Who really killed the al-Qa'ida leader? SEAL Team 6 member disputes interview with 'The Man Who Shot Osama bin Laden'

First one Navy SEAL writes about the deadly raid, then another contradicts him. Rupert Cornwell reports on the many versions of the terrorist’s death

The mission, like commando raids throughout history, depended on discretion and absolute secrecy. For those who took part, it was supposed to stay that way. Not a chance though, when this particular raid successfully took down the most wanted and most infamous man on the planet – and America’s entertainment industry, money and politics entered the fray.

Thus it has been with the death of Osama bin Laden, ever since the US Navy SEALs’ Team Six entered the nondescript compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in the early hours of 2 May 2011 and killed the al-Qa’ida leader, almost 10 years after he masterminded the bloodiest ever attack on US soil. Since then, time has brought not clarity but confusion, culminating in flatly contradictory accounts of precisely how bin Laden died, from the very SEALs who were supposed never to talk about it at all.

To be fair, the confusion began the very next day – and emanated from the very top of the chain of command, the White House itself. In their first version of how events unfolded, Obama administration officials claimed that the terrorist leader had perished in a bloody firefight, and moreover as something of a coward, using one of his wives as a human shield.

That account quickly changed in the light, it was said, of further debriefings of the commandos themselves. Bin Laden had not been armed at the moment he died, and the woman had rushed to protect him. But questions continued to be asked; this was after all one of the news stories of the decade.

Sixteen months later, in September 2012, they seemed to find an answer with publication of No Easy Day by a writer using the pseudonym Mark Owen – soon revealed to be Matt Bissonnette, one of the three SEALs who made it to the top-floor bedroom at the compound where bin Laden was hiding. The first of the three, the so-called “point man”, had shot bin Laden, who lay fatally wounded on the floor. There Bissonnette finished him off.

The book, predictably, was a best-seller and stands to be the definitive (and, of course, highly lucrative) version of what happened. Unless, that is, you choose to believe a very different account, in the March issue of Esquire magazine and running to 15,000 words, entitled “The Man Who Killed Osama bin Laden”.

It wasn’t Bissonnette, said Esquire, but a man referred to simply as “the Shooter”, now no longer in the military and very much down on his luck. “The man who shot and killed Osama bin Laden,” the author, Phil Bronstein, began, “sat in a wicker chair in my back yard, wondering how he was going to feed his wife and kids, or pay for their medical care”.

But he had a heroic tale to tell, how the point man had missed and that he, the Shooter, was the SEAL who burst into bin Laden’s bedroom, where the al-Qa’ida leader had a gun “within reach”, and killed him with two shots to the forehead. He then left the military – and unfortunately having not served the required 20 years, does not qualify either for a veteran’s pension or his health coverage.

But in recent days the Esquire profile, too, has come under withering fire. First SOFREP, the news and blog commentary of the special forces, put out a piece unsubtly headlined “Esquire is Screwed: Duped by Fake UBL [bin Laden] Shooter”, and added that the individual in question was now merrily cashing in on sympathy donations from the magazine’s readers.

Then CNN, in the person of Peter Bergen, its terror analyst and long-time bin Laden expert, weighed in, interviewing an anonymous SEAL Team Six operator who told him that the Shooter “is talking complete B-S”. This version, which closely resembles that of Bissonnette, is that the point man shot and gravely wounded bin Laden when he poked his head out of the bedroom door. The other two SEALs in the trio then entered the room and finished him off with two shots to the chest.

As for the Shooter, according to Bergen’s source, he was kicked out of Red Squadron, the Team Six group that carried out the raid, for bragging about the mission in bars around Virginia Beach where the SEAL unit is based. For its part, Esquire is standing by its story, insisting that it is based on information from “numerous sources”, including members of SEAL Team Six and the Shooter himself, as well as “detailed descriptions” of mission debriefs.

There, for now, matters stand. What seems clear is that the three SEALs present at the climax of the Abbottabad operation were the point man, Bissonnette (aka Owen) and the unidentified Shooter. But which of them actually killed Osama bin Laden may never be known. The compound itself has been razed and, as always in such historical mysteries, the further from the actual event in question, the harder facts become to verify.

Bergen further quotes the SEAL team commander as his men personally briefed Barack Obama after the raid. “If you took one person out of the puzzle,” the commander told the President, “we wouldn’t have the competence to do the job we did. Everybody’s vital. It’s not about the guy who pulled the trigger, it’s about  what we did together.”

But paeans to team spirit do not answer a separate question: how much should America’s special forces commandos talk about what they do? Not at all, officials insist. But in No Easy Day, Bissonnette justifies the spilling of the beans, writing that it was “time to set the record straight”, and that his book would “finally give credit to those who earned it”.

Nonsense, say those in charge; whatever else, the SEALs have not lacked for credit and praise over the bin Laden operation. But this argument for anonymity hardly squares with the help given to the makers of Zero Dark Thirty – the movie of the hunting down of bin Laden – by the Pentagon and the CIA, who were only too anxious to share in the glory (if not the financial rewards) of the operation.

Last but not least, for Obama himself, 2 May 2011 was pure political gold – dispelling any lingering suspicion that this Democrat was “weak” on national security. With considerations like these, discretion was always bound to be the first casualty of the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Bin Laden’s death: the contradictory accounts

White House version,  2-4 May 2011

According to the initial, White House version of Osama bin Laden’s death, Navy SEALs shot the al-Qa’ida leader as he “engaged [them] in a firefight” and pulled one of his wives in front of him as a “human shield”. But almost immediately administration officials backtracked, admitting bin Laden was unarmed when he was killed – although an AK-47 and a Makarov pistol lay within arms’ reach, they claimed – and that his wife had rushed “the US assaulter and was shot in the leg but not killed”. They blamed the divergent accounts on the time it took to process after-action reports from the SEALs. More controversy was to follow.

No Easy Day,  4 September 2012

Former SEAL Mark Bissonnette broke the commandos’ code of silence last summer by co-authoring an account of the raid. Writing under the pseudonym “Mark Owen”, he claimed bin Laden was shot in the head as he peered out of his bedroom door. Bissonnette writes the SEALs then found bin Laden crumpled in a pool of blood on the floor. At that point, Bissonnette claims he and his comrades trained their guns on bin Laden’s still-twitching body, shooting him until he lay motionless. But US special operations chief, Admiral William McRaven, dismissed Bissonnette’s account as inaccurate.

Esquire,  11 February 2013

Last month, Esquire profiled a pseudonymous SEAL who claimed he had fired the shots that killed bin Laden. In this version, “the Shooter” was right behind the “point man” as the two vaulted the stairs to the top floor of bin Laden’s compound. As bin Laden poked his head out of his bedroom door, the “point man” shot, either missing or lightly wounding bin Laden, before peeling off to tackle two women in the hallway whom he believed were wearing suicide vests. “The Shooter” claims he ran alone into the bedroom where he found bin Laden standing behind one of his wives, with a gun within reach. He shot him twice in the forehead.

CNN,  26 March 2013

Now veteran Afghanistan reporter Peter Bergen claims that another Navy SEAL told him the account  of “the Shooter” is “complete  B-S”. In this SEAL’s version, the “point man” gravely wounded bin Laden, before gathering the two women who might have been suicide bombers in his arms to absorb the explosion. “Two more SEALs then entered bin Laden’s bedroom and, seeing that al Qa’ida’s leader was lying mortally wounded on the floor, finished him off with shots to the chest,” Bergen writes – an account that closely matches the one in Mark Bissonnette’s best-selling book.

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