The 'quiet and calm' killing of bin Laden

Tue, Sep 11, 2012, 01:00

A US navy seal has published an account of how he shot the al-Qaeda founder, writes LARA MARLOWEin Washington

A NAVY seal who shot Osama bin Laden on the night of May 1st, 2011, has published his account of the raid to coincide with the 11th anniversary of the atrocities of 9/11 today.

Matt Bissonnette published Not an Easy Day and appeared in an hour-long interview on CBS’s 60 Minutes programme on Sunday night under the pseudonym Mark Owen. Because “the enemy has a long memory”, he was filmed wearing heavy make-up as a disguise, and his voice was altered.

Bissonnette said the raid was “absolutely not a kill-only mission” and that the 24 seals who landed at the compound were told to “capture him alive, if feasible”.

An unnamed special operations officer last year told Nicholas Schmidle, the author of Getting bin Laden, that “There was never any question of detaining or capturing him . . . No one wanted detainees.”

Bissonnette’s account follows closely on criticism of President Barack Obama by a group of former seals calling themselves the Special Operations Opsec Education Fund (Opsec stands for operational security). In a 22-minute video released before the Republican convention, Benjamin Smith, a former seal, said, “Mr President . . . The work that the American military has done killed Osama bi Laden. You did not.” Opsec accuses Obama of exploiting the killing for advantage in the election campaign.

Vice-president Joe Biden and then defence secretary Robert Gates, who worked for several Republican presidents, opposed the raid on the grounds it was too risky. Yet Republicans are loath to credit Obama. Instead, they have concentrated on alleged intelligence leaks by his administration, which the Republican candidate Mitt Romney labels “contemptible”.

Opsec shares an office in Alexandria, Virginia, with two Republican political consulting firms. Its campaign against Obama has been likened to the “Swiftboat” controversy that sought to discredit then presidential nominee John Kerry’s Vietnam War record in 2004.

After rehearsing the raid close to 100 times in three weeks on a life-size mockup in North Carolina, the seal team was flown to Afghanistan in late April 2011. Among the passengers on their aircraft was a woman CIA analyst who had been tracking bin Laden for five years. Bissonnette describes her as “wicked smart, kind of feisty”. The woman said she was “one hundred per cent certain” the solitary figure picked up on satellite images pacing the garden was bin Laden. When the body bag carrying him was unzipped in a hangar in Afghanistan a few days later, she wept.

Bissonnette and his comrades had staged similar raids in Iraq and Afghanistan “a million times”. Their greatest concern was being shot down by Pakistani air defences on the 90-minute helicopter ride to and from Abbottabad. Nonetheless, he said, “I glance around the helicopter and half the guys are sitting there asleep . . . Guys gotta catch a few Zs on the way in.”

The seals began improvising when the first Black Hawk crash landed in the courtyard adjacent to the compound. The pilot was so skilled that he prevented the chopper from rolling by guiding its tail to rest on the 12-foot wall. Within five minutes, the seals had cleared the first building. They went on to the main, three-storey house.

The lead “point man” headed up the stairs, followed by Bissonnette. “It’s quiet. It’s pitch black in the house. No lights. All night vision.” Bissonnette describes the scene:A head pops around the corner. An Arabic-speaking seal whispers “Hey Khalid. Khalid,” on the chance it is bin Laden’s son. “Khalid literally looks back around the edge of the hall. And he shoots him . . . Curiosity killed the cat. I guess Khalid too,” Bissonnette says.

Hollywood movies make special forces raids out to be “loud, crazy and everybody’s yelling”, Bissonnette notes. Contrary to that image, “it’s quiet and calm, like we’ve done it a million times before. We have a saying, you know, ‘Don’t run to your death’. So nice and slow we head up the stairs.” On the third floor landing, the seals see another head peer from a door – bin Laden’s. The “point man” shoots him.

“Inside the room, I could see a body laying on the ground,” Bissonnette recounts. “Over him was two females, real close to the door.” The “point man” rushes the women, pushes them to the wall, in case they’re wearing suicide vests.

“Myself and the next assaulter in, we both engaged him several more times,” he continues. (By “engaged,” Bissonnette means “shot”.) Bin Laden is still moving. “But you couldn’t see his hands. So he could’ve had a grenade or something underneath his chest”. Bissonnette shoots bin Laden “a handful of times”.

The dead man on the floor has a long black beard. Bissonnette thought bin Laden’s beard was grey, so he’s not certain. But he’s tall, and the nose looks familiar. The Arabic-speaking seal asks a girl outside the room, “Hey, who is that inside?” and the child answers, “Osama. Osama bin Laden.” The process is repeated with one of the women.

The seals radio admiral William McRaven, the military commander of the raid, who is waiting in Afghanistan. “For God and country,” their commanding officer says. “Geronimo EKIA” (Geronimo was the code name for bin Laden. EKIA means Enemy Killed in Action).

Bissonnette pulls a sheet from the bed and uses water from a bottle to wipe the blood from bin Laden’s face before taking photographs that Obama will decide not to release. “They’re pretty gruesome,” Bissonnette says. “He had a bullet wound in the head.” The entire raid lasts 38 minutes. Six hours later, still in their camouflage uniforms, the seals watch President Obama announce bin Laden’s death on live television.

Returning to the US was “surreal”, Bissonnette says. The raid was “so hush-hush leading up . . . and now it was the biggest news story ever”. He and his fellow seals are told to take a couple of days off. On arriving, he gets in his truck “and I hit Taco Bell on the way home, hit the drive-thru, a couple tacos. And you know, ate it in my car right there and then drove home ... Two tacos and a burrito. It’s routine.”