1. The strike was not a 'kill mission'
“There is the perception this was always a ‘kill mission.’ I’ve been around the community 30 years and never have I heard the words ‘kill mission,’ ” says Pfarrer. “The words ‘kill mission’ seem to constitute an unlawful order. We’re not stupid.”
In his book, Pfarrer describes the two types of missions SEALs are generally given: to “interdict” a high-value target or to “neutralize” him.
While the latter essentially amounts to a kill command, the “stated plan” of the bin Laden mission was to “interdict a high-value individual in a non-permissive environment,” he says.
Of the “thousands” of missions that have been conducted by SEALs “the vast majority are capture missions,” Pfarrer says. “If the guy surrenders, he gets captured.”
As an example of a "neutralize" mission, Pfarrer notes the order to kill Musab al-Zarqawi, bin Laden's operational commander in 2006. Mr. Zarqawi was killed after two SEALs hiding nearby used laser pointers to direct a guided bomb to the house where Zarqawi was staying.
2. Bin Laden was diving for a weapon when shot
Pfarrer describes it this way: “The lights and lasers swept into the room, illuminating the figures of a man and a woman. The woman was shouting [in Arabic] ... ’No, no, don’t do this.’ Osama was standing by the back wall. He dived across the king-size bed to get at the rifle he kept by the headboard. The room smelled like old clothing, like a guest bedroom in a grandmother’s house, a place sort of frozen in time.
“Pinned in the lights, Amal [one of bin Laden’s wives] lifted her hands to her eyes. She said, ‘It’s not him,’ in Arabic, and then something else that the operators could not hear.”
Then, Pfarrer writes, “Four suppressed shots were fired, two rounds and two rounds....The first round sailed past Osama’s face and thudded into the mattress. Osama shoved Amal as he clawed across the bed. A second bullet, aimed at Osama’s head, grazed Amal in the calf.” The next two bullets, he writes, ended bin Laden’s life.
3. Pakistan knew where bin Laden was
This is something US officials have intimated, but Pfarrer goes a step further, asserting that “officers from Pakistan’s ISI ... periodically checked in on [bin Laden].”
There is no way that bin Laden “could have existed in Pakistan without the ISI’s compliance – it’s impossible,” Pfarrer says, referring to Pakistan's spy agency, the Inter Services Intelligence directorate.
Before the strike on bin Laden’s compound, many in the SEAL community believed that bin Laden was dead, but that “the ISI was concealing his death because they needed to keep the money flowing.”
But the entire time, Pfarrer writes, “The Pakistani ISI knew exactly where he was, but did not inform the United States. They continued to let Osama pace back and forth in his compound. They must have wondered, as did his family, if he were going insane."
4. SEALs didn't use top-secret Ghost Hawks
Media reports and photos of the tail section of a US helicopter that crashed during the raid suggested that the SEALs used a stealth helicopter. But it wasn't the Pentagon's most advanced stealth chopper, Pfarrer says.
"The Ghost Hawk helicopters were among the most highly classified aircraft possessed by the US military,” according to Pfarrer.
They are only used by SEAL Team 6 and Delta Force operators. “They were Jedi rides, so secret they were only flown at night, and kept in locked, guarded hangars during the day. The Ghost Hawks were so low noise that the SEALs joked that they flew in ‘whisper mode.’ The newest version of the stealth helos, the GEN 3s, were even quieter than the previous editions called Stealth Hawks. The Ghost Hawks were invisible to radar and emitted zero electromagnetic radiation. They had shielded exhausts so they put off not much more heat than a Harley motorcycle. They were only used on the most important missions.”
At the last minute of the bin Laden operation, however, commanders made the decision to use the older version of the stealth helicopters, for fear that if the Pakistani air forces interdicted the Ghost Hawks, they would have been stuck in a difficult situation. The US could not fire on Pakistani aircraft, because Pakistan is an ally.
So the “pilots would have two choices: surrender and land, or be blown out of the sky. In either case, America’s most precious technological secrets would be exposed. Very reluctantly, the decision was made to use the older Stealth Hawk models, though they were smaller, had less range, and could carry fewer operators.”
5. Ayman Zawahiri betrayed bin Laden
It was, in some sense, jealousy and drive that caused current Al Qaeda chief Ayman Zawahiri to betray bin Laden, with whom he was becoming increasingly estranged, Pfarrer argues.
“It’s been Zawahiri’s MO ever since he’s been a terrorist to push himself forward in every situation he’s ever been in," according to Pfarrer.
Mr. Zawahiri read fluently in English – and voraciously consumed anything written about 9/11, Pfarrer points out, adding that a number of 9/11 books talk about a courier that had been compromised in interrogations of Al Qaeda detainees. Pfarrer argues that for this reason, Zawahiri must have known that the courier bin Laden was using had been compromised.
“So why would he continue to use a blown courier? For 10 years, their tradecraft was so perfect that we couldn’t penetrate it. Zawahiri set up bin Laden," Pfarrer says.
He concedes: "Not everyone in the community agrees with me regarding Zawahiri. But I’d say about 65 percent of the people agree with me.”
The Pentagon has challenged many of Pfarrer's assertions. Click on to the final page to read what the Pentagon says Pfarrer got wrong.
But is the book accurate?
Pfarrer says of his motivation in writing the book: “I can’t say that the operators wanted the story corrected, but I can say that I wanted the story corrected. One of the things these guys give up is the privilege of publicly criticizing the management.”
Senior defense officials have pushed back on Pfarrer's account, disputing the timeline he raises and saying that no active-duty SEALs agreed to speak with him for the book. Pfarrer responds that his comrades indeed shared their experiences with him.
“I’m part of the community and have been for a long time. I didn’t have to gain anybody’s trust. They’ve known me. In my previous life I was commander of the same outfit that did this thing. It wasn’t a problem for me to find these guys, because they’re all my friends.”
The book, to be published Tuesday by St. Martin’s Press, “definitely involves some dramatic invention,” Pfarrer concedes. He says, for example, that he recreated conversations that took place in the Joint Special Operations Command’s (JSOC) conference room, which he describes as “three stories underground, and sit[ting] behind a foot-thick, sound-proof steel door with both an electronic card reader and an old-fashioned combination lock, like a bank safe in a spaghetti western.”
Pfarrer is sanguine on the response to the book. “I don’t think the reaction to my book will be as bad as when they found out that Disney was trying to copyright the term ‘Seal Team 6.’ “