The killing of Osama Bin Laden in May of 2011 by SEAL Team Six in Abbotabad, Pakistan immediately became the crowning achievement of the US Special Operations community. However, almost every single detail fed to the public about the raid was completely false aside from the time and place of the operation and that fact that SEAL Team Six killed Bin Laden.
To understand his death, and the SEAL raid which was dubbed “Operation Neptune Spear,” we first have to look into the past. After the September 11th, 2001 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, Osama Bin Laden entered into the American psyche as Public Enemy Number One.
Delta Force was deployed to track and and kill Bin Laden, the account of which was described by the Delta ground force commander for the mission in his book “Kill Bin Laden,” but their prey managed to escape the Tora Bora mountains, largely because of the US military’s over reliance on host-nation counterparts to secure the objective’s flanks and rear, and their unwillingness to deploy additional Special Operations and conventional infantry troops to the area.
This opened the door for Bin Laden’s egress from Afghanistan to Pakistan. He was funneled out of the country via a ratline operated by a Afghan named Sabar Lal. After the Tora Bora campaign, Lal continued to participate in terrorist activities in the Pech valley, until he was killed under rather dubious circumstances by SEAL Team Six in September of 2011. Between 2001 and 2011, various parties in the Special Operations and Intelligence community continued the hunt for Bin Laden.
Who first zeroed in on Bin Laden in Abbotabad is sharply contested behind closed doors. Some assert that the first SIGINT hits on Bin Laden’s compound were collected by JSOC’s Intelligence Support Activity, also known as Task Force Orange. Others point to the hard work done by CIA contractors on the ground in Pakistan.
Some of the better intelligence which actually led up to the raid was not collected by the CIA or JSOC, but in fact by private citizens, a little-known, and less understood fact. A team of doctors had established themselves on the Pakistan border and had, over time, cultivated some great sources of information. The endeavor had a public face, none other than Duane “Dewey” Clarridge of the Eclipse Group. Interestingly though, this project was not purely a US government program, but for a long time was actually privately funded by a Texas billionaire well known for financing off-the-books covert operations for various interested parties.
Which party really scored that intelligence touchdown in the War on Terror is something we will return too, but first lets get back to the actual assaulters who conducted the raid.
Once the Bin Laden compound was identified, SEAL Team Six’s Black Squadron ran a HUMINT package around the compound itself to gather additional information, while Red Squadron of the same unit was tapped to conduct the actual raid.
Many are quick to point out that there is no such thing as SEAL Team Six anymore, and that this unit is actually knows as Naval Special Warfare Development Group. Well, actually, this unit is formally called TACDEVRON by this stage in history, but unless we want to confuse ourselves with the long list of names given to units like SEAL Team Six and Intelligence Support Activity over the years, we will just keep things simple for now.
The reason for Red Squadron’s selection was purely pragmatic, they were due for a training rotation and the entire squadron could disappear to conduct rehearsals for the mission without raising any eyebrows amongst their families or even their fellow teammates in other Squadrons. That’s right, even some key leaders within the unit were not read on to this particular operation up until just days prior.
Rehearsals were conducted on a mockup of the compound at the CIA’s Harvey Point facility in North Carolina, and also in Nevada, the second location probably chosen because 160th Special Operations Aviation could simulate their border infiltration of Pakistan over the Nevada desert without attracting much attention to their stealth helicopters, the existence of which had been kept under wraps at that time.
In the early morning hours of May 1st, 2011 Operation Neptune Spear was initiated. Various accounts of the raid itself have surfaced in recent years, some more accurate than others, none of them close to telling the full account. Contrary to official denials, helmet cam video of the raid does exist. The mission was a complete success aside from the downing of one of 160th stealth helicopters. Exactly what brought the helicopter down is a cause for speculation.
After consulting with experts in the field of rotary wing aircraft, it seems that the most likely cause of the crash was due to a phenomena known to pilots as “settling with power” with atmospheric conditions potentially playing a role as well. Helicopter pilots will almost always attempt to land while facing into the wind; however, the pre-determined approach into the objective in this case may have actually given them a down-wind landing. If the rotor wash pushed from the rotors down to the ground, then comes back up and pushes into the descent path of the helicopter, it can then make the aircraft unstable. This is how settling with power can destabilize a helicopter. The rotors essentially created a vortex of dead air space that could no longer generate lift.
The rotor blade system needs clean, that is, uniform air to produce lift. If instead it gets non-uniform air, such as air previously disturbed by the helicopter’s own rotor wash, than the pilot could be in for some trouble.
At this point, the pilot would have begun to lose control of the aircraft from self-induced turbulence. Without lift and maneuverability, he would have to conduct a controlled crash as a last resort. As we see in the pictures of the wreckage left after the mission, the tail rotor section split over an outer wall of the compound. Did this obstacle also disrupt the air flow from the main rotor system and destabilize the aircraft? Maybe.
Why didn’t this problem surface during the training rehearsals at Harvey Point? It may have been because the walls around the Bin Laden compound were made out of concrete, while the walls at the rehearsal mockup were simply chain link fences, which did not impede the flow of air the same way. Be that as it may, SEAL Team Six was able to destroy the wrecked stealth helicopter, cross load onto another helicopter, and successfully withdraw off the objective.
A cover story for the entire mission had been developed well ahead of time, a cover story greatly needed by the United States in order to prevent the destabilization of the Pakistani government. The original cover story went up in smoke with 160th’s stealth helicopter. If not for the wreckage of the American helicopter on the compound, the world would have been told of Bin Laden’s death several days later, and the location of the killing would have been reported as being in the mountains of Afghanistan. The entire operation in Abbotabad would simply have been denied.
With the cover story blown, an alternate was floated out to the media via a series of controlled leaks to outlets like The New Yorker magazine, which was given the leaked cover story so early that they had to sit on it for weeks in order to make it look like their journalists were doing actual, you know, journalism. That cover story was chiseled into the American psyche with Katherine Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, a movie that had nothing to do with reality but greatly molded public perceptions about the operation.
In reality, Bin Laden was not tracked to the Abbotabad compound by following his courier network. That story was ludicrous when it was first leaked and got even sillier in Bigelow’s movie. Also, the use of stealth aircraft and reports of UAVs conducting electronic jamming operations to obscure the radar signature of the helicopters was also a myth.
The truth is that the highest levels of the Pakistani government knew that the Red Squadron assaulters were coming. At least two Pakistani Generals were informed, and this is how Operation Neptune Spear was able to take place so deep into Pakistan without the Pakistani military scrambling fighter jets or troops to the scene.
The Generals kept those planes on the ground and allowed the mission to take place. The reason for the elaborate cover story was because if the Islamist elements in Pakistan became aware of their leaders collaborating in the killing of Bin Laden, then it could have destabilized the Pakistani government. Unchecked, it could have resulted in a coup. Remember that Pakistan is a nuclear power…
Perhaps this brings us full circle back to how Bin Laden’s location was identified in the first place. Was Bin Laden located by the outstanding intelligence efforts of JSOC, the CIA, or some commercial intelligence organization, or was Bin Laden simply cashed in by the Pakistani government who always knew where he was and turned him out when they thought they could get the most collateral in return from the US government?
That is the ultimate question and for now it remains unanswered.
(Featured Image Courtesy: NPR.org)