This much we know: On May 2, 2011, a group of Navy SEALs helicoptered into Pakistan under the cover of night and ambushed a compound that U.S. intelligence indicated was the residence of the world’s most wanted man — Osama bin Laden. This much is also true: One of those SEALs fired the kill shot that, at least emotionally, brought some closure to 9/11, if not everything that’s happened since.
Here’s what we don’t know: the identity of that man.
At least definitively.
Several accounts have claimed that an unnamed “point man” fired the fatal bullets that put down the Al-Qaeda leader. Matt Bissonnette, a member of SEAL Team Six, wrote in his 2012 book No Easy Day that this point man was still on active duty and was bin Laden’s true killer. CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen, who might not have been on the ground like Bissonnette, but who is deeply, deeply sourced on such matters, has reported something similar. It also could be the case that more than one SEAL is responsible — e.g., bin Laden was shot numerous times in the chest after he first went down.
Forty-one-year-old Robert O’Neill doesn’t claim that he’s the so-called point man. But he does claim that he’s bin Laden’s killer, the man who entered bin Laden’s third-story room and put two bullets in the terrorist’s head. First, he offered his version of events anonymously — in the February 2013 Esquire profile, “The Shooter.” But by November 2014, he had revealed his true identity on Fox News.
Now, he’s published a book of his account, The Operator: Firing the Shots That Killed Osama Bin Laden and My Years as a SEAL Team Warrior.
Others aren’t so sure. For instance, O’Neill’s narrative has been dubbed “FUBAR” by other members of SEAL Team Six. “Sources who know and worked with O’Neill said his version of events showed cracks almost from the night of the raid itself,” The Daily Beast reported back in 2014 when the Fox News special on O’Neill aired. Around the same time, Bergen wrote: “According to present and former members of SEAL Team Six, the ‘point man’ who fired the shot that likely mortally wounded bin Laden will never ‘in a million years’ speak publicly about his role in the raid.”
O’Neill’s voice rises a few decibels when I ask him about the varying accounts of who actually killed bin Laden. It’s obvious he’s answered this question many times before: “I’m the only one coming out to claim I killed bin Laden — no one else is saying that.”
That, too, could have an alternative explanation. In 2014, two officers who run the Naval Special Warfare Command fired off a stern warning letter to all SEAL “teammates” about seeking fame. “At Naval Special Warfare’s core is the SEAL Ethos,” it read. “A critical [tenet] of our Ethos is ‘I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions.’ We do not abide willful or selfish disregard for our core values in return for public notoriety and financial gain.”
“I don’t know who wrote the Ethos, and I don’t care,” O’Neill replies when I bring up the letter to him. “Nobody ever signed it, and it isn’t a binding document. I just remember combat SEALs laughing at it the first time they read it. It doesn’t describe SEALs or combat. Some senior dudes wrote it and decided it was the law for the younger guys.”
So what exactly happened that night, per O’Neill?
As he tells it, while the other SEALs were clearing nearby rooms and exchanging fire with bin Laden’s bodyguards, he and a point man moved through the compound to the third floor. When they entered the bedroom at the top of the floor, two women screamed at them; the point man tackled them, assuming they wore suicide vests. Bin Laden stood to O’Neill’s right, near the door of an adjoining room, with his hands on a woman’s shoulders and a calm expression on his face.
“I knew it was him immediately,” O’Neill says. “I could tell right away from the size of his nose.”
O’Neill aimed his rifle and fired twice. “His head split open on the second shot,” he says. Bin Laden collapsed. O’Neill shot him one more time — for insurance.
In the corner of the room, Bin Laden’s 2-year-old son was wobbling on his two chubby legs, crying. O’Neill remembers thinking: This poor kid had nothing to do with this. He’s just in the middle of a shit storm right now.
O’Neill stood there frozen as more SEALs made their way into the room. One of them asked O’Neill, “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” he replied. “What do we do now?”
“Now we find the computers.”
Almost from the moment he returned home, O’Neill says, he was the subject of jealousy and derision. He even says he could feel the tension when he and the rest of SEAL Team Six flew to Fort Campbell a few days later to meet President Barack Obama. One SEAL in particular gave him a stiff salute, which O’Neill interpreted as snarky gesture. He also began hearing secondhand comments from other SEALs: “With all the extra attention, why is he bragging about it?”
But he says he understands the backlash. “It’s difficult to get a high-profile mission like that and not have morale changed when someone gets that shot.” He saw similar resentment creep in when he helped the SEAL team assigned to take down the Somali pirates who boarded Captain Richard Phillips’ ship in April 2009. In that particular instance, one of O’Neill’s best friends fired an important kill shot. “That sniper had to face a lot of snark.”
And he’s steadfast that he didn’t write The Operator to glory-hog or cash in on his military service and involvement in the bin Laden mission. If anything, he says, it’s the exact opposite. “[I wanted to let the public know that SEALs] are real people with real families and real emotions and semi-normal lives. It isn’t a game and sometimes feelings get hurt.”
“The Navy is part of your life. It’s not your life,” he continues. “[But] it’s hard to see that it will come to an end at some point and that SEALs will need to move on, get second careers, take care of their families and pay the mortgage. Once I left the Navy, the Navy was done with me, and I needed to figure out the transition without a retirement.”
Here, for the first time, he sounds conciliatory. And the conversation turns to teamwork. For a moment at least, the who-did-what on May 2, 2011, seems unimportant to him. If for no other reason than he knows one thing for sure about that night — it was a collective effort, no matter who’s gun the bullet came from (and all the arguing about it after the fact). “I was part of the greatest [SEAL] team ever assembled. I got into the famous bin Laden bedroom because they led me there. I watched cool guys do cool stuff, and then I did something cool.”