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Dead or Alive

AFP/Getty Images
Osama bin Laden in a video reported to have been filmed at the al-Qaeda training camp al-Farouq, Afghanistan

The essential facts of Osama bin Laden’s demise—that he was shot dead by US Navy SEALs in a house in Abbottabad, Pakistan, during the early hours of May 2, 2011, local time—have been reliably established and stand beyond reasonable doubt. For many Americans and victims of al-Qaeda’s violence worldwide, they are the only facts that will ever matter. Bin Laden planned and funded terrorism operations that killed many hundreds of civilians not only in New York and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, but also in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.

Given his record, it is uncomfortable to suggest that there might be more to the subject of bin Laden’s killing than a straightforward story of justice delivered. And yet from the first hours after the Abbottabad raid, American government officials have made false, confusing, and incomplete public statements about what, exactly, happened at Abbottabad. They have also dissembled about how Operation Neptune Spear, as the raid was named, planned for the possibility that bin Laden might be taken alive and put on trial.

Mark Owen, a pseudonym used by a recently retired SEAL named Matt Bissonnette, was a team leader on the Abbottabad raid. In No Easy Day, he writes that he hopes “to set the record straight about one of the most important missions in US military history.” His book belongs to an expanding genre of memoirs by Special Forces veterans and retired Central Intelligence Agency operatives. The genre’s growth may seem incongruous with the imperative of secrecy in intelligence activity and in the work of elite, clandestine military units like the SEALs. Yet the recent memoir boom seems to have been encouraged by military and intelligence leaders. This is presumably because, besides adding to the historical record, such books enhance the global brands of the CIA and the Special Forces, and so they help in the recruiting and retention of spies and operatives, while glamorizing the agencies in ways that make it difficult for members of Congress to cut their budgets.

Typically, the authors of such memoirs submit their manuscripts before publication for official review, to scrub the works of classified information. Bissonnette declined to do so; he writes that he eliminated all secret information from his book on his own. The Pentagon has declared that Bissonnette is in breach of his legal obligations, but so far the government has taken no action against him. No Easy Day is in any event respectful about the Obama administration and friendly to the SEALs, promoting their accomplishments enthusiastically. It also offers many new and apparently reliable eyewitness details about bin Laden’s last minutes. It would be too much, however, to say that Bissonnette has set the record straight.

For one thing, the story of how bin Laden’s hideout was discovered and who protected the fugitive during the last decade of his exile remains riddled with holes and gaps. From the mid-1990s, the CIA led the effort to find bin Laden; a team of analysts, many of them women, persisted painstakingly until a few disparate clues about one of bin Laden’s couriers came together and the courier was located in Pakistan, according to the version given by the Obama administration after Neptune Spear and illuminated in reportorial depth by the journalist Peter Bergen in his recent book, Manhunt.1 Bissonnette writes of a female CIA analyst who traveled with the SEAL team to Afghanistan and told them she was “one hundred percent” sure they would find bin Laden at Abbottabad; she cried when the SEALs returned from the raid with his body.

Bissonnette has said that Neptune Spear’s authors at the Pentagon and in the White House, including President Obama, regarded capturing bin Laden alive as a desirable and serious goal, when the facts suggest that such planning was a thin fig leaf for an operation meant to kill, a fig leaf created mainly for appearances’ sake, on the advice of clever and careful lawyers. Why do the misleading statements and interpretive dissonance surrounding Operation Neptune Spear matter? The raid seems certain to join the likes of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and Adolf Hitler’s suicide as a staple of popular and even scholarly history; it would be useful not to seed the initial record with errors and misunderstanding. More importantly, the mission illuminates America’s wider, continuing system of secret, violent counterterrorist operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere—a high-tempo regime of drone strikes, night raids, and detention practices that is largely unaccountable to the public and draped in secrecy rules.

One disturbing aspect of the system involves the failure of the Obama administration and Congress to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay or to create adequate political support for putting terrorists on trial as criminals. This has gradually led Obama’s White House to discover that “killing was a lot easier than capturing,” as the journalist Daniel Klaidman puts it succinctly in Kill or Capture,2 his important and revelatory chronicle of the administration’s internal arguments about the legal and ethical dilemmas of counterterrorism.

Neptune Spear must be understood in the wider setting Klaidman describes. Capturing terrorism suspects and delivering them to courtrooms became a declining priority during Obama’s first term. Few Americans may regret Osama bin Laden’s death, but more of them might be dismayed by some of the assumptions and bureaucratic habits of the counterterrorism regime that brought the al-Qaeda leader down.

The first public impression created of bin Laden’s killing was that of an Old West shootout: an outlaw, cornered, raised his gun against an arriving cavalry and was shot down. On Sunday night, May 1, 2011, Eastern Daylight Time, President Obama announced the news on national television. He said bin Laden had been killed “after a firefight.” Other administration officials, speaking that night on condition that they would not be named, said that bin Laden personally had resisted the attack, and they implied that he had wielded a weapon. These briefings led The New York Times, the national paper of record, to publish a main story whose first paragraph declared that bin Laden “was killed in a firefight with United States forces…. American officials said Bin Laden resisted and was shot in the head.”

The next afternoon, John Brennan, the assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, provided an on-the-record press briefing about the raid. No Easy Day makes clear that at the time Brennan spoke, few of the seventy-nine men who had participated in the mission had yet provided detailed accounts to their superiors of what they saw and did. This apparently explains why Brennan made a number of false statements at his briefing. Brennan also seemed determined to emphasize details that would diminish bin Laden’s worldwide reputation at the provocative moment of his killing.

Brennan said that bin Laden “was engaged in a firefight with those that entered the area of the house he was in. And whether or not he got off any rounds, I quite frankly don’t know.” He added that there was “a female who…was used as a shield to shield bin Laden from the incoming fire.” Brennan identified the woman as one of bin Laden’s wives. “She served as a shield,” he said. “Again, this is my understanding—and we’re still getting the reports back of exactly what happened.”

Brennan nonetheless extrapolated from the uncertain reports to make a larger point: “Here is bin Laden…hiding behind women who were put in front of him as a shield. I think it really just speaks to just how false his narrative has been over the years.”

Four days later, the White House corrected many of Brennan’s statements. Bin Laden had not been armed when he was killed, administration spokesmen conceded. He had not used any woman as a shield. Nor had there been a “firefight” in the house where he lived.

No Easy Day provides a clarifying, convincing account of how the shooting actually unfolded. The SEALs’ carefully rehearsed raid plan, overseen from the White House, was disrupted at the start. One of the two helicopters carrying the assault team crash-landed. The pilots of the second helicopter then landed in a different place from where they had originally intended. This led the SEALs to improvise as they carried out their assault.

Early on, Bissonnette and a colleague approached an outbuilding where they believed Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, a courier associated with bin Laden, might be residing with his family. The two SEALs pounded on the door with a sledgehammer. Someone fired out—this was the only hostile shooting the SEALs received during the entire raid. Bissonnette and his colleague, who spoke Arabic, shot back and appeared to kill a man who turned out to be al-Kuwaiti.

Immediately after this nerve-jangling exchange of gunfire, al-Kuwaiti’s wife called out from inside the building. She unlocked the door and walked out. Bissonnette recalls:

I could just make out the figure of a woman in the green glow of my night vision goggles. She had something in her arms and my finger slowly started applying pressure to my trigger. I could see our lasers dancing around her head. It would only take a split second to end her life if she was holding a bomb.
As the door continued to open, I saw that the bundle was a baby.

Bissonnette and his colleague admirably held fire. Three children trailed the woman into the courtyard and the SEALs ushered them to one side. The SEALs went inside, found al-Kuwaiti on the floor, and “squeezed off several rounds to make sure he was down.” But this initial exchange of fire suggested that they should expect violence as the assault proceeded, in Bissonnette’s telling.

Another team of SEALs now entered the first floor of the main house. One of them spotted al-Kuwaiti’s brother, Abrar, as he poked his head into a hallway. They shot him, followed him into a side room, and shot him again as he was “struggling” while lying on the floor. During this sequence, according to Bissonnette, Abrar’s wife “jumped in the way to shield him” and the SEALs shot her dead, too.

Bissonnette then joined a line of colleagues as they climbed the stairs of the main house. On the second floor, a team member in front of him preemptively shot dead bin Laden’s son, Khalid. As Bissonnette stepped past the body, he saw an AK-47 assault rifle propped nearby. “We had planned for more of a fight,” he writes. Later, when they inspected Khalid’s assault rifle, they found a round in the chamber. Khalid “was prepared to fight, but in the end, he hadn’t gotten much of an opportunity.”

Bissonnette continued up toward the third floor. There was another SEAL in front of him; he could not see around the point man very well. Near the top of the stairs, he heard the distinctive sound of firing from the lead SEAL’s rifle, which was equipped with a silencer. “The point man had seen a man peeking out of the door on the right side of the hallway…. I couldn’t tell from my position if the rounds hit the target or not. The man disappeared into the dark room.”

They went inside and found “two women standing over a man lying at the foot of a bed.” The man on the floor was bin Laden, although the SEALs did not know that for certain then, Bissonnette writes. He recounts how the attack ended:

The point man’s shots had entered the right side of [bin Laden’s] head. Blood and brains spilled out of the side of his skull. In his death throes, he was still twitching and convulsing. Another assaulter and I trained our lasers on his chest and fired several rounds. The bullets tore into him, slamming his body into the floor until he was motionless.

Bin Laden, then, was the third of three men the SEALs shot dead, or finished off, while they were lying on the floor. Perhaps al-Kuwaiti, Abrar, and bin Laden had been mortally wounded by the initial shots that struck them, but no effort was made to determine their prospects for survival. Bin Laden had stored a gun on a shelf nearby but it contained no ammunition; there has been no evidence that he tried to get hold of it; he was neither armed nor aggressive at the moment of his death.

Bissonnette offers no direct explanation for the additional shooting of the downed men, but he implies that the action is a standard SEAL tactic motivated by self-defense. Evidently, the protocols for the Abbottabad raid instructed the assaulters to assume that any wounded men they encountered might be able to trigger a suicide explosive vest or wield a hidden weapon, and so the SEALs were authorized or even encouraged to shoot wounded men until they were dead.

No Easy Day makes clear, however, that the protocols also encouraged the SEALs to show restraint toward women and children, even though it would be reasonable to assume that the wives of a radical like bin Laden might be dangerous—al-Qaeda has sponsored female suicide bombers and bin Laden’s wives included well-educated and feisty women who might well have chosen to shoot back on their own accord. It seems likely that President Obama ordered the SEALs to assume any men they encountered would be implacably dangerous and should be preemptively killed at the slightest provocation, but that he also asked the SEALs to spare the women where possible. If these were indeed the orders, the SEALs followed them under pressure with professional precision. Bissonnette does not discuss in detail what orders he had.

CNN/Getty Images
Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden, from a video recorded at a secret location in Afghanistan, May 1998
  1. 1

    Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad (Crown, 2012). 

  2. 2

    Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012; reviewed in these pages by David Cole, July 12, 2012. 

  3. 3

    Gary Schroen, a retired CIA officer who led the first mission to Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks, quotes Black in his memoir, First In: An Insider’s Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan (Presidio, 2005), p. 38. 

  4. 4

    See Jo Becker and Scott Shane, “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will,” The New York Times, May 29, 2012. 

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