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Who really killed bin Laden?

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst
updated 6:46 PM EDT, Wed March 27, 2013
Osama bin Laden was killed by a team of U.S. Navy SEALs in May 2011, at a compound near Abbottabad, Pakistan. Click through to see images of the compound where he spent the last days of his life. Osama bin Laden was killed by a team of U.S. Navy SEALs in May 2011, at a compound near Abbottabad, Pakistan. Click through to see images of the compound where he spent the last days of his life.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Peter Bergen: Member of SEAL Team 6 disputes Esquire account of bin Laden raid
  • He says there are doubts about the story the "shooter" told to Esquire
  • Bergen: Killing was team effort, may not have been connected to bin Laden gun in the room

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad" and a director at the New America Foundation.

The following is a CNN exclusive.

(CNN) -- In February, Esquire magazine published a lengthy profile of "The Man Who Killed Osama bin Laden." The story did not identify the killer by his real name, referring to him only as "the Shooter."

The Shooter told Esquire he encountered al Qaeda's leader face-to-face in the top-floor bedroom of the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where he'd been hiding for more than five years.

The Shooter said the al Qaeda leader was standing up and had a gun "within reach" and it was only then that the Shooter fired two shots into bin Laden's forehead, killing him. That account was in conflict with the narrative from another raid participant in a wildly successful book, "No Easy Day."

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

Now, another member of the secretive SEAL Team 6, which executed the bin Laden raid, tells CNN the story of the Shooter as presented in Esquire is false. According to this serving SEAL Team 6 operator, the story is "complete B-S."

Watch more: Peter Bergen examines the differing accounts on "The Lead with Jake Tapper"

SEAL Team 6 operators are now in "serious lockdown" when it comes to "talking to anybody" about the bin Laden raid and say they have been frustrated to see what they consider to be the inaccurate story in Esquire receive considerable play without a response. Phil Bronstein, who wrote the 15,000-word piece about the Shooter for Esquire, was booked on CNN, Fox and many other TV networks after his story came out.

Twenty-three SEALs and their interpreter launched the assault on the bin Laden compound just after midnight on the morning of May 2, 2011. They shot and killed bin Laden's two bodyguards, one of bin Laden's sons and the wife of one of the bodyguards, and wounded two other women.

SEALs' accounts differ
Who really killed bin Laden?
Reported bin Laden killer speaks out
2011: 3 of bin Laden's wives identified

The first three SEALs to make it to the top floor of the compound were "the point man," "the Shooter" profiled by Esquire, and Matt Bissonette, the SEAL who wrote "No Easy Day" under the pseudonym Mark Owen.

What actually happened the night of the raid, according to the SEAL Team 6 operator who I interviewed, is that the "point man" ran up the stairs to the top floor and shot bin Laden in the head when he saw what looked like bin Laden poking his head out of his bedroom door. The shot gravely wounded al Qaeda's leader.

Having taken down bin Laden, the point man proceeded to rush two women he found in the bedroom, gathering them in his arms to absorb the explosion in case they were wearing suicide vests, something that was a real concern of those who planned the raid.

'Nightmare' at home for SEAL who shot Osama bin Laden

Two more SEALs then entered bin Laden's bedroom and, seeing that the al Qaeda leader was lying mortally wounded on the floor, finished him off with shots to the chest.

This account of bin Laden's demise is considerably less heroic than the Shooter's version in Esquire, in which he says he shot bin Laden while he was standing up and only after he saw that the al Qaeda leader had a gun within reach.

The SEAL Team 6 operator who spoke to me says there is no way the Shooter could have seen a gun in bin Laden's reach because the two guns that were found in the bedroom after the shooting were only discovered after a thorough search and were sitting on a high shelf above the frame of the door that opened to the room.

SEAL commander rebuts 'Shooter' claim

The SEAL operator also points out there was a discussion before the raid in which the assault team was told "don't shoot the guy (bin Laden) in the face unless you have to" because the CIA would need to analyze good pictures of bin Laden's face for its facial recognition experts to work effectively. Yet the Shooter in the Esquire story says he shot bin Laden on purpose twice in the forehead.

A U.S. official familiar with the details of the raid said the SEAL Team 6 operator's version is in line with what happened. That account "has it right in my view," the official said.

Watch computer animation of the different accounts

The SEAL Team 6 operator also tells CNN that the Shooter was "thrown off" the Red Squadron, the core of the SEAL Team 6 group that carried out the bin Laden raid, because he was bragging about his role in the raid in bars around Virginia Beach, Virginia, where SEAL Team 6 is based. In the Esquire article, the Shooter complains he is receiving no pension, since he left the military four years before the minimum 20 years required to be eligible.

CNN spoke with Bronstein, the Esquire writer, who says he passed on CNN's written questions about the Shooter's role in the raid to his story's main character. The Shooter has not responded to those questions, and Bronstein declined to be interviewed on-the-record for this story.

Stephanie Tuck, a spokeswoman for Esquire, said via e-mail the magazine stands by its story.

"The Esquire article, 'The Shooter: The Man Who Killed Osama Bin Laden,' in the March 2013 issue, is based on information from numerous sources, including members of SEAL Team 6 and the Shooter himself, as well as detailed descriptions of mission debriefs."

More questions were raised about the Esquire story's version of events Monday on SOFREP, a website that covers the Special Operations community. The queries came from former Navy SEAL Brandon Webb in a posting entitled, "Esquire Is Screwed: Duped By Fake UBL 'Shooter.'"

2011: SEALs who killed bin Laden concerned for their safety

According to present and former members of SEAL Team 6, 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, and they lauded his courageous decision to throw himself on the two women in bin Laden's room.

The new account of the bin Laden raid provided by the serving SEAL Team 6 operator is essentially the same as in Bissonnette's "No Easy Day." Bissonnette says he was one of the first to run into the bedroom and he saw that the point man's shots had mortally wounded bin Laden. Bissonette says he then shot the dying al Qaeda leader as he lay on the floor.

Present and former members of SEAL Team 6 say they regard Bissonnette as more credible than the Shooter.

Balanced against that, according to a story filed by CNN's Barbara Starr last year, after the publication of "No Easy Day," the head of U.S. special operations, Adm. William McRaven, contacted members of the Navy SEAL team that killed bin Laden. According to Pentagon officials, the SEALs said bin Laden was standing in his bedroom when he was shot and they believed that he posed a threat because there were weapons in the room. This account tends to bolster the story the Shooter told Esquire.

In a previous CNN.com story about the Esquire profile, I noted that I was the only outside observer allowed to tour bin Laden's Abbottabad compound before it was demolished in late February 2012.

During that tour, I looked around the bedroom where bin Laden was killed. The Pakistani military officers who were guiding me pointed out a patch of dark, dried blood on the low ceiling of bin Laden's bedroom. This patch of congealed blood seems to be consistent with the Shooter's story that he fired two shots at the forehead of a "surprisingly tall terrorist" while he was standing up. At the time, the precise location of bin Laden when he was shot was not a matter of dispute.

But the blood patch could also be consistent with the account that it was the "point man" who first shot bin Laden. The point man is 5 feet 6 inches tall and was shooting upward at a tall man as he poked his head out of his bedroom.

2011: Obama meets bin Laden raiders, promises victory over al Qaeda

The compound is, of course, now gone, so it is no longer possible to reconstruct what happened the night of the raid based on forensic evidence, although it is possible the Abbottabad Commission, a panel that was appointed by the Pakistani government to look into the raid, could shed some light on this question should its findings ever be publicly released.

Finally, by all accounts, it was a confusing situation the night of the raid. One of the SEAL team's helicopters had crashed and there was a firefight with one of bin Laden's bodyguards. All the electricity in the compound and the surrounding neighborhood was off on a moonless night and the SEALs were all wearing night vision goggles, which only allowed them limited vision.

What seems incontrovertible is that the point man, the Shooter and Bissonnette were the first three SEALs to assault bin Laden's bedroom. But to determine exactly which of them killed the al Qaeda leader may never be possible.

What is certain is that it was a team effort.

Five days after the bin Laden raid, members of the SEAL team who carried out the mission briefed President Barack Obama. According to those in the room, the SEAL team commander explained to the president, "If you took one person out of the puzzle, we wouldn't have the competence to do the job we did; everybody's vital. It's not about the guy who pulled the trigger to kill bin Laden, it's about what we all did together."

Read more: Bergen: Trying Osama's son-in-law in NY makes sense

Read more: Bergen: Should we still fear al Qaeda?

Read more: Bin Laden confidant emerged as voice of al Qaeda

Read more: 2012: Documents reveal a delusional leader

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