In 15 years of dangerous missions — from midnight raids on al-Qaeda safe houses in Iraq to battling Somali pirates from the deck of a heaving Navy ship on the high seas — there had never been one so shadowed by dread. As Robert James O’Neill contemplated his jump from a helicopter into Osama bin Laden’s private garden, he was positive it would be his last.
“I didn’t think I would survive,” the former Navy SEAL said.
O’Neill, one of dozens of U.S. special operators to storm bin Laden’s hideout on May 2, 2011, said he mentally prepared himself to face death from heavily armed gunmen or from the elaborate booby traps that would surely line the approaches to the al-Qaeda leader’s inner sanctum. What he never expected was that he would secure a place in history that night, as the man who fired the bullet that ended bin Laden’s life.
O’Neill confirmed to The Washington Post that he was the unnamed SEAL who was first to tumble through the doorway of bin Laden’s bedroom that night, taking aim at the terrorist leader as he stood in darkness behind his youngest wife. In an account later confirmed by two other SEALs, the Montana native described firing the round that hit bin Laden squarely in the forehead, killing him instantly.
More than three years after the events, O’Neill agreed to publicly discuss his role for the first time.
His decision to talk came nearly two years after another team member, Matt Bissonnette, published a controversial account of the raid under the pseudonym Mark Owen in the book titled, “No Easy Day.” It also follows what O’Neill has described as an agonizing personal struggle, as he weighed concerns over privacy and safety against a desire to have a least some control over a story that appeared likely to break, with or without his consent.
Over the past year, awareness of O’Neill’s role as “the shooter” had spread through the military community and onto Capitol Hill, where a number of members of Congress knew the story and had congratulated O’Neill personally, he said. Journalists were becoming aware of his name as well.
In the end, just a week before scheduled interviews on Fox News and The Post, O’Neill’s identity was leaked by some of his former peers. SOFREP, a Web site run by former special-forces operatives, posted an article that complained of O’Neill’s decision to tell his story on Fox News and decided to reveal his name preemptively.
The SOFREP item was subsequently picked up by the British tabloid, the Daily Mail, which reported on Wednesday that O’Neill’s father had confirmed his identity as the shooter in a telephone interview.
SOFREP published an Oct. 31 letter (PDF) — apparently triggered by O’Neill’s impending TV interview — in which the commander and master chief of the Navy Special Warfare Command emphasized that a “critical” tenet of their profession is to “not advertise the nature of my work nor seek recognition for my action.”
“We do not abide willful or selfish disregard for our core values in return for public notoriety or financial gain,” the letter said.
O’Neill, in two meetings with The Post, said he had anticipated the criticism. He said his decision to go public was confirmed after a private encounter over the summer with relatives of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on New York’s World Trade Center.
O’Neill, who works as a motivational speaker, had been invited to address a gathering of 9/11 family members at the National September 11 Memorial Museum shortly before its official opening. During what he described as a highly emotional exchange, O’Neill decided spontaneously to talk about how bin Laden died.
O’Neill’s involvement in the 2011 bin Laden raid capped a career that had already been extraordinary, by any measure. Tall and athletic with boyish features and reddish-blond hair, O’Neill became a SEAL in 1996 at age 20, and was eventually promoted to elite SEAL Team Six.
He eventually received 24 honors and commendations, many of them earned for multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, as the leader of missions to capture or kill suspected al-Qaeda-allied insurgents.
Between tours, his team was pressed into service for rescue missions in far-flung corners of the world. O’Neill was among the SEALs who assisted in the 2009 rescue of merchant marine Capt. Richard Phillips from pirates off the coast of Somalia, an operation depicted in the 2013 movie “Captain Phillips.”
O’Neill’s experiences during the bin Laden raid were first described last year to journalist Phil Bronstein for a February 2013 Esquire magazine article that, by agreement, referred to him only as “the shooter.” In the piece, he described advancing through bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, with five other SEALs, eventually reaching the third floor, where bin Laden lived with his wives.
As other team members peeled off to search different rooms, O’Neill found himself in the No. 2 position, behind the point man, for the final assault on bin Laden’s bedroom. When bin Laden briefly appeared at the door, the SEAL at the front of the line fired a shot that apparently missed.
“I rolled past him into the room, just inside the doorway,” O’Neill recalled. “There was bin Laden, standing there. He had his hands on a woman’s shoulders pushing her ahead.”
Though the room was dark, O’Neill could clearly see bin Laden’s features through his night-vision scope.
“He looked confused,” O’Neill was quoted in the Esquire magazine as saying. “He was way taller than I was expecting. He had a cap on and didn’t appear to be hit.”
Bin Laden was “standing and moving,” thrusting one of his wives in front of him as if to use her as a shield.
“In that second I shot him, two times in the forehead,” he said. “Bap! Bap! The second time, as he is going down. He crumbled to the floor in front of his bed and I hit him again.”
O’Neill told The Post that it was clear bin Laden had died instantly, his skull split by the first bullet.
“I watched him take his last breaths,” he said.
He dismissed any talk of heroism, describing his actions as “muscle memory,” the result of continuous, repetitive training, including countless rehearsals of the Abbottabad raid using full-scale models. He described the “heroic” actions of other SEALs, including those of the point man, who tackled two women in the bedroom to create the diversion that allowed O’Neill to get off his shots.
O’Neill said the SEALs had little time to contemplate the magnitude of the evening’s events. After taking photographs and squeezing bin Laden’s frame into a body bag, they scrambled to collect computer drives and other obvious sources of intelligence.
Then they moved bin Laden’s wives and children away from the house before boarding their helicopter for a sprint across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, just ahead of approaching Pakistani fighter planes.
Hours later, O’Neill was back at an American military base in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, eating a breakfast sandwich while bin Laden’s body lay in an adjacent room. Just then, President Obama appeared on a television screen.
“The United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women and children,” Obama said.
O’Neill said he glanced up at the screen and then at bin Laden’s body bag.
And then finished his sandwich.
Neither Bissonnette or O’Neil is the SEAL who was first up the stairs at bin Laden’s Pakistan compound and fired the first shot at Osama. But their dueling narratives are a sign of the backbiting and dysfunction that has roiled a once tight-knit band of warriors as former members violate their code of secrecy in search of the spotlight.
“Two different people telling two different stories for two different reasons,” said Matt Bissonnette in an interview with NBC News. His second book, “No Hero,” comes out next week. “Whatever he says, he says. I don’t want to touch that.”
Bissonnette is under investigation by the federal government, which is trying to determine whether he disclosed classified information in his first book. He says he’s sorry he didn’t submit the book for legal review, but says there are “inconsistencies” about who is allowed to talk and who isn’t, since higher ups were apparently speaking freely.
Bissonnette had not submitted the book, which gives his account of the bin Laden raid, for prepublication review with the Department of Defense. He has said he was advised by counsel that it was not required.
The Pentagon sent him a letter threatening legal action, and said he had revealed classified information. A DoD investigation also revealed that Bissonnette and six other SEALs had served as advisers on the video game, “Medal of Honor: Warfighter,” at Bissonnette’s urging. Letters of reprimand, which are damaging to Naval careers, were sent to all seven.
In Bissonnette’s account, he’s the second man in the SEAL “stack” and the second man in bin Laden’s bedroom. After a teammate shoots bin Laden Bissonnette puts more bullets into him and helps finish him off.
His account did not match the story that O’Neill was telling Esquire magazine around the same time. O’Neill began talking to writer Phil Bronstein as early as March 2012, while still a SEAL. He left the Navy right around the time Bissonnette’s book hit the stands in September. The Esquire article followed less than six months later, in the March 2013 issue.
O’Neill is never named in the story, but he’s called “the Shooter.” The first line says, “The man who shot and killed Osama bin Laden sat in a wicker chair in my backyard.” (Three retired members of SEAL Team Six have confirmed to NBC News that O’Neill is the shooter in the Esquire article.)
In the Esquire version of the raid, O’Neill is second in the stack. The first SEAL in the stack, the point man, sees a tall man stick his head out of the bedroom door on the third floor. He fires at least one shot.
“I don’t think he hit him,” O’Neill told Esquire. “He thinks he might have.”
O’Neill then heads into the room as the point man pushes two women out of the way. O’Neill shoots bin Laden in the face and kills him.
Later, according to the story, the point man seems to accept that he didn’t hit bin Laden. At a debrief in Afghanistan, however, he says he took two shots and might have hit bin Laden once. According to the story, he says O’Neill “finished [bin Laden] off as he was circling the drain.”
Matt Bissonnette doesn’t appear at all in this telling. The encounter with bin Laden takes about 15 seconds, and only two men, O’Neill and the point man, are in the room. Later, more SEALs show up. O’Neill told Esquire that ultimately there were many more wounds on the body than the ones he inflicted.
According to the Esquire story, when asked by an Obama administration official which SEAL had shot bin Laden, O’Neill responded, “We all did it.”
That response was in line with the SEAL code, and won him goodwill with fellow SEALs. A former senior SEAL Team Six leader who was involved in the bin Laden mission confirmed that the exchange between O’Neill and the official took place and said, “It was classy.”
But when O’Neill left SEAL Team Six and began making motivational speeches, with part of the unspoken lure for audiences his central role in bin Laden’s death, the goodwill began to ebb away. He is not, however, being investigated by the Pentagon.
Bissonnette told NBC News he “almost has to laugh” when he hears about the code of silence. “It’s hard for me to take when I’ve been reading books my whole life about former special operations warriors, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines. There’s how many former generals, how many former CIA directors, how many former secretaries of defense? How many of them all get out and write books?”
As Bissonnette notes, both he and O’Neill offered their versions of events long after other government employees had apparently spoken to journalists about the bin Laden raid. In August 2011, a New Yorker article quoted an unnamed “counterterrorism official” in describing the shooting. The New Yorker piece talks about three SEALs assaulting the bedroom, and according to the official, the first SEAL in the stack sees bin Laden through the open door, fires and misses.
The SEALs then head through the door, and the first SEAL pushes two women aside. The second SEAL shoots bin Laden in the chest and the head and then reports, via radio, “For God and country, Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo. Geronimo, E.K.I.A. (Enemy Killed in Action).” The account doesn’t mention what the third SEAL did.
A cinematic account of the bin Laden raid, the box office hit and Oscar winner “Zero Dark Thirty,” began shooting on location in February 2012. Some Republicans charged that the Obama administration had provided secret access to the filmmakers. Screenwriter Mark Boal said he had access to sources who had helped him with an unproduced screenplay about the 2001 raid on bin Laden’s Tora Bora hideout, and that he spoke to people in the military and the CIA about details of the raid. Both Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow, however, said they relied mostly on open sources for the details of the raid, and had received no classified documents.
Rep. Peter King, R.-N.Y., called for an Inspector General’s investigation in August 2011 after learning of reports in the media that Bigelow and Boal had enjoyed access to government officials. A draft report of the internal investigation later showed that CIA Director Leon Panetta had revealed some classified details during an event at CIA headquarters. Boal was part of the large audience.
A Defense Department official told NBC News Tuesday that at the Defense Department’s request, the Justice Department is investigating whether Bissonnette revealed classified information. The official was not aware of any similar request for an investigation of O’Neill.
Jihadists have reportedly issued death threats against O’Neill following the revelation.
In postings on Twitter and the al-Minbar Jihadi Media forum, pictures of O’Neill had been distributed and messages in Arabic and English urging revenge, said SITE, a group which monitors jihadist websites.
One jihadist wrote in Arabic, for example, “We will send the picture to the lone wolves in America, this Robert O’Neill, who killed Sheikh Usama bin Laden…”
Another posted in both languages said, “To our loved ones among the Muslims in the United States of America, this is your chance for Paradise, the width of which is the heavens and the earth.”
In his interview with the MailOnline Rob’s father, Tom O’Neill said, “People are asking if we are worried that ISIS will come and get us because Rob is going public. I say I’ll paint a big target on my front door and say come and get us.”