On Tuesday, Fox News will air a highly-anticipated documentary about a former Navy SEAL named Robert O’Neill, who claims to be the man who fired the shot that killed Osama bin Laden. Several of O’Neill’s former brothers-in-arms are coming forward to say his story is way, way off.
In interviews with The Daily Beast, former special operations officials, as well as other sources who are familiar with the events of the 2011 raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, accused O’Neill of misstating key facts and wrongly taking sole credit for killing the world’s then-most wanted man.
At issue is who fired the shot—or shots—that hit bin Laden in the head, splitting open his skull and almost certainly ending his life. O’Neill insists that he was the shooter. But others—including a fellow SEAL who was standing within feet of O’Neill when the final encounter with bin Laden went down—say another, still-unidentified man likely fired the round that caused a lethal head wound.
In a SEAL version of Rashomon, the ostensibly silent warriors of the special operations community have been going after one another over what really happened that night in Abbottabad. One of their ranks, Matt Bissonnette, who pseudonymously co-wrote a best-selling book in 2012 about his role in the raid, has already come in for a drubbing from former SEALs, who say he broke with tradition by speaking publicly about the mission and revealing inside details of SEAL culture.
But Bissonnette is hardly the only man who’s sought to capitalize on his life as an elite warrior. Other SEALs have given paid speeches and consulted for filmmakers and video game designers. O’Neill himself is a paid motivational speaker who talks about his experiences in the SEALs, although he’s never been known to have revealed details of the raid.
Sources who know and worked with O’Neill, who was first identified by the special operations blog SOFREP, said his version of events showed cracks almost from the night of the raid itself. One former special operations official said that O’Neill didn’t identify himself as the main shooter in the “hot wash” debriefing that operators conducted immediately after the raid at an air base in Afghanistan. But upon his return stateside, O’Neill identified himself as the trigger-man to members of the public while drinking in some favorite SEAL bars in Virginia Beach, VA. (This account was independently verified by a second source.) O’Neill’s behavior prompted his superiors to counsel him that the operation was classified, the former official said.
This much seems beyond dispute. O’Neill was one of three men who fired at the fugitive terrorist in the moments before he died. The two others SEALs were Bissonnette and a third shooter whom multiple sources referred to as the “point man,” because he was standing at the front of the team of SEALs as they climbed a staircase and approached bin Laden’s bedroom on the upper floor of his safe house.
According to O’Neill’s version of events, as described in an interview with the Washington Post published Thursday and a 2013 article in Esquire, the point man fired at bin Laden as he poked his head out of his bedroom door. But the point man apparently missed. O’Neill then moved past him, he says, and stepped into the room, coming face to face with bin Laden.
O’Neill says he looked at bin Laden long enough to see that he seemed “confused,” appeared “way taller than I was expecting,” and “didn’t appear to be hit. I can’t tell you 100 percent, but he was standing and moving,” O’Neill told Esquire.
“In that second I shot him, two times in the forehead,” O’Neill told the magazine. He subsequently told the Post that it was clear he had killed bin Laden because his skull was split open.
Shortly after the article was published, Peter Bergen, a long-time chronicler of bin Laden and the only outside observer who was ever allowed to tour bin Laden’s compound after the raid, interviewed an anonymous SEAL Team 6 member who said the Esquire story was "complete B-S.”
But multiple special operations sources, as well as Bissonnette’s own account in his book, No Easy Day, say the still unidentified point man fired first at bin Laden and scored a direct hit, striking him in the skull. If true, that was the shot that almost certainly killed the terrorist leader, not O’Neill’s.
The point man, according to those who know him, is still serving with the SEALs. He’s described as quiet and not a fame-seeker. It’s unknown whether he has any plans he to write a book or speak publicly about his role in the raid. But the point man has told others outside the military that he was part of the mission in Abbottabad.
The Daily Beast asked Fox News about O’Neill’s version of events and how the filmmakers corroborated it for the documentary. The channel said that those questions would be answered in the film, which will air over two nights. Peter Doocy, the 27-year-old Fox reporter who scored the O’Neill interview told the network on Thursday, “We asked Rob O’Neill why his version of the story was a little bit different than what we’d heard before, and he does explain that in the special.”
In interviews conducted over the past 18 months with a former CNN correspondent, O’Neill seemed to discount the questions of whether his version of the story was correct. “The most important thing that I’ve learned in the last two years is to me it doesn’t matter anymore if I am ‘The Shooter.’ The team got him,” O’Neill said in the audio interview, which was aired on CNN Friday night. The ex-SEAL said he knew others on the raid were telling a different story. “Even now, I mean, there are guys now saying that I am full of s***,” he said. “...You only know what you were told unless you were in the room. And unfortunately for me, there was two people in the room, and one of us is dead and that’s Osama bin Laden.”
As the body of Osama bin Laden was buried at sea within hours of his shooting, no official autopsy was done, nor did the operators stay in bin Laden’s compound long enough to carry out forensics on the shooting itself, as they were too busy gathering up evidence from the compound to take out before Pakistani authorities arrived. The authorities later razed the building.
The real story of who killed bin Laden may have gone to the bottom of the ocean or been plowed back into the dirt in Abbottabad. But if the anonymous “point man” comes forward, O’Neill won’t have the last word.