have been reluctant to attack the president over an achievement that even Dick Cheney applauded. Still, Pfarrer's findings could fuel critics of the president who think he was quick to take personal credit and play politics with the SEALs' successful mission.

Obama may also have trouble explaining why he publicly announced bin Laden’s death just hours after it occurred. The SEALs captured 12 garbage bags worth of notebooks, hard drives, satellite phones, and other digital devices. The data could have been used to launch surprise raids on all the senior members of the al Qaeda network, while the leaders turned on each other and wondered who the traitor was. For the SEALs and other special operators I’ve spoken with, that was the natural next move. Al Qaeda could have been rolled up in six months. Pfarrer captures the SEALs’ resentment of the president, whom they see as publicity-seeking. He ignores the White House’s concerns: the nation had waited almost 10 years for bin Laden to be brought to justice, and that news might have leaked.

Pfarrer also does his best to poke the CIA in the eye. He points out that the agency insisted on having one of its officers in on the raid. While we are repeatedly told that the CIA man had little experience “fast-roping” down for helicopters and doesn’t have the training that the SEALs do (who does?), only in an aside are we informed that he was the only one who could speak Arabic and other local languages. He was the only man who could interview the prisoners or quiet the women and children in the compound. Also, the CIA’s role in locating bin Laden is dismissed in a throwaway paragraph. That’s unfair. The CIA took a few clues from the interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the operational planner of the 9/11 attacks, and located bin Laden’s trusted courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. Then the agency persuaded a colonel in Pakistan’s feared intelligence agency, the ISI, to provide key documents, including the plans for bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound. CIA officers rented apartments and surveilled the bin Laden compound for months, until they could persuade their superiors to deploy satellites. And so on. The CIA’s role in the operation remains an exciting, but untold, story.

SEAL Target Geronimo explodes a number of media myths about the raid to kill bin Laden.

It was not a “kill mission” from the start. The SEALs had no explicit orders to kill the archterrorist and would have captured him if possible.

Pfarrer captures the SEALs’ resentment of the president, whom they see as publicity-seeking.

There was no “45-minute” running gun battle. The SEAL team fired only 12 bullets, and the whole operation lasted only 38 minutes.

The most provocative part of the book is pure speculation: by killing bin Laden, did the SEALs accidentally do Zawahiri’s dirty work? Ayman al-Zawahiri is al Qaeda’s No. 2 and wanted to be No. 1. Maybe Zawahiri used couriers he knew were known to America’s spies, hoping they would find bin Laden and dispatch him. Also, Zawahiri, a physician, never apparently treated bin Laden for Addison’s disease, a condition that was suggested by bin Laden’s autopsy results aboard the USS Carl Vinson. So maybe bin Laden was set up by his deputy. As the British Foreign Office used to famously say: “Interesting, if true.”