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.
Navy Seals photographed during a drill at the John C. Stennis Space Center in Mississippi on October 25, 2010. (John Scorza / U.S. Navy via Getty Images)
Bin Laden’s pistol now hangs on the wall of SEAL Team Six’s Virginia base, beside the photos of comrades killed in action.
With Pakistan in the news following Hillary Clinton’s visit, Bruce Riedel argues that we can’t forget to hold Musharraf accountable for bin Laden.
Former Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf should be held accountable for his role in the search for Osama bin Laden who for some three years was hiding within earshot of the country’s premier military academy while Musharraf led the country and its army. Whether clueless (his answer) or complicit about bin Laden’s hideout, Musharraf failed to bring justice to the world’s most-wanted man for years. We should press him for answers about his ineptitude, not look to him for answers about his country’s future.
David Levenson / Getty Images
Musharraf is regularly hosted by American think tanks and the media and asked his views on his country’s future. This is normal in America. He can’t go home of course because of numerous pending court cases involving his presidency, which ended in disgrace in 2008 after the murder of his rival Benazir Bhutto.
In 2001, Musharraf promised President George Bush Pakistan’s help in bringing bin Laden and the rest of al Qaeda to justice. Some al Qaeda operatives like Khalid Sheik Mohammed were caught, but the big fish, bin Laden, his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Taliban leader Mullah Omar, were able to hide out in Pakistan throughout Musharraf’s era. Zawahiri and Omar are still hiding out in Pakistan.
Sometime in 2005 or 2006 bin Laden moved into a house in Abbottabad. An al Qaeda operative, a Pakistani who had grown up in Kuwait, served as his messenger to the outside world from this hideout. Named for a 19th-century British army officer, Abbottabad is an army town. Three regiments are based there, Pakistan’s first military dictator Ayub Khan was born there and it is home to the Kakul military academy, Pakistan’s West Point.
The commandant at Kakul when bin Laden settled into his lair was one of Musharraf’s closest aides, General Nadeem Taj. Taj had accompanied Musharraf on an official visit to Sri Lanka in 1999. On the flight home Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif fired Musharraf as army commander. Taj helped orchestrate the coup that ousted Sharif and put Musharraf in power. Taj, as commandant in Kakul, should have been well informed on all security issues in Abbottabad and keeping his boss in the loop.
In his chatty memoirs published in 2006, Musharraf says the army was looking for al Qaeda leaders in Abbottabad, so it was on their screen. He has also said he used to jog past the house bin Laden was hiding in.
In 2007 Musharraf gave up his uniform after the Pakistani people demanded a return to democracy. General Kayani took his place as army chief. Taj became director general of the Inter Services Intelligence directorate (ISI), replacing Kayani and thus had the top intelligence command for the hunt for bin Laden. Within a year, the Bush administration demanded Taj be removed because the ISI was warning al Qaeda terrorists in advance about drone strikes, and had helped the Taliban blow up India’s embassy in Kabul. He was promoted to be a corps commander, one of the dozen or so top generals who run the country. A few weeks later, 10 Pakistani terrorists attacked the city of Mumbai, killing dozens including six Americans. We now know the ISI had helped train them and pick their targets.
A new documentary relives the hunt for bin Laden with exclusive interviews and reenactments of the raid. David A. Graham on the fresh details divulged in the film.
Was it really just four months ago? With Americans fearful about a badly faltering economy, the 2012 presidential race gearing up, and the Middle East being remade daily, the death of Osama bin Laden seems like a distant occurrence—a moment of triumph that would feel out of place today—despite the looming anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
A new documentary premiering on the History Channel on Tuesday, Targeting Bin Laden, unintentionally emphasizes the distance. By canonizing the event’s history, it both celebrates the greatest coup in the war on terror and situates it solidly in the past. If this is how the event will be remembered (and it will face stiff competition from the likes of Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow), Targeting Bin Laden is a useful record of the lead-up to the fateful raid, its execution, and its aftermath, featuring exclusive interviews with key players—including President Obama.
But with Obama sticking strictly to his “no-drama” persona and conveying little emotion during his on-screen moments, the show is stolen by two other figures: Ben Rhodes, the deputy national-security adviser for strategic communications, and Ryan Zinke, a former member of SEAL Team 6 who’s now a Montana state senator.
It’s Rhodes who puts the whole saga in context. “I realized after those helicopters took off that I wouldn’t be sitting in the room where I was if it weren’t for 9/11. I saw those Twin Towers get hit with airplanes ... And that’s when I decided that I wanted to move down to Washington and try to be a part of whatever was going to happen next,” he says. “You’re sitting there thinking through all those things. Your personal story, the story of the country, what’s going to be going through the minds of the people who lost loved ones.”
The chronology of the two-hour film is straightforward, starting not from bin Laden’s initial jabs at the United States—the 1998 African embassy bombings or the attack on the USS Cole—but on Sept. 11. From there, producer Phil Craig and director Bruce Goodison trace the hunt for the world’s most wanted terrorist over the following decade—a frustrating period of missed opportunities and dead ends, with the only bright spots coming in painstakingly slow, deliberate work of opaque interrogations and endless call monitoring. The hunters’ work only gains momentum when they get a lucky break—a mistake by al Qaeda courier Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti that was caught on a wiretap by a computer in Maryland. Much of what the filmmakers report in this section has been revealed elsewhere.
Osama bin Laden and the World Trade Center on a propaganda poster in Peshawar, Pakistan (Coret / Sipa)
The film hits its stride when the president gives the raid the green light, despite serious reservations of several top advisers. The film notes that the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, held the night before the raid, had greater perils than just the president’s humor routine flopping. “There’s a dangerous mix in the room: journalists, White House insiders, and alcohol,” the narrator intones. “If someone makes a single indiscreet comment, then it’s all over.” But the administration couldn’t cancel the event without raising eyebrows—in fact, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos was curious about the cancellation of White House tours the following day, a curiosity barely staved off by a surprised Chief of Staff Bill Daley over dinner.
Meanwhile, in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, Adm. Bill McRaven and his team were preparing for the raid. Here, Zinke’s insight is excellent. Like every other journalist and documentarian who has written about the raid, the makers of Targeting Bin Laden did not have access to the men who actually dropped into the Abbottabad compound on May 2. But Zinke, as a former member of the superelite SEAL Team 6, is able to offer viewers a window into how the soldiers train, how they think, and how they would have approached the flight and the firefight in the house both mentally and physically.
When helicopter was shot down.
Thirty U.S. troops, including 22 Navy SEALs who were killed when their helicopter was shot down Saturday in Wardak province in Afghanistan, were on a mission to go after a Taliban leader responsible for attacks against American troops. Two U.S. military officials told CNN that the SEALs, most of them part of SEAL Team Six, were called in to assist another unit on the ground pinned down in a firefight. Eight other Afghan troops were killed in the crash. NATO is investigating the tragedy.
With Pakistan’s military stubbornly denying the arrest of five CIA informants, the relationship between Washington and Islamabad reaches a new low. Fasih Ahmed reports from Lahore.
Already frayed to a near-breaking point, the U.S. – Pakistani relationship this week came under additional strain with reports that Pakistan had arrested several people who had allegedly provided the CIA with information in connection with the raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout.
Asif Hassan, AFP / Getty Images
Now comes report of “seething anger” among Pakistan’s military rank and file aimed at Pakistan’s army chief, who is seen to be too close to the U.S.
Clearly, the security-based relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan is unraveling rapidly – at a critical time. With America poised to begin withdrawal from Afghanistan next month, the U.S. needs Pakistan’s support in backing a political settlement between Taliban leaders and the Afghan government in Kabul. And then there is the question of militants still hiding in the country. Al Qaeda’s new major-domo – Ayman al-Zawahiri – is believed to be hiding somewhere in the hinterlands along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
But Pakistan’s military, which oversees the country’s security and foreign policy, has dug in its heels under public and internal pressure. It looks set to impede the U.S. military action against militant groups and hideouts inside Pakistan that is necessary for the Obama administration’s plans to start drawing down from Afghanistan.
On his visit to Islamabad last week, CIA chief Leon Panetta reportedly confronted the Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, with evidence of Pakistan’s tipping off militant targets, specifically explosives experts who are part of the suicide-bombing factory line. Panetta is also said to have expressed concern for the safety of the five CIA informants, including a Pakistan Army major, who may have provided information on Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts. It is believed that these men have been detained by the military for questioning, and possible court-martial. In a terse press statement on Wednesday, the military denied any officers had been arrested.
Except that such rote denials are finding few takers, especially in Pakistan, where the old customary deference accorded to the military is gone, and its rank-and-file tensions are now out in the open. The issue of divided allegiances is not new. What is alarming is that they seem to run deeper than previously acknowledged. Husain Haqqani, author of Between Mosque and Military and currently Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington, points to the past for an explanation of the present challenge. “The years of jihad in Afghanistan [in the 1980s] and Kashmir [in the 1990s] have confused our officers and people,” he told The Daily Beast. “For many, ideology determines the worldview instead of the strategic reality.”
The reported, and since denied, arrests of CIA informants within the Army do not necessarily show diversity among the divided. Given the $50 million bounty on bin Laden’s head, it is unlikely that the alleged informants were operating out of ideological purity. This likelihood only raises more concerns about the integrity of commissioned personnel, including those tasked to safeguard the country’s growing nuclear arsenal. (Pakistani government and military officials insist security at the nuclear facilities is adequate.)
Shaukat Aziz, who was prime minister from 2004-2007, says his country needs the support of friends like the U.S., that its nuclear arsenal is safe, and its military has been a valuable U.S. partner. Pakistanis are angry and disappointed about America’s treatment of their country, he tells Mike Giglio.
Shaukat Aziz was a millionaire and former Citibank executive when he was tapped by military ruler Pervez Musharraf to be Pakistan’s finance minister in 1999. There were successes. The International Monetary Fund praised Aziz’s handling of the economy, and in 2004 Musharraf pushed through his ascension to prime minister. But as is typical in Pakistani politics, there was plenty of turmoil. While Aziz campaigned for prime minister, a suicide bomber blew himself up in the car next to his, killing his chauffeur. He escaped and ended up being the first Pakistani prime minister to serve out a full term in office.
Victor Fraile / Getty Images
With Musharraf losing his grip on power, Aziz left government when his term expired in late 2007. As relations between Washington and Islamabad hover at a monumental low, Aziz spoke with NEWSWEEK about the way U.S. problems in Afghanistan are destabilizing South Asia, Pakistan’s anxiety over the American raid in Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden, and how he thinks his country—despite all its problems—still has the potential for greatness and, yes, the right to hang on to its nuclear weapons.
On the fallout from the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in the military town of Abbottabad, where Aziz attended school.
I was just in the United States. The perceptions there have changed, certainly, about Pakistan. And then the feedback I hear from Pakistan is anger and disappointment. So I think there’s work to be done.
On U.S. suspicions that parts of Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, have been helping extremists.
I would say very emphatically that that doesn’t help anybody. And I have always found the ISI to be very professional and very committed. I think it is a serious intelligence failure on our part. And I think it has been recognized. We now have to repair the damage and look ahead.
Pakistan has to be supported by its friends. Our military is the same military which was given kudos by your government and many other governments, and this is the same intelligence agency that has been a valuable partner [to America] over many years.
The reported death of Muhammad Ilyas Kashmiri deals a huge hit to the terror cell, still reeling from bin Laden's killing. Ex-CIA analyst Bruce Riedel on the impact on U.S.-Pakistan relations.
Pakistani sources are reporting the death in a drone strike this weekend of Muhammad Ilyas Kashmiri. If true, it is a big setback for al Qaeda and could help ease tensions between Pakistan and the U.S. a bit.
Kashmiri is al Qaeda's top Pakistani operative. He was born in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir on February 10, 1964. Trained in the camps of the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence directorate (ISI) and then the elite Pakistani commando group, the Special Services Group (SSG), he was the darling of the Pakistani army for years. He fought in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan where he lost an eye and a finger. Then he took the war to India both in Kashmir and in New Delhi itself.
Ilyas Kashmiri speaks at a press conference in Islamabad, Pakistan on July 11, 2001. (Photo: Saeed Khan, AFP / Getty Images)
He formed his own militant group called the 313 Brigade, after the 313 fighters who joined the prophet Muhammad in an early Islamic victory. His exploits in India were legendary. He was personally decorated and thanked by the then head of Inter-services Intelligence (ISI), Mahmud Ahmad and Pakistani's dictator, Pervez Musharraf, in 2000. But Kashmiri broke with his ISI and army friends in 2002 when Musharraf decided to give the Americans at least some help against al Qaeda.
Kashmiri took his 313 Brigade into al Qaeda's camp and assisted in training Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and began targeting his former friends in the ISI. His teams killed at least one senior ISI officer. He was involved in an attempt to assassinate Musharraf in 2004. The United Nations credits him as a key player in the plot to murder former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007.
The Pakistani American David Headley, who has confessed to plotting the Mumbai terror attack in November 2008, says Kashmiri was his key contact in al Qaeda. The two worked on a plot to attack a Danish newspaper office in Copenhagen in 2009. That was foiled when the FBI arrested Headley, but Kashmiri continued planning to carry out Mumbai-style attacks in Europe. Another was foiled in Denmark at the end of 2010.
Kashmiri would have played an important role in helping al Qaeda recover from bin Laden's demise. He had key connections inside the Pakistani syndicate of terror groups.
Just last week one of Pakistan's best investigative reporters Syed Salam Shahzad was murdered after finishing a new book on al Qaeda in Pakistan. According to excerpts published in India and Pakistan, Shahzad had evidence Kashmiri may have been the real brains behind the Mumbai plot and hoped it would precipitate an Indo-Pakistani war that al Qaeda could exploit.
Theories continue to spread over who in Pakistan’s military and government knew about Osama bin Laden’s hideout, but former State Department official John R. Schmidt says none of them make sense.
The facts, by themselves, appear highly incriminating. Osama bin Laden was finally run to ground in an outsized compound on the outskirts of Abbottabad, Pakistan, a city just 30 miles north of the capital, Islamabad. It is an army town, home to the Pakistani version of West Point, which is located less than a mile from where bin Laden met his final end. Many retired army officers live in the same neighborhood. How could the Pakistanis not have known he was there?
Anjum Naveed / AP Photo
After several days of embarrassed silence, Pakistani intelligence officials suggested they had simply messed up. They said they had raided the compound in 2003 when it was under construction but had found nothing and let it drop from their radar screens. U.S. intelligence officials, for their part, said they had no evidence that the Pakistanis knew bin Laden was there. This did not assuage Western critics, who found it hard to believe that bin Laden could successfully hide out for several years in an army town in the middle of Pakistan. CIA Director Leon Panetta told Congress the Pakistanis were either involved or incompetent and a number of U.S. lawmakers have suggested that the United States cut off economic assistance to Pakistan, threatening to send what is already an acrimonious relationship into a potentially fatal tail spin.
Since the world of intelligence is a decidedly murky one, it is possible that we will never have definitive proof on this matter. We are left, therefore, in the realm of motives and speculation. What possible motivation could the Pakistanis have had for permitting Osama bin Laden to live in their midst? One possibility, indeed the one that seems to lie behind much Western speculation on the subject, is that Pakistan was somehow secretly supporting bin Laden and al Qaeda. If true, this would represent an extreme example of double dealing, even by Pakistani standards. If there has been one seeming constant in U.S.-Pakistani relations since 9/11 it has been Pakistani willingness to cooperate in going after al Qaeda. The Pakistanis played instrumental roles in bringing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other senior al Qaeda operatives to justice. This support for the U.S. war on terror had caused many of the jihadist groups the Pakistanis had been supporting in their insurgent war against India in Kashmir to turn against them. At U.S. urging, the Pakistanis sent the army into the tribal areas beginning in early 2004 to look for al Qaeda militants. This brought them into conflict with the local Pakistanis protecting them, who subsequently banded together to form the Pakistani Taliban. The Pakistanis have been fighting a bloody war against them and their al Qaeda mentors ever since.
They may have concluded that a compound on the outskirts of an army town like Abbottabad would be the last place the Pakistanis would expect the al Qaeda leader to hide.
One of the main features of that war has been a domestic terrorism campaign inside the Pakistani heartland, whose primary targets have been Pakistani security forces, including the army and its intelligence service ISI. To take just one example, in December 2009, the son of the lieutenant general commanding Pakistani forces in the tribal areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was killed in an attack on a mosque frequented by army families in Rawalpindi. He died along with a major general and 40 others, 16 of them children. Nor has ISI escaped lightly. Its headquarters in Lahore, Peshawar, and Multan have all been car bombed by al Qaeda affiliated terrorists, with considerable loss of life. Why would the Pakistan army extend protection to the leader of a group whose operatives had been actively engaged in committing terrorist attacks against it? And what possible strategic advantage would have justified the risk? It is easy enough to see why the Pakistanis support the Afghan Taliban. They see them as a hedge against an Indian alliance with the Karzai government once the U.S. has departed.
But what do they get from protecting Osama bin Laden? He was not just any terrorist, but the great bête noire of the United States, whose stated goal was to destroy America. Anyone protecting him would be certain to be regarded as an enemy of the United States. The Pakistanis must surely have realized that if Washington ever discovered they were protecting him, this would bring their relationship to an abrupt and highly confrontational end. This might still be the result if evidence of collaboration is found somewhere among the artifacts spirited out of the bin Laden compound by the Navy SEAL team. It is also useful to consider the matter from bin Laden’s perspective. He may have been evil but he was no dummy. Given the factors cited above, how likely is it that he would have trusted a Pakistan army offer to have him come stay with them in Abbottabad?
Another possibility is that the Pakistanis knew, or suspected, that bin Laden was holed up in the Abbottabad compound but decided to do nothing about it. There is a regrettable tendency among the people who rule Pakistan, civilian and military alike, to kick serious problems down the road and it is hard to conceive of a more serious problem than this. An argument can also be made that they would have been concerned about the domestic reaction to news that they had killed bin Laden themselves or turned him over to the United States. On a superficial level, bin Laden remained something of a folk hero to many Muslims, Pakistanis included. There would very likely have been demonstrations by religious radicals and a possible upsurge in terrorist attacks perpetrated by the Pakistani Taliban and its al Qaeda allies. But such events would be unlikely to pose a substantially increased threat. Protest demonstrations and terrorist attacks already constitute part of the background noise of day-to-day Pakistani life. Every significant jihadist and radical sectarian group in Pakistan save one, the Lashkar-e-Taiba, has already turned against the state.
Who carried out mission that killed bin Laden.
President Obama privately and personally thanked some of the Navy SEAL squad that killed Osama bin Laden in a trip on Friday to Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Obama awarded the team with a Presidential Unit Citation, and congratulated them: "We are going to defeat al Qaeda. We have cut off their head," he said. The mood was reportedly celebratory among the troops at the base, who wore combat boots and broke out in occasional dance moves—not dampened by recent reports that al Qaeda is planning a retaliatory attack. Obama, accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden, met with troops recently back from Afghanistan after meeting with the SEALs.
America's new obsession: the training program of the elite forces who got bin Laden. After hours of calisthenics and surf torture in cold water, you're certain to get buff, writes Tony Dokoupil.
America's new obsession: the training program of the elite forces who got bin Laden. After hours of calisthenics and surf torture in cold water, you're certain to get buff, writes Tony Dokoupil. Plus, full coverage of Osama bin Laden's death.
Days after Osama bin Laden’s demise, America's burning concern—the most urgent outstanding question, at least according to Google search trends—had nothing to do with al Qaeda, terrorism, or torture. No, the death of the world’s most-wanted man has the country thinking about something else entirely: how to get buff.
“Navy SEAL training,” followed closely by “Navy SEAL workout,” were the only bin Laden-related search terms in the Top 10 on Wednesday, narrowly beating “Jesse James” (who opened up about his ex, Sandra Bullock) and “Flowers Online” (note: Mother’s Day is Sunday). Surely, this says something unflattering about the national id, or at least American Web-surfing habits. But since inquiring minds want to know…
SEAL training is the most ferocious workout in the free world, according to Navy memoirs and other published reports, a bone-wrenching, spine-rattling affair that takes about two years, and overwhelms most men who attempt it. Those who pass go on to restock the 2,500-man rotation of active-duty SEALs. The best are eventually tapped for the elite Seal Team Six—the squad that got bin Laden. And as perhaps goes without saying, the average Googler wouldn't survive the pre-training requirements: 50 sit-ups and 42 pushups (in under two minutes each), a mile-and-a-half run (at sub seven-minute-mile pace), a 500-yard swim (in less than 13 minutes). There are no women allowed.
The trial begins with BUD/S (basic underwater demolition/SEAL training) at the Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado, California, an otherwise lovely island in San Diego Bay. On the "grinder," a black asphalt courtyard, would-be SEALs spend hours doing mass calisthenics. In the pool, they are "drown-proofed" by swimming with bound arms and legs. On the shore, they experience "surf torture" (official name: water immersion), a prolonged bob in the 60-degree Pacific Ocean, or are made to jump on and off a pier while being hosed down with cold water. After hours of this—literally—men begin to crack up, and a class of 100 can shrink by 10 percent in a few minutes. Those who stick it out end up as "sugar cookies," wet, blue-lipped men belly-flopping on the beach: "Up! Down! Up! Down!"
Gallery: Navy SEALs
• The Daily Beast's Complete Osama bin Laden Coverage
Then a whistle blows: Time for a four-mile run. Or time to retrieve a raft from a distant shed and support the 150-pound object—packed with paddles and gear—on your head, which ends up red and rubbed bald. Or time to go into the surf for a 17-mile lap around the island, or to practice landing on a patch of jagged shore. The most sacred rite of passage, the peak of SEAL training, is known as "Hell Week," a five-day regime of simulated battle stress—and a total of four hours of sleep. Some would-be SEALs turn to gallows humor to endure the pain, telling themselves “the only easy day was yesterday.” Others call their megaphone-wielding instructor “The Antichrist.” Men can quit at any time by ringing a bell, and historically, two out of three do so.
After top secret bin Laden mission.
Unfortunately, they are still anonymous, so they will not receive a public heroes' welcome. The elusive Navy SEAL team that killed Osama bin Laden returned to U.S. soil on Wednesday, arriving at Andrews Air Force base outside of Washington, D.C. After their historic mission, the team is likely to be honored—fittingly— in secret. The Navy has not yet confirmed that the SEALs carried out the mission, but Rear Adm. Edward Winters sent an email congratulating his forces and reminding them to keep quiet. In order to honor the SEALs involved, the Navy will have to figure out who did what, and then write a letter outlining their achievements. Then the immediate commanding officer will present the honors to the team. The entire process could take many months. As the mission went almost perfectly, the soldiers involved will receive the military’s highest honors. However, those involved will not be eligible to receive the $25 million reward for hunting down bin Laden because they are military personnel.
Navy SEALS started as frogmen clearing beaches in World War II, but have since become an elite corps performing America's most delicate tasks. Their secret killing of Osama bin Laden is another triumph for the nation's quietest killers, writes Tony Dokoupil.
They're the nation's quietest killers, known as SEALs because of their delicate work by Sea, Air or Land. But they can also just crash through doors and "double tap" the enemy’s face, as they did with Osama bin Laden this week, killing the ringleader of the September 11th attacks with two point-blank shots. The SEALs were already a semi-legendary unit, the home to gung-ho soldiers who claim to drink snake venom and punctuate their kills with a kiss on the cheek (to take just two examples from the memoirs of former SEALs). Perhaps such braggadocio is inevitable given what it takes to qualify.
SEAL training is two years—the same as astronaut training—and it includes an agonizing combination of brain and brawn work, topped with five days of simulated battle stress. The men call it "Hell Week," a regime of bullets, bombs, and extreme endurance tests. Men can ring a bell to quit at any time, and two out of three do so. Right now there are only about 2,500 SEALs on active duty in a range of missions worldwide, virtually all of them secret. The best of those are invited to join SEAL Team Six, as it's popularly known—the team that picked off three Somali pirates from 100 yards on rough seas. And the team that finally got bin Laden.
The Daily Beast's Complete Osama bin Laden Coverage
The SEALs originated as "frogmen" clearing beaches during World War II, moved on to bridge demolition during Korea, and gained fame (along with the SEAL name) during Vietnam. But the modern SEALs were born in the aftermath of the Iran hostage crisis as a specialized counterterrorism force. The initial results were underwhelming: Four drowned during the invasion of Grenada in 1983, a team failed to save a kidnapped CIA station chief in Beirut in 1985, and by 1987 the whole division was wracked with fraud (including cases of guys stealing scuba equipment). The 1990s were scarcely better, as SEAL units "were never used even once to track down terrorists who had taken American lives," according to a 2004 study by Richard H. Schultz Jr., the director of the International Security Studies Program at Tufts University.
The main reason, he says, was risk-aversion: The Clinton administration didn't want to contemplate another Mogadishu, where more than a dozen Special Ops soldiers were killed in 1993. That calculation held, Schultz argues, even as al Qaeda bombed the World Trade Center, struck two U.S. embassies in East Africa, and tried to sink the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000. After the September 11th attacks, however, the Bush administration began to lean heavily on so-called hunter-killer teams dispatched to kill terrorists abroad. And President Obama has continued to do so-—some say even more so than his predecessor.
The upshot: an estimated 2,000 dead members of al Qaeda, "a significant portion" of them deep-sixed by the SEALs, says Schultz.
Tony Dokoupil is a staff writer and editor at Newsweek.
The killing of Osama bin Laden represents a triumph for President Obama's embrace of targeted military strikes, including drone attacks and covert operations. Tara McKelvey on the dangers—and brilliance—of relying on Special Ops.
Barack Obama was the first presidential candidate to campaign on a platform of targeted military strikes, or so claim some legal scholars. George W. Bush may have relied on President Pervez Musharraf to fight the battle against terrorists in Pakistan, but Obama took things into his own hands. He brought together Special Operations and CIA operatives, who worked closely together in Pakistan, and used covert ventures to go after al Qaeda in Pakistan in a way that Bush never had.
Indeed, Obama ramped up the number of drone strikes, authorizing more than five times as many as Bush, according to a New America Foundation project, “ The Year of the Drone.” Even supporters of the strikes were “surprised,” as one National Security Council deputy who worked under Bush told me, at how enthusiastically Obama embraced these types of operations. Mike McConnell, who served as Bush’s director of national intelligence, may have “worried that the temptation of covert action might entrance Obama,” as Bob Woodward wrote in Obama’s Wars, adding that “any president, especially a new, relatively inexperienced one, could be vulnerable.”
The Daily Beast's Complete Osama bin Laden Coverage
Yet hardly anybody in this country has complained about Obama’s use of covert operations on such a broad scale—certainly not the human-rights advocates, who have been largely silent about the forces in Pakistan. As Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, told me in the fall, it has been easier for Obama to justify these clandestine actions “because he’s a Democrat, and he is seen as a champion of civil liberties and the rule of law.”
The seduction of targeted warfare, whether carried out by drone attacks or by Special Operations, is clear: The strikes are quick and surgical, involving only a handful of Americans, and yield results, as we saw so spectacularly in Osama bin Laden’s case. The premise of targeted warfare rests on the assumption of good data, however, and until now that has been in short supply. More than 1,340 people have been killed in Obama’s pursuit of bin Laden and other terrorists in Pakistan; at least 200 of them were not militants, according to the New America Foundation, and nearly all of those who were classified as Taliban, al Qaeda, or other terrorists were low-level fighters who posed little danger to Americans.
As one legal expert has written, it may be better to kill them from afar so that Americans are not faced with the messy prospect of a terrorist who wants to surrender. Administration officials told reporters that bin Laden resisted the U.S. forces in a firefight that erupted after the helicopter raid Sunday, but most terrorists will try to give themselves up. Suicide bombers aside, the individuals who support al Qaeda and its principles, and particularly those at the upper levels of the organization, are by and large in no hurry to die. A former CIA operative who hunted down dozens of al Qaeda fighters in Pakistan after the 9/11 attacks told me that most of them were illiterate teenage boys from poor families. When they were caught, he said, a lot of them didn’t fight back—instead, they just cried.
It was hard to see how much good any of this did, at least in terms of protecting U.S. national security, until the biggest target, bin Laden, was taken out.
Veteran journalist David Corn details the tense White House deliberations leading up to the raid on May 1, 2011.
Just in time for Christmas, Benjamin Schor rates several competing versions of the Osama bin Laden raid.
Republicans love to act like tough guys. So why are they having a temper tantrum about a modest Obama ad?
A new book chronicles the 10-year search for the world’s most-wanted. Ex–CIA official Bruce Riedel on what the Pakistanis don’t know.