Robert O’Neill has a new book about being the man to fire the fatal shots—but he’s not the only one making that claim
by David Silverberg
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 reportedsomething 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 done.
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 Esquireprofile, “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?”…