Cruising the azure waters of the Arabian Sea with the Navy’s Carl Vinson Strike Group in the hours immediately following the daring raid in Pakistan, the SEAL team member who put a bullet through Osama bin Laden’s left eye had some explaining to do. In fact, while they won’t be able to tell their own families much, all of the SEAL team members almost certainly underwent a lengthy, step-by-step debriefing with officials of the military’s secretive Joint Special Operations Command following the assault. The debriefings are typically complete with lawyers and, when deaths are involved, psychologists.
The tell-all is standard operating procedure after a mission like the one last weekend in Abbottabad. The details the operators share, however, might not become public for months, if not years.
The team members are expected to not only explain what happened during every minute of the assault on Osama bin Laden’s compound just hours earlier in Abbottabad, but also what went wrong. In this case, that included the loss of one helicopter and the shooting of one woman in close proximity to the team’s target; bin Laden, who was killed on the third floor of his home inside a fortress-like compound during the closing minutes of the 40-minute raid.
“They shot a woman in the compound. They shot the target. The mission was capture or kill – not kill. So they have to account for that,” said Ken Robinson, a retired Special Forces officer who planned and led special operations forces in Somalia, Sarajevo, Colombia, Haiti, and Iraq, among other places.
“They have to account for all of their actions,” said Robinson, who in 2004 was inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame for his own, classified exploits. “They don’t get to just unilaterally say, ‘Hey, we blew the place up. Here is the body. Thanks. We are going to Disney Land.’”
We might never know the identity of the SEAL team member who pulled the trigger and ended bin Laden’s life. But he and his team will be quietly celebrated for years to come at gatherings of fellow members of the close-knit, special operations community. “It won’t take long for everybody to know exactly which team it was and who were the guys that did it,” he said. “Honestly, I can go back all the way to Che Guevera and tell you who popped him in the head.”
The team that conducted the raid was from the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, also called SEAL Team Six, which grew out of the ashes of a charred RH-53D helicopter resting in the Iranian desert after the disastrous 1980 attempt to free American hostages in Tehran. The 1980 fiasco made painfully clear the need for a full-time, dedicated counter-terrorism capability in the military. Seal Team Six now likely consists of around 200 members. It is one of a handful of elite military units, along with the legendary Delta Force, specifically trained for “kinetic” action against terrorist targets: they hunt and kill.
SEAL Team Six executed secret rescue missions in Grenada in 1983, snagged Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega in 1989, and helped pluck President Jean Bertrand Aristide from Haiti in 1991. Now they will go down in history for their role, along with CIA operatives, in bringing down the most wanted terrorist in U.S. history.
These teams have boiled raids like the one in Abbottabad down to an art. Their modified MH-60 choppers skim just feet above the treetops, using terrain-following radar to hug the folds and valleys of the landscape, avoiding enemy radar. The number of operatives aboard the birds is determined by mathematical formula, which dictates a 3-to-1 advantage over the enemy.
Once on the ground, the operatives break into three groups. Members of the assault team infiltrate bin Laden’s house, carrying smaller-caliber automatic weapons, like the one that likely fired through bin Laden’s head. Support personnel take up fixed positions outside the buildings with larger-caliber, squad automatic weapons. A third concentric ring of operatives focus continually outward, away from the action inside the compound, looking for any unexpected, external threats.
Some team members handle forensics, which in this case meant identifying bin Laden’s remains. Others conduct the so-called “sensitive site exploitation,” which included ripping the hard drives out of the computers inside bin Laden’s compound.
The loss of the chopper was unfortunate, but it is a contingency SEAL Team Six trains for. Team members quickly remove fiber optic and thermal imaging equipment from the aircraft and torch the cryptologic communications equipment left behind, often with Thermite incendiary grenades, which burn in excess of 4000 degrees and can burn through a car engine block.
This seems to have been a textbook operation that went down as if SEAL Team Six knew bin Laden’s compound like it was their own. They should, since they have been rehearsing the raid in a full-scale model of the facility for weeks, if not months. Teams training for these raids work in isolation and are typically sent home for recuperation after an assault, where they don’t say much to anybody.