Whatever You Think You Know About bin Laden’s Death is Probably Wrong

The weeks following the announcement of bin Laden’s death were full of speculation, story-retelling, and fabrication. A new book, Seal Target Geronimo: The Inside Story of the Mission to Kill Osama bin Laden, reveals the details of what really happened, and it’s certainly not the same as what the media has reported. Author Chuck Pfarrer, says “It became obvious in the weeks evolving after the mission that the story that was getting put out there was not only untrue, but it was a really ugly farce of what did happen.” What really happened, and why did the details of his death spin out of control?

The Myth

Fighting from the ground up

In August, the New Yorker published information on the raid of bin Laden’s compound that took place on the first of May. It started with a helicopter crash, followed by a detailed account of the SEALs shooting their way up each floor to get to bin Laden. This is an excerpt that in many ways embodies the belief of what happened there:

“The Al Qaeda chief, who was wearing a tan shalwar kameez and a prayer cap on his head, froze; he was unarmed. ‘There was never any question of detaining or capturing him—it wasn’t a split-second decision. No one wanted detainees,’ the special-operations officer told me. (The Administration maintains that had bin Laden immediately surrendered he could have been taken alive.) Nine years, seven months, and twenty days after September 11th, an American was a trigger pull from ending bin Laden’s life. The first round, a 5.56-mm. bullet, struck bin Laden in the chest. As he fell backward, the SEAL fired a second round into his head, just above his left eye.”


Pfarrer contests that almost everything there is false. “The version of the 45-minute firefight, and the ground-up assault, and the cold-blooded murder on the third floor — that wasn’t the mission.” Even people as high up as the CIA director at the time, Leon Panetta, had stated that the mission was to kill bin Laden, not take him alive. Pfarrer rejects this outright, saying that he would have been captured if he had surrendered. “An order to go in and murder someone in their house is not a lawful order. Unlike the Germans in World War II, if you’re a petty officer, a chief petty officer, a naval officer, and you’re giving an order to murder somebody, that’s an unlawful order.”

In fact, the CIA was getting credit for one of their interpreter who had allegedly joined the operation. He allegedly walked out of the compound to tell crowds of Pakistanis that everything was all right, and they should go home. “He couldn’t even fast rope!” Pfarrer said. In other words, he couldn’t even get down from the helicopter. There was also no crowd of people.

The helicopter crash

Pfarrer dismisses the details of the reported helicopter crash as well. He said “One of the things I sort of determined was, OK, somebody was told ‘one of the insertion helicopters crashed.’ OK, well that got muddled to ‘a helicopter crashed on insertion..’”

The helicopter that crashed actually happened after bin Laden was killed. Before that, the two technologically advanced helicopters, called “stealth hawks,” entered the compound as planned. “Razor 1” dropped its team of SEALs on the roof of the compound, not the ground level; and “Razor 2” kept to the skies, with its team of snipers could keep an eye on anyone fleeing.

The roof-bound SEALs then immediately “penetrated” the third floor, finding bin Laden in his room. Only a minute and a half after the SEALs first set foot on the roof, bin Laden dived across his king-size bed to retrieve a rifle kept by his headboard, when he was shot in the chest and head by the Americans.

The Blossoming Myths

“There was a choice to keep the mission secret,” Pfarrer said in an interview. They could ahve kept quiet for weeks or months, using the intelligence obtained to finally defeat the rest of al-Quaida. But President Obama was quick to make an announcement that Pfarrer believes “rendered moot all of the intelligence that was gathered from the nexus of al-Quida. The computer drives, the hard drives, the videocassettes, the CDs, the thumb drives, everything. Before that could even be looked through the political decision was made to take credit for the operation.”

With ignorance about the mission, the misinformation spiraled out of control.

“The president made a statement, and as far as that goes, that was fine, that was the mission statement. But, so after… politicians began leaking information from every orifice. And it was like a game of Chinese telephone. These guys didn’t know what thy were talking about. Very few of them had even seen the video feed.

None of those guys [...] with the exception of General Webb who was sitting there running a laptop [...] had a background in special operations. [...] There was an alternative feed going to CIA headquarters [...] but these guys, none of them, really knew what they were looking at.”

As Yahoo! put it: “As the media raised more questions, officials gave more answers.”

What’s the big deal?

This case is one where mistakes were made on many different accounts, from higher-ups to journalists trying to get the latest scoop. Many groups wanted to take credit, such as right-wing media like Fox trying to give credit to President Bush, because apparently President Obama’s operation can somehow be attributed to him retroactively.

The truth got distorted, and so reported. It just goes to show that when rumors of stories of such magnitude irresponsibly go unchecked, they can practically take a life of their own. Though they are created from the facts of what happened, they end up resembling it only slightly. If what Pfarrer says is correct, then this will be just another example of the information and speculation being perverted to sell papers and influence people or organizations.

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