It’s been six years to the day since a US special forces unit stormed a compound in Abbottabad in Pakistan and killed Osama bin Laden.
The sting was called Operation Neptune Spear and was carried out by the now famous SEAL Team Six.
Finding the Al-Qaeda leader was an exhaustive process, and the story of how he was actually found differs depending on who you ask. But the general consensus is intelligence services followed a courier to the compound.
A report in the New York Times says the identity of the courier was revealed after a prisoner was subjected to some ‘tough treatment’. That information was aided by Pakistani officials who named him as Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed from the Swat Valley, who was living in Osama bin Laden’s compound.
The surveillance operation was so costly that, in 2010, the CIA had to go to Congress and request tens of millions of dollars to help their operation continue.
Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. Credit: PA
As planning began for the raid on the complex, the US decided it couldn’t trust Pakistan with the information. The US military was weighing up whether to bomb the complex or mount a ground campaign.
A bombing raid came with risks. They weren’t sure whether bin Laden’s compound had an underground bunker. If it did, they would need 32 bombs weighing nearly a tonne each to penetrate it, but that would cause a nearby building to be destroyed with as many as 12 civilians subsequently killed.
They decided it was too risky, and went with a helicopter and ground assault. An exact replica of bin Laden’s complex was built in Nevada with a similar elevation to simulate the operation.
The day before the raid was launched, President Obama went to the White House Correspondent’s Dinner where host Seth Meyers joked: “People think bin Laden is hiding in the Hindu Kush, but did you know that every day from four to five he hosts a show on C-SPAN?”
President Obama laughed, knowing that in 24 hours a dedicated Navy SEAL team was about to launch one of the most symbolically important operations of the last decade.
The next day, he joined then Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, along with military officers in the Situation Room to wait for news on the raid.
According to the New York Times, there was a total of 79 commandos and a military working dog involved in the operation. The helicopters approached the compound low to the ground to avoid popping up on any radar systems.
Robert O’Neill was identified as the man who shot and killed Bin Laden with two bullets to the head and another as his body collapsed to the ground. He’s written a book on the raid called The Operator.
Credit: Simon and Schuster
An excerpt of the book was published on the Mirror, explaining what was going through his head as he took down the most wanted man on the planet.
The Mirror excerpt read: “As we entered, it was all dawning on me: ‘Holy shit, we’re here, that’s bin Laden’s house. This is so cool. We’re probably not going to live, but this is historic and I’m going to savour this.
“The point man kept his gun trained on the top of the stairs to the third floor, which was right in front of him, with a curtain hanging over the entryway. I moved up behind him and put my hand on his shoulder. There were only two of us left. This was it.
“We swiftly moved up the stairs to the curtain and he pushed it aside. Two women stood there screaming at us. The point man lunged at them, assuming they had suicide vests, tackling both. If they blew up, his body would absorb most of the blast and I’d have a better chance of surviving and doing what we had come there to do.
A scene from the film Zero Dark Thirty which recreated the raid. Credit: Columbia Pictures
“I turned to the right and looked into an adjoining room. Osama bin Laden stood near the entrance at the foot of the bed, taller and thinner than I’d expected, his beard shorter and hair whiter. He had a woman in front of him, his hands on her shoulders. In less than a second, I aimed above the woman’s right shoulder and pulled the trigger twice. Bin Laden’s head split open and he dropped. I put another bullet in his head. Insurance.”
“Now other SEALs began making their way into the room. I stood there and, kind of frozen, watched my guys do the work I’d seen them do hundreds of times. One of the guys came up to me and asked, ‘Are you OK?’.
“Was I? I felt blank. ‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘What do we do now?’ He laughed and said, ‘Now we go find the computers.’ I said, ‘Yeah, you’re right. I’m back. Holy shit’.
“Then another commando said, ‘Yeah, you just killed Osama bin Laden’.”
Even though the soldiers involved knew they had just killed bin Laden, there was an extensive process to correctly identify him. They had to measure the body, although not as technically as you might have thought.
Robert O’Neill. Credit: Twitter
They knew bin Laden was six foot four inches but didn’t have a tape measure. ABC Newssays they got a SEAL of similar height to lay down next to the body. President Obama later joked that: “We donated a $60 million helicopter to this operation. Could we not afford to buy a tape measure?”
Officials also got facial recognition software in, despite the terrorist’s face being shot several times during the raid. The photograph of the face yielded a 90 to 95 percent positive match. They also got one of bin Laden’s wives to identify the body along with DNA testing.
The mission completed what four separate operations failed to do in 1994, 1998, 2000 and 2001.
Americans celebrating in New York after bin Laden was killed. Credit: PA
Under Islamic law, a body has to be buried as soon as possible and so he was buried at sea. President Obama addressed the nation late in the evening telling Americans: “Tonight, 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.
“For over two decades, bin Laden has been al Qaeda’s leader and symbol, and has continued to plot attacks against our country and our friends and allies. The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda.
“Yet his death does not mark the end of our effort. There’s no doubt that al-Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must – and we will – remain vigilant at home and abroad.”