Who killed Osama bin Laden?
A former member of the Navy SEALs has come forward claiming to have shot the al-Qaida leader during the daring operation in Pakistan in 2011. Two years ago, another SEAL member said he was among those who shot bin Laden. Meanwhile, multiple military officials and fellow SEALs have said it was a third person, the point man on the darkened staircase that night, who fired the first shot that felled the terrorist leader.
Three and a half years after the mission in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the events in that walled compound remain the object of fascination and controversy. It may never be possible to say exactly who fired the fatal shot or shots, with multiple armed men wearing night-vision goggles moving quickly through the terrorist’s hideout. No autopsy was performed, and no video has emerged of the shooting. The military never released a photograph of bin Laden after he was killed and said his body had been buried at sea.
The public claims have antagonized senior military officials, prompted a criminal investigation over disclosing classified information and alienated fellow SEALs, who object to individuals taking credit or cashing in on team efforts.
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Robert O’Neill, 38, a former member of the elite SEAL Team 6, said he was the one whose two shots killed bin Laden, according to an account in The Washington Post on Thursday. The website SOFREP, which focuses on special operations, revealed O’Neill’s name as the self-proclaimed shooter Monday.
The story of O’Neill, who is scheduled to appear in a Fox News documentary next week, was previously featured in Esquire magazine. He was identified only as “the Shooter.”
In interviews with the magazine, O’Neill had said that the point man, who saw bin Laden first, shot at the al-Qaida leader but missed. O’Neill said he fired two shots to the head of bin Laden, whom he described as standing at the time.
One former SEAL Team 6 member with knowledge of the raid said in an interview Thursday that he believed the point man had wounded bin Laden with a shot in the side. Rather than going in for the kill, the point man grabbed the women who were present and pushed them aside, fearing they were wearing explosive vests. O’Neill, in his version, did fire the fatal shots.
“Anyone could have been in that position,” said the former senior member, who declined to be identified given the classified nature of the team’s work. “We have known that this moment with Rob O’Neill coming out was going to happen sooner or later, and here it is.”
But other military officials and SEALs took issue with O’Neill’s account. They credited the unidentified point man, who is still a member of the secret unit, with severely wounding or even killing bin Laden before other SEALs fired. A former commander of SEAL Team 6 said in an interview that he believed O’Neill fired insurance rounds into bin Laden’s body, after he was down.
O’Neill’s version of events came after that of Matt Bissonnette, another member of the raid team, who published the best-seller “No Easy Day” two years ago under the pen name Mark Owen. In the book, Bissonnette described how the point man shot bin Laden in the head and then he and another assaulter entered the room.
“In his death throes, he was still twitching and convulsing,” he wrote about bin Laden. “Another assaulter and I trained our lasers on his chest and fired several rounds.”
Neither man’s story can be independently confirmed. Some SEALs have expressed surprise that O’Neill would publicize his part in the raid, given the possibility of reprisals by extremists aligned with al-Qaida or interested in a symbolic attack.
Bissonnette’s identity was leaked to news outlets before the book was published. He is under criminal investigation for possibly revealing classified information in the book or in paid speeches.
SEALs have long prized the notion of “quiet professionals” who do their jobs without seeking publicity. But in recent years former SEALs have been all over the best-seller list, with snipers and dog handlers. Wounded SEALs and even a transgender SEAL have shared, and sold, their stories.
According to his biography on the website of Leading Authorities, a speakers’ bureau, O’Neill retired in 2012 after more than 400 combat missions. He received numerous medals, including two Silver Stars and four Bronze Stars with valor.
A native of Butte, Mont., O’Neill told The Montana Standard in 2013 that he was the lead paratrooper on SEAL Team 6’s mission to rescue a commercial ship captain, Richard Phillips, who had been taken hostage by Somali pirates in 2009, and had earlier helped rescue a fellow SEAL, Marcus Luttrell, in Afghanistan. Those two missions formed the basis of two Hollywood movies, “Captain Phillips” and “Lone Survivor.”
But the former SEAL Team 6 commander, who also declined to be identified because of the classified nature of the work, said O’Neill had not played a “singular role” on either mission. “O’Neill’s specific role on any of these missions is irrelevant because everything we do is as a team,” he added, “and we protect the team — its past, present and future.”