Two Seals kicked in bin Laden’s door. The room, they later recalled, “smelt like old clothing, like a guest bedroom in a grandmother’s house”. Inside was the al-Qa’ida leader and his youngest wife, Amal, who was screaming as he pushed her in front of him.
“No, no, don’t do this!” she shouted as her husband reached across the king-size bed for his AK-47 assault rifle. The Seals reacted instantly, firing in the same second. One round thudded into the mattress. The other, aimed at bin Laden’s head, grazed Amal in the calf. As his hand reached for the gun, they each fired again: one shot hit his breastbone, the other his skull, killing him instantly and blowing out the back of his head.
Meanwhile Razor 2 was heading for the guesthouse, a low, shoebox-like building, where bin Laden’s courier, Kuwaiti, and his brother lived.
As the helicopter neared, a door opened and two figures appeared, one waving an AK-47. This was Kuwaiti. In the moonless night he could see nothing and lifted his rifle, spraying bullets wildly.
He did not see the Stealth Hawk. On board someone shouted, “Bust him!”, and a sniper fired two shots. Kuwaiti was killed, as was the person behind him, who turned out to be his wife. Also on board were a CIA agent, a Pakistani- American who would act as interpreter, and a sniffer dog called Karo, wearing dog body armour and goggles.
Within two minutes the Seals from Razor 2 had cleared the guesthouse and removed the women and children.
They then ran to the main house and entered from the ground floor, checking the rooms. One of bin Laden’s bodyguards was waiting with his AK-47. The Seals shot him twice and he toppled over.
Five minutes into the operation the command Chinook landed outside the compound, disgorging the commanding officer and more men. They blasted through the compound wall and rushed in.
The commander made his way to the third floor, where bin Laden’s body lay on the floor face up. Photographs were taken, and the commander called on his satellite phone to headquarters with the words: “Geronimo Echo KIA” – bin Laden enemy killed in action.
“This was the first time the White House knew he was dead and it was probably 20 minutes into the raid,” said Pfarrer.
A sample of bin Laden’s DNA was taken and the body was bagged. They kept his rifle. It is now mounted on the wall of their team room at their headquarters in Virginia Beach, Virginia, alongside photographs of a dozen colleagues killed in action in the past 20 years.
At this point things started to go wrong. Razor 1 took off but the top secret “green unit” that controls the electronics failed. The aircraft went into a spin and crashed tail-first into the compound.
The Seals were alarmed, thinking it had been shot down, and several rushed to the wreckage. The crew climbed out, shaken but unharmed.
The commanding officer ordered them to destroy Razor 2, to remove the green unit, and to smash the avionics. They then laid explosive charges.
They loaded bin Laden’s body onto the Chinook along with the cache of intelligence in plastic bin bags and headed toward the USS Carl Vinson. As they flew off they blew up Razor 2. The whole operation had taken 38 minutes.
The following morning White House officials announced that the helicopter had crashed as it arrived, forcing the Seals to abandon plans to enter from the roof. A photograph of the situation room showed a shocked Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, with her hand to her mouth.
Why did they get it so wrong?
What they were watching was live video but it was shot from 20,000ft by a drone circling overhead and relayed in real time to the White House and Leon Panetta, the CIA director, in Langley. The Seals were not wearing helmet cameras, and those watching in Washington had no idea what was happening inside the buildings.
“They don’t understand our terminology, so when someone said the ‘insertion helicopter’ has crashed, they assumed it meant on entry,” said Pfarrer.
What infuriated the Seals, according to Pfarrer, was the description of the raid as a kill mission. “I’ve been a Seal for 30 years and I never heard the words ‘kill mission’,” he said. “It’s a Beltway (Washington insider’s) fantasy word. If it was a kill mission you don’t need Seal Team 6; you need a box of hand grenades.”
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