Three and a half years after American bullets felled Osama bin Laden, controversy has been reignited over who actually pulled the trigger that fateful night now that the Navy SEAL who claims to have personally killed the al Qaeda leader has been publicly identified.
The special operations news website SOFREP.com reported Monday that Robert O’Neill is the name of the former SEAL Team Six member who was identified only as “the Shooter” in an Esquire magazine article last year titled “The Man Who Killed Osama Bin Laden… Is Screwed.” Wednesday international publications reported the name as well, and today The Washington Post published an interview with O’Neill in which he describes the terror leader’s purported final moments. Two special operations sources previously identified O’Neill as “the Shooter” to ABC News.
Despite the definitiveness of the Esquire magazine article title, there are lingering questions over whether O’Neill was the man who actually killed bin Laden, as his account differs markedly from that of Mark Owen, the pseudonymous former SEAL Team Six member who wrote the book “No Easy Day” about the bin Laden raid in 2012.
In the Esquire article, O’Neill claims he and another SEAL, the "point man," were alone on the stairs heading up to the third floor of bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Before they reached the third floor, the point man saw a man poke his head out of the bedroom doorway on the third floor so the point man unleashed a few shots in his direction. The shots missed, however, and when the pair reached the third floor, the point man peeled off to tackle two women who were in the hallway -- a move meant to protect his teammates from possible suicide bombs. O’Neill, then, was the first to enter the bedroom where he came face-to-face with bin Laden, standing just inches away, and was the one who shot him three times in the head before he could get to a nearby AK-47.
In Owen's account, Owen, the point man and a third SEAL -- since identified as Esquire's "the Shooter” and therefore O’Neill -- all went up to the third floor together after the point man's shots from the stairway. But when they entered bin Laden's room together, they found the al Qaeda leader already down and bleeding from the head. The point man's earlier shots had apparently connected.
The two women were inside the bedroom when the point man, having deemed the downed bin Laden was not a threat, tackled them into the corner. Owen and O’Neill then fired a few more bullets into bin Laden's dying body. Only later did the SEALs realize who they had killed, Owen said.
Clouding the events further is another account written by "Black Hawk Down" author Mark Bowden called "The Finish" based on interviews with higher-level military officials up the chain of command all the way to President Obama. In that account, three SEALs ascended the steps together but bin Laden was alive and standing in the bedroom when the point man entered. The point man tackled the two women in the room and the second SEAL through the door, who Bowden did not identify, was the one that shot bin Laden first in the chest and then in the head.
Bowden's book, which was still in press when "No Easy Day" hit bookshelves, later carried an insert deferring to Owen's version of events.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Special Operations Command, which oversees the Joint Special Operations Command that launched the raid, told ABC News after the Esquire article’s publication that the command wouldn't be the one to settle the controversy anytime soon. He declined to comment on operations and said the official version of events probably wouldn't be declassified for more than two decades.
That leaves the point man, the only SEAL in the room when bin Laden breathed his last who hasn't spoken publicly, to throw his hat in the ring. And according to a former member of SEAL Team Six with whom ABC News spoke in 2013, he's not the type to trade the special warfare shadows for the media spotlight.
“You’re never going to hear from him,” the ex-SEAL said then. “He’s just the type of guy that doesn’t care about it… [He] doesn’t think he did anything special. He simply pulled the trigger when he was supposed to. That’s why he’ll never go public.”
O’Neill told the Post he decided to go public because he was convinced his identity was about to be leaked anyway. He is scheduled to appear on Fox News next week.
Others in the special operations community have criticized O’Neill, and Owen before him, for apparently violating the special operations code of quiet professionalism.
High-ranking members of Naval Special Warfare sent a stinging letter to SEAL team members this week, saying that a “critical tenant of our ethos is ‘I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions.’”
“Our ethos is a life-long commitment and obligation, both in and out of the service,” says the letter, a copy of which was posted on SOFREP.com. “Violators of our ethos are neither teammates in good standing, nor teammates who represent Naval Special Warfare.”