The SEAL special operators who went in after Osama bin Laden originally planned to try to get him with a "squeeze play," landing silently on his roof and in the yard of his compound, the AP's Kim Dozier reports, but the frogmen had to throw that out when their helicopter crash-landed. Dozier quotes a new set of the infamous "officials" briefed on the raid in her must-read story, which is the latest to update the now-familiar narrative of Geronimo E-KIA.
Five aircraft flew from Jalalabad, Afghanistan, with three school-bus-size Chinook helicopters landing in a deserted area roughly two-thirds of the way to bin Laden’s compound in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, two of the officials explained. Aboard two Black Hawk helicopters were 23 SEALs, an interpreter and a tracking dog named Cairo. Nineteen SEALs would enter the compound, and three of them would find bin Laden, one official said, providing the exact numbers for the first time. Aboard the Chinooks were two dozen more SEALs, as backup.She continues -- and this is very interesting:
The Black Hawks were specially engineered to muffle the tail rotor and engine sound, two officials said. The added weight of the stealth technology meant cargo was calculated to the ounce, with weather factored in. The night of the mission, it was hotter than expected. The Black Hawks were to drop the SEALs and depart in less than two minutes, in hopes locals would assume they were Pakistani aircraft visiting the nearby military academy. One Black Hawk was to hover above the compound, with SEALs sliding down ropes into the open courtyard.
The second was to hover above the roof to drop SEALs there, then land more SEALs outside — plus an interpreter and the dog, who would track anyone who tried to escape and to alert SEALs to any approaching Pakistani security forces.
If troops appeared, the plan was to hunker down in the compound, avoiding armed confrontation with the Pakistanis while officials in Washington negotiated their passage out. The two SEAL teams inside would work toward each other, in a simultaneous attack from above and below, their weapons silenced, guaranteeing surprise, one of the officials said. They would have stormed the building in a matter of minutes, as they’d done time and again in two training models of the compound.So Dozier's officials make it sound as though the crashed Black Hawk not only upped the tension for American commanders because there are few things more stressful than a helicopter crash, it required the teams to throw out their initial plans for assaulting the compound. And it changes the narrative that the SEALs fast-roped from the other Black Hawk inside the compound -- Dozier has the second bird touching down outside and its guys getting out there.
The plan unraveled as the first helicopter tried to hover over the compound. The Black Hawk skittered around uncontrollably in the heat-thinned air, forcing the pilot to land. As he did, the tail and rotor got caught on one of the compound’s 12-foot walls. The pilot quickly buried the aircraft’s nose in the dirt to keep it from tipping over, and the SEALs clambered out into an outer courtyard. The other aircraft did not even attempt hovering, landing its SEALs outside the compound. Now, the raiders were outside, and they’d lost the element of surprise.
What happened next, in Dozier's account, jibes with the story that has already passed into American lore: The SEALs spotted bin Laden on a balcony and then chased him into his bedroom, where his story ends. But in her account, this took place only about 15 minutes after the team's arrival. The senior defense official who briefed reporters on this at the Pentagon on the day after it happened -- I was there -- said the SEALs killed bin Laden "toward the end" of their 40 minutes on the ground. At this point it's not surprising that there have been differing accounts, and we may never know the real story until the inevitable Mark Bowden bestseller, or if the feds just end up releasing the after action reports on this operation.
Another interesting aspect of Dozier's story is her three MH-47 Chinooks holding somewhere in the distance, carrying dozens of special operators in reserve. It'd be interesting to know whether American officials planned to bring them in if Pakistani soldiers responded to bin Laden's compound, to reinforce the smaller team that was already there, or whether they would've bugged out immediately if things went bad. As it stands, it sounds like at least one of these helos was brought in to exfiltrate bin Laden's body and the intelligence the SEALs liberated from the compound.
In Dozier's version of events, bin Laden had two weapons nearby: A Kalashnikov rifle and a pistol, although they were apparently too far away from him to reach. The SEALs took them with them as part of their intelligence cache, she writes. The story still isn't totally complete, however: Dozier writes that the SEALs flew from bin Laden's compound to Bagram Air Base, from which bin Laden's body was flown to the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson for its burial at sea. So does that mean a Navy C-2 Greyhound cargo plane also figures into this story? Earlier accounts had made it sound as though the body had been flown directly to the ship. If so, we've yet to hear the story of the C-2 crew who flew bin Laden to his watery grave, or even to learn which squadron it was.
(The plane may have belonged to a detachment of VRC-40, "the Rawhides," which deployed aboard the Carl Vinson as part of Carrier Air Wing 17.)
The crew may not even have known what was being loaded into the bird -- at that point, bin Laden was just that much more cargo.