US special forces at odds over who killed bin Laden

Robert O'Neill was set to reveal his identity on television but his name was leaked. Picture: AP
Robert O'Neill was set to reveal his identity on television but his name was leaked. Picture: AP
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A BITTER row has erupted over which US commando fired the shot that killed Osama bin Laden, more than three years after the al-Qaeda leader’s death.

Former US Navy Seal Robert O’Neill, 38, claimed in an interview that he fired the fatal shot.

However, that contradicts the account of Matt Bissonnette, another former Seal involved in the raid, who claims in his book No Easy Day it was the “point man”, leading the group into the room, who killed bin Laden.

Bin Laden, mastermind of the 11 September, 2001 attacks on the US, was killed in a 2011 raid on his compound in the Pakistan garrison town of Abbottabad.

US Navy Seals – it stands for Sea, Air, Land team – usually abide by a code of silence that forbids them from publicly taking credit for their actions.

Mr O’Neill, who retired in 2012, had previously told his story anonymously to Esquire magazine.

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He was set to reveal his identity in a television interview later this month, but news of this angered other former Seals. A website run by former US special forces personnel published his name pre-emptively, apparently in protest at his decision to claim credit for the shooting.

Mr O’Neill said he and another member of the team – whose identity remains secret – climbed the stairs to the third floor of bin Laden’s compound and saw the al-Qaeda leader poke his head outside the door of one of the rooms.

The unnamed commando, at the “point position” leading the column, fired at bin Laden but missed, according to Mr O’Neill.

An instant later, Mr O’Neill went into the room and killed bin Laden with shots to the head, he claimed.

Describing the moments leading up to the killing, he said: “I rolled past him into the room, just inside the doorway. There was bin Laden, standing there. He had his hands on a woman’s shoulders pushing her ahead.”

Though the room was dark, Mr O’Neill said he could clearly see bin Laden’s features through his night-vision scope.

“He looked confused,” he said. “He was way taller than I was expecting. He had a cap on and didn’t appear to be hit.”

The terrorist leader was “standing and moving,” thrusting one of his wives in front of him as a shield.

“In that second, I shot him two times in the forehead,” he said. “Bap! Bap! The second time, as he is going down. He crumbled [sic] to the floor in front of his bed and I hit him again.” Mr O’Neill said bin Laden had died instantly, his skull split by the first bullet.

“I watched him take his last breaths,” he said.

He added his team had little time to contemplate the magnitude of the evening’s events. After taking photographs and squeezing bin Laden’s corpse into a body bag, they scrambled to collect computer drives and other possible sources of intelligence.

Then they moved bin Laden’s wives and children away from the house before boarding their helicopter for a dash across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, just ahead of approaching Pakistani fighter jets.

One current and one former Seal confirmed Mr O’Neill had long been known to have killed bin Laden. Mr O’Neill has said shots were fired by two other Seal team members, including Mr Bissonnette, who described the raid somewhat differently in his book. His lawyer said yesterday that Mr Bissonnette was under federal criminal investigation over whether he disclosed classified information in his unvetted account.

On Thursday, Mr Bissonnette did not directly dispute Mr O’Neill’s claim. He said it was a case of “two different people telling two different stories for two different reasons.” He added: “Whatever he says, he says. I don’t want to touch that.”

Well before his recent interview, Mr O’Neill discussed his role in the raid during a private meeting with relatives of victims of the 9/11 attack on New York’s World Trade Centre before the recent opening of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.

However, the actions of both Mr O’Neill and Mr Bissonnette have drawn scorn from some of their colleagues. Senior special operations leaders sent a letter last week to all US Navy Seals urging them to comply with their code of silence. “We do not abide wilful or selfish disregard for our core values in return for public notoriety and financial gain,” they wrote.

The official account of what happened is unlikely to be disclosed by the US government for many years.

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