Operation Neptune’s Spear. One of the most daring raids in U.S. Special Operations history in which U.S. Navy SEALs of SEAL Team Six, or DEVGRU, raided the compound of Osama bin Laden in Abbottobad, Pakistan, and killed the terrorist leader, who was living less than a mile from the Pakistani military academy.
The raid took place at 1:00 a.m. on May 2 in Pakistan but in the U.S., it was mid-afternoon on May 1. The operation, called “Neptune Spear,” was a joint CIA and JSOC operation with SEALs and aviators from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (the Night Stalkers) flying specially designed stealth helicopters.
The operation was in the works for several years before it was finally unleashed by President Obama.
The Intelligence Preparation
The CIA had found out the name of bin Laden’s courier as early as 2007. This was considered a high-value intelligence coup because the CIA learned through their Black sites and interrogations at Guantanamo Bay that bin Laden communicated only via couriers. He stopped using phones since the U.S. tracked a cell phone of one of his subordinates and launched a missile strike on the location in Afghanistan back in 1998.
The courier was named Ibrahim Saeed Ahmed according to Pakistani officials and his brother lived at the Abbottobad compound with bin Laden. The CIA picked up a wiretap of another individual and CIA paramilitary operatives tracked the man back to the compound.
The compound then came under intense scrutiny. The CIA had a female analyst that had been on bin Laden’s trail for nearly five years. She earned the team and superiors’ respect and believed with 100 percent certainty, that bin Laden was living there with his youngest wife and children. The compound was built around 2004-2005 and was at the end of a long, narrow dirt road outside of the main area of Abbottobad and about 100 miles from Afghanistan.
The compound cost about a million dollars to build and was constructed on a plot of land much larger than the surrounding properties. Walls 12-18 feet high surrounded it topped with two feet of barbed wire. There were two security gates and the property had no telephone or internet service. Unlike their neighbors, the inhabitants didn’t put their trash out for collection but burned it inside the compound.
The family lived on the second and third floors of the structure. The third-floor balcony had a seven-foot-high privacy wall installed to conceal the tall (6’4″) bin Laden. The “principal” was seen in intelligence photos every day pacing in the garden that was partially covered with a tarp. The CIA analysts called him “the Pacer.” But the photos couldn’t positively identify the target.
In trying to gather more intelligence, the CIA used a fake polio vaccination program to gain entrance to the compound and rented a home nearby where they could keep up surveillance on the potential target.
Despite intense efforts, the CIA was never able to get a picture of the third-floor inhabitant or a recording of his voice. But after exhaustive intelligence analysis, the CIA deemed that only bin Laden could be living there.
Planning Neptune’s Spear
The planning fell to Admiral William McRaven of JSOC. He assigned a Navy captain from DEVGRU to set up the plan of a raid with the help of the CIA at the agency’s HQs in Langley, VA.
There was also talk of using B-2 Stealth bombers. But the with that suggestion was that they’d have no way of confirming the death of bin Laden after the raid. Further, the use of the 2,000-pound radar-guided JDAM munitions was sure to cause civilian casualties in the area.
Additionally, the idea of using the Pakistanis in a joint operation was quickly discounted as everyone up the chain of command believed that leaks would quickly follow compromising the mission.
Since the U.S. wasn’t at a war with Pakistan, the members of the team were taken off their military roles and placed as civilians under the CIA’s control for the duration of the mission.
The agency and DEVGRU built a mockup of the compound in Harvey Point Defense Testing facility in North Carolina and another in Nevada. The SEALs still were not told who their target or its location was. Nevada was chosen because, at a 4,000-foot altitude, it would be close to the actual altitude of the target thus testing the helicopters’ capabilities. Also, a full-scale replica was built in Afghanistan at Bagram Air Base.
The raid team arrived on April 27 at Jalalabad where Neptune’s Spear would be based out of. A CH-47 Chinook helicopter with a quick reaction force (QRF) would be placed nearby in case the unit had to fight its way out of Pakistan. The entire operation was to last 40 minutes.
The order was given at 1:22 p.m. EST on May 1 for Adm. McRaven to proceed with the raid. The president and members of his cabinet watched the events unfold from the Situation Room at the White House via a drone flying overhead.
Neptune’s Spear Unfolds
The raid force consisted of 79 operators and a dog. The dog team was to be used if there were hidden rooms or compartments that needed to be searched. The Chinook with the QRF of 24 SEAL operators landed in a deserted field about halfway to Abbottobad in case they were needed on the ground. Another QRF of an additional 25 SEALs in Chinooks would be waiting just over the border in Afghanistan.
After a 90-minute flight, the first of the Blackhawks deployed over the compound from where the SEALs were to fast rope to the ground. A second helicopter was to land in the compound with the dog team and interpreter. However, due to a weather phenomenon, the first Blackhawk crashed into the compound sliding up onto the security wall. No one was seriously hurt. The second landed outside the compound. The operators scaled the wall and began the operation.
Using an assortment of breaching tools and explosives the teams began clearing the compound in a methodical dance of death. The SEALs cleared the guest house and the ground floor of the main building where two men and a woman were dispatched quickly. Numerous other women and children were encountered. They were flex-cuffed and moved outside where they’d later be found and questioned by the Pakistanis.
The SEALs moved to the second level of the main building where they killed bin Laden’s son on the staircase before moving up to the top floor. There they found bin Laden wearing the traditional loose-fitting garb of the region. Later it was found out that he carried 500 Euros and two phone numbers sewn into the lining of his clothes.
Nearly 15 minutes had elapsed from when the SEALs crash-landed in the compound until they came face-to-face with bin Laden on the third floor.
The killing of bin Laden is described in detail by Navy SEAL Mark Bisonette, who was later reprimanded by the Navy and forced to give up his $6.8 million in royalties from the book. But his first-hand account was riveting.
When the team reached the top, bin Laden was behind his wife, with his hands on her shoulders, and was pushing her towards the SEALs. Bisonnette’s book describes in detail what happened next.
“We were less than five steps from getting to the top when I heard suppressed shots. BOP. BOP. The point man had seen a man peeking out of the door on the right side of the hallway about 10 feet in front of him. I couldn’t tell from my position if the rounds hit the target or not. The man disappeared into the dark room.”
“In his death throes, he was still twitching and convulsing. Another assaulter and I trained our lasers on his chest and fired several rounds. The bullets tore into him, slamming his body into the floor until he was motionless.”
Bissonette’s role called for him to photograph the body to positively identify the target as bin Laden and confirm for the government that they had indeed got their man.
“It was strange to see such an infamous face up close. Lying in front of me was the reason we had been fighting for the last decade. It was surreal trying to clean blood off the most wanted man in the world so that I could shoot his photo. I had to focus on the mission, right now we needed some good quality photos.”
A SEAL (pseudonym Will) spoke Arabic and asked one of the children on the third floor who the dead man was. A child replied that it was indeed Osama bin Laden a fact that was confirmed by his wife who was lightly wounded in the foot.
“Will knelt down and asked the girls, ‘Who is the man?’ The girl didn’t know to lie. ‘Osama bin Laden.’ Will smiled. ‘Are you sure that is Osama bin Laden?’ Yes,’ the girl said.”
The SEAL team leader had a satellite phone. He immediately called Adm. McRaven to relay the code phrase signifying that bin Laden was dead.
“‘For God and country, I pass Geronimo,’ Jay said. Geronimo E.K.I.A.’ ”
Robert O’Neill, the SEAL who shot bin Laden and was the first in the room, has also written a book about the incident.
Then the team set about finding intelligence that they could bring back with them to Afghanistan. The SEALS recovered three AK-47s and two pistols, 10 computer hard drives, documents, DVDs, almost a hundred thumb drives, a dozen cell phones, and “electronic equipment” for later analysis as well as a large stash of opium.
The crashed helicopter was stripped of classified material and then blown in place, with the team placing enough explosives to completely demolish the crashed Blackhawk. Down one chopper, the team brought in one of the Chinooks to exfil them back to Afghanistan.
After arriving in Afghanistan, bin Laden was positively identified via facial recognition and DNA analysis. His body was transferred to the USS Carl Vinson where he was buried at sea. The U.S. had contacted Saudi contacts offered to turn bin Laden’s body over to them for burial in Saudi Arabia. But they didn’t want him in death any more than they did in life. They agreed with the burial at sea.
Neptune’s Spear Aftermath
Reports were being leaked out about bin Laden’s death so President Obama addressed the nation at 11:35 p.m. and confirmed the news.
“Good evening. 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 was responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.”
The president decided not to release the photos of bin Laden’s body stating that “we don’t have to spike the football here.” Despite the DNA evidence and confirmation from his wife and daughter at the scene, the non-release of the photos created a conspiracy theory claiming that he wasn’t dead.
The Pakistanis then began to do damage control. They arrested the owner of the CIA’s safe house and five Pakistani informants. The doctor who helped the CIA with the fake polio inoculation ruse was arrested and sentenced to 33 years in prison.
Some of bin Laden’s correspondence was released but very little of it has come to light. One interesting tidbit was that bin Laden stated that both General David Petraeus and President Obama should be assassinated if the opportunity availed itself but that Vice President Joe Biden should remain untouched. Why?
In bin Laden’s own words, “Biden is totally unprepared for [the post of president], which will lead the U.S. into a crisis.”
The tail boom from the crashed and destroyed Blackhawk was eventually returned to the U.S. but not until the Pakistanis allowed Chinese scientists to study the stealth technology in the boom and the paint.
Neptune’s Spear was one of the better-executed raids in U.S. Special Operations history. The detailed planning, outstanding execution, and professionalism of all of the operators involved, even when things went wrong as they invariably do, is a testament to their level of training and their dedication to their craft.
In doing so, they rid the world of one of history’s worst terrorists.
This piece was originally published in May 2017. It is being republished to mark the anniversary of Operation Neptune’s Spear. It has been edited for republication.