Operation Neptune Spear: The Hunt for Osama Bin Laden
One of the most secretive missions in American military history was in motion. It was the dead of night on May 2, 2011. Two stealth Black Hawk helicopters piloted by U.S. Army aviators had crossed into Abbottabad, Pakistan, a military town roughly 35 miles north of the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. Aboard the specially adapted choppers were some of the most elite special operators in the world: 23 members of U.S. Navy SEAL Team Six, a translator, and a combat dog named Cairo. With speed and precision, they were to raid a large, highly-secured compound. Hiding behind the tall walls of the million-dollar complex was the mastermind of the attacks that had devastated America to her core on September 11, 2001. Now, nearly 10 years since that life-changing day, the world’s most wanted terrorist had no place left to run. The SEALs were coming to hunt down Osama bin Laden.
After penetrating 120 miles inside Pakistan under the cover of darkness, flying beneath radar and varying routes throughout the trek to avoid detection, the choppers finally descended on the complex at approximately 12:30 a.m. local time. It had taken years of diligent work by American intelligence officials, analysts, and agents to pinpoint bin Laden to this location. The SEALs had also trained hard, practicing for the raid in a life-sized replica of the compound. Now, the time had come to hit the ground and execute Operation Neptune Spear, which was named after the trident found on the U.S. Navy’s Special Warfare insignia.
Even after all the painstaking surveillance and intelligence work that had been done, there was still no definitive guarantee that bin Laden would actually be in the compound. On April 29, 2011, President Barack Obama had given SEAL Team Six the green light to launch Operation Neptune Spear, but even he later admitted that doing so “was a very difficult decision, in part because the evidence we had was not absolutely conclusive.” Watching the operation from the White House in real time through a video feed, the president and his top advisers would soon have the answer they were looking for.
President Obama and his top advisers watching the mission unfold from a small conference room within the Situation Room of the White House. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
As the choppers hovered over the compound, the precious element of surprise was immediately jeopardized. The tail and rotor of one of the Black Hawks grazed the compound’s 18-foot walls, forcing the pilot to make a “soft crash" landing. Despite the mishap, none of the operators aboard the craft were injured. Undeterred, both teams of SEALs assembled and carried on with the mission. Their objective was clear: “to kill or capture Osama Bin Laden.”
SEAL Team Six hunted in the dark. Power on the street had been cut. Equipped with night-vision goggles, the operators went forward, blasting their way through “three or four” outer walls to reach the main building. At some point, Bin Laden’s trusted courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, opened fire on the SEALs from behind the door of a guard house. He was eliminated, as was his wife, “who reportedly made a lunge for the [operators],” according to the BBC.
Once inside the main building, the SEALs killed al-Kuwaiti’s brother on the ground floor. The operators proceeded up the stairs, where they came face to face with an armed Khalid bin Laden, Osama bin Laden’s son. He too was terminated.
Approximately 20 minutes into the raid, the SEALs had reached the top floor of the compound. They found a tall, bearded man poking his head out of a doorway. There was no mistaking who it was. As former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta reflected, “A member of our team, recognizing him instantly, shot at him and missed.” It was Osama bin Laden.
Bin Laden retreated back into the room. The SEALs followed hot on his trail, bursting into the room, where they were rushed by two young girls and an adult woman. Screams rang out from the girls as they were grabbed and shoved to the side. With sights centered on the man responsible for untold sufferings around the world, Bin Laden was shot “twice, once above the left eye and once in the chest,” according to Panetta. The SEAL who took those historic shots was Robert J. O’Neill. As O’Neill later wrote, “The last thing Osama bin Laden saw was an American Flag. It was on my shoulder. I was standing.” Bin Laden’s third wife was also shot in the leg during the encounter, but her wounds were not serious.
Robert J. O'Neill, the SEAL who shot Osama bin Laden. (Photo Credit: Black Rifle Coffee Company)
With the world’s most wanted terrorist lying dead at the feet of his commandos, the SEAL team leader announced over the radio, “For God and country-Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo,” the code word for the successful killing or capture of bin Laden. When the news was relayed back to President Obama at the White House, he reportedly remarked, “We got him.”
Bin Laden’s compound was described as a “treasure trove” of intelligence. The SEALs swept the complex, grabbing documents, computer hard drives, memory sticks, and other material offering valuable insight into the dealings of bin Laden and his terrorist network, Al-Qaeda. With the intelligence collected and the corpse of bin Laden secure in a body bag, it was time for SEAL Team Six to return to base.
Even after the positive news of bin Laden’s death, tensions for those following the operation back in Washington D.C. still ran very high. “The explosions and gunfire from the compound had begun to draw the attention of our neighbors, and they came into the street, some venturing toward our forces,” recalled Panetta. The Pakistani air force even “began scrambling some of its fighter jets,” according to the BBC, but they were ultimately called back. Reports indicate that Pakistan was not tipped off about the raid. However, as a Pakistani intelligence official told the BBC, “once US helicopters entered Pakistan air space,” his side was then informed by American officials “that an operation was underway against ‘a high value target.’” The name of that high value target was not revealed to the Pakistanis.
Back at the compound, a backup helicopter had been sent in to help evacuate SEAL Team Six. Before boarding and leaving the complex, the commandos blew up the stealth Black Hawk that had been damaged, preventing its secrets from falling into the wrong hands. Bin Laden’s body was loaded up, the pilots took off, and SEAL Team Six began the journey back to Afghanistan. The operators had performed so skillfully that, “From beginning to end, the operation had taken less than 40 minutes,” according to Military.com.
Osama bin Laden's compound. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
While flying back to Afghanistan, the SEALs took DNA samples to confirm bin Laden’s identity. Initial DNA tests conducted by other intelligence specialists were able to confirm “a virtual 100 percent DNA match of the body against DNA of several bin Laden family members,” as reported by Military.com. In order to prevent bin Laden’s grave from becoming a shrine to other terrorists and extremists, his body was prepared according to Islamic law and then buried at sea. The terrorist’s corpse was packed in a heavy black bag along with 300-pounds of iron chains to ensure that it would sink to the depths of the Arabian Sea.
Back in the United States, the airwaves lit up on May 2 at 11:35 p.m. “Tonight,” said President Obama in a televised address from the White House, “I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda, and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women and children.” The news of bin Laden’s demise galvanized the United States. From New York City’s Times Square to outside the White House and beyond, American flags waved from many hands and chants of “U-S-A” broke out among the masses, including a full crowd of baseball fans who got the news as they watched the Phillies take on the Mets at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. As Obama put it simply, “Justice has been done.”
9/11 Memorial & Museum: Operation Neptune Spear.
BBC News: Osama Bin Laden's Death: How it Happened.
Business Insider: Panetta: This Is How the Bin Laden Raid Went Down.
History.com: How SEAL Team Six Took Out Osama Bin Laden.
History.com: The Bin Laden Raid: Inside the Situation Room Photo.
New York Daily News: Osama Bin Laden's Raid in Abbottabad, Military Town North of Islamabad Served as Terror Hideout.
Obama White House Archives: Osama Bin Laden Dead.