Navy SEAL Rob O'Neill: Why I Shot bin Laden in the Face
It was a fraction of a second, but the moment he saw Osama bin Laden is seared in Rob O’Neill’s mind. “Every time I close my eyes I can see it,” he says. “I remember looking at how tall he was, skinnier than I thought. His beard was shorter. He’d a crew cut almost and a white cap on.”
Through his night-vision goggles O’Neill could see the al-Qaeda leader’s hands on the shoulders of his youngest wife, Amal, pushing her forward. He wasn’t surrendering.
O’Neill shot him twice in the forehead, the second round hitting him as he crumpled. As bin Laden lay on the floor, the US Navy SEAL put a third bullet into his head for good measure.
The former SEAL and I are sitting at a breakfast table on the patio of a hotel overlooking Laguna Beach, California, for his first British interview. The 38-year-old, who grew up in Butte, Montana, and whose ancestors were miners from Co Cork, leans towards me. “It was this close,” he says. “Two feet, if that.”
He continues: “You want the bullet to go through the back of the brain so you cut off the spinal cord. If someone might be wearing a suicide vest, you shoot him in the face. People don’t die as fast for real as they do in the movies. Shoot someone in the chest and he’s going to have time to explode the vest.”
O’Neill pauses to apologise. “Forgive my eating habits. Every single day it’s a bacon sandwich,” he says, picking up the bacon with his hands. Having retired from the navy in 2012, O’Neill has founded a charity, Your Grateful Nation, to help veterans move from the military to civilian life and travels constantly to give motivational speeches.
In November he went public about his role in the bin Laden raid, drawing condemnation from senior officers and complaints from some SEALs that he had broken a code of silence honoured mainly in the breach in recent times.
O’Neill’s skin is so pale that it is almost translucent. His thinning red hair is tucked beneath a flat cap and his blue eyes are topped by white eyebrows. There is, moreover, an intensity that marks him out. Like other American special forces operators he carries himself in a way that few men can.
His arms are covered in elaborate tattoos, the left decorated with the words of President George W Bush on the evening after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001: “Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward and freedom will be defended.”
O’Neill got the tattoo to mark the demise of bin Laden, the man who ordered those attacks. His right arm bears scars from a recent medical operation: “The tendon had been tearing over the years — fast roping or parachuting, grabbing lines — and one day it just popped.”
It is almost four years since his encounter with bin Laden on the third floor of his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. O’Neill is not religious but he feels that it was fate that put him there after 15 years as a SEAL and nearly 400 combat missions.
Originally trained as a sniper, he switched to being part of an assault team after he was first sent to Afghanistan.
“The assaulters go into the house and I wanted to be face to face, up close,” he explains. “It’s just more intimate with the enemy. It was always about responding to 9/11, so it was personal for me.”
O’Neill had been certain he would die that night; it stood to reason that bin Laden would have rigged the house with explosives. During the 90-minute Black Hawk helicopter flight from Jalalabad, he had counted up to 1,000 and back down again to zero to maintain his focus.
“Some guys were listening to music; other guys were sleeping, if you can believe that. As we got close, I’m thinking about the first steps I’m going to take. We’re all going to die at some point and it was worth dying that night for that cause as opposed to dying 50 years later regretting not going on the mission.
“We wanted it. We wanted it for the people who had nothing to do with the war who died on a beautiful Tuesday morning by jumping to their death because it was better than burning alive.”
O’Neill had been the 10th man into the building out of the 23 members of SEAL Team 6 on the mission. Two of bin Laden’s bodyguards and one of their wives had already been shot dead. “Guys ahead of us were opening doors and stuff. I was kind of in the back just waiting my turn to do something.”
Their movements were well drilled. “If he [my comrade] is pointing this way, I should be pointing that way,” O’Neill says. “If he’s turned this way, I should turn that way. If he’s doing this, that means he’s seeing that. We call it keeping your head on a swivel.”
Going up to the second floor, O’Neill was the seventh man in line. The point man at the front lured out bin Laden’s son Khalid by calling his name and then shot him dead. O’Neill recalled the CIA analyst known as Maya in the film Zero Dark
Thirty telling them about Khalid. “She said that if you run into Khalid on these stairs, he’s the last line of defence.”
Five SEALs ahead of him spread out to clear rooms on the second floor, leaving O’Neill right behind the point man. As they ascended to a curtain on the third floor, the point man caught a glimpse of bin Laden and fired at him but missed.
As he went through the curtain, the point man was confronted by two women. He grabbed them, smothering them to absorb the blast if they detonated a suicide vest. O’Neill stepped past him and turned to the right, and there was bin Laden.
Back at Jalalabad, O’Neill met Maya and walked her over to the body of bin Laden, which had been unloaded from the helicopter. “Is this your guy?” O’Neill asked. She nodded and said: “I guess I’m out of a job.”
O’Neill decided to retire in part because of the sense of accomplishment from the bin Laden mission but also because he was concerned that he was becoming complacent. “When we would take gunfire, I’d stop feeling adrenaline. There were no nerves, and I was worried that I might make a bad decision based on being too calm.”
After a career spent in the shadows, he had never intended to reveal his identity. But that changed after he met 9/11 families at a ceremony in New York, where he presented the National September 11 Memorial and Museum with the shirt he had worn during the bin Laden raid.
“Everyone in the room was crying. They couldn’t hold the tears back. That was the first time I publicly told the story. I thought: if I can do it for these people, I can do it for more people.”
Since appearing in a Fox News documentary about the raid, O’Neill is now recognised across America. He acknowledges that being so recognisable has put him and his family at considerable risk. As with many SEALs who spent a decade or more at war — he was sent on 12 combat deployments — O’Neill’s marriage collapsed. He won’t talk about his children or where he or they live.
“My life is on airplanes,” he says. “I travel five or six days a week. I do have a few spots where I have a roof and clothes there, but there’s nothing in particular. Family stuff I don’t even mention. I pay rent somewhere but I don’t consider it home.”
Wherever he goes there is a discreet security presence. “If they come for me now, it’s going to be a fight,” he says. “I have stuff in place and I’m prepared. If they get me, they get me. I’m not egging anyone on and I’m not afraid. But I am aware of everything.”
O’Neill also has to watch his back because of the Pentagon, which has made clear its displeasure over SEALs talking about the bin Laden raid.
Matt Bissonnette, the SEAL behind O’Neill when bin Laden was shot, made millions out of his book No Easy Day but was forced to hand over the cash after the Pentagon sued him for not getting the book cleared beforehand.
Bissonnette, who used the pseudonym Mark Owen, claimed that he had delivered the fatal shot to bin Laden after the point man had wounded him. O’Neill gently but firmly rejects this: “I chalk that up to maybe the fog of war. I know what I saw. When I went into the room there was no one else there. I don’t know what was happening behind me. I shot him.”
O’Neill was accused last year of revealing classified information but has yet to be contacted by naval investigators. “If navy SEALs getting on a helicopter and going to a house and going upstairs and shooting bad guys is classified, then, wow, that’s news to me,” he scoffs.
He notes that politicians such as Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, Pentagon chief and CIA director respectively during the bin Laden raid, can write memoirs with impunity: “It seems that when people who were actually in harm’s way do it, they get a little bit more grief.”
O’Neill says killing people has never weighed on his conscience: “For me it was easy. I’d never killed anyone until Iraq, and so it [was] always a question of: how am I going to react to taking a human life?
“You’re very well trained and prepared for it and almost wanting it because you want to take it to the enemy, but you still don’t know how you’re going to feel. I’m lucky in that I never killed anyone that I considered was innocent.
“The only people that I killed were trying to kill my friends, my brothers, my teammates and me, and it never bothered me. I never accidentally killed anyone. I never saw a child get hurt, which is probably the best thing for my psyche.”
O’Neill never had the chance to meet Chris Kyle, the SEAL immortalised in the film American Sniper, which has been filling cinemas in the US. But just before Kyle was shot dead in 2013, allegedly by a mentally disturbed veteran, O’Neill received a copy of the American Sniper book, Kyle’s autobiography. In it the author had written: “Good shot.”
Only snipers, O’Neill says, keep a tally of their confirmed kills — in Kyle’s case 160. “Yeah, you shoot someone and his head splits open and I confirm he’s dead. But I never kept a count and I don’t know anyone who did. Shooting people at close range . . . you kind of remember: yeah, that guy died; that guy died. As assaulters, we eliminated. After a mission it would be: ‘We got 19 in these three houses.’ Then, boom, the next night we’d go out again.”
As well as the bin Laden raid, O’Neill took part in the rescue mission off the coast of Somalia depicted in the film Captain Phillips and the ill-fated SEAL operation in Afghanistan that formed the basis for Lone Survivor, another movie.
In 2009 O’Neill was on a remote base in Afghanistan when the soldier Bowe Bergdahl walked away and was captured by the Taliban. His friends rib him that he is a real-life Forrest Gump.
He believes Bergdahl was a deserter but has probably been punished enough by five years in captivity at the hands of the Haqqani network: “People were killed trying to rescue him. He probably needs psychiatric help now to try to get back to normal society.”
O’Neill maintains he has been unaffected by his time as a SEAL: “I’ve seen a lot of combat and I can tell you right now I don’t have post-traumatic stress. But I’ve never seen a friend get hurt. I know people who’ve seen friends get killed in front of them, and that does affect them, for sure.
“But there does come a point where warriors need to realise they’re warriors and you’re going to see some bad stuff and we’re going to come home and we’re going to deal with it.
“When I would come back from combat I’d be sleeping lighter, more on edge. My family will tell me I’m changed. I don’t see it because I’ve lived with me every day.”
He maintains that he was simply one of 23 SEALs on the bin Laden mission and deserves no more credit than any of his teammates, or the helicopter pilots who got them in and out of Pakistan, or the CIA officers such as Maya who located bin Laden. “I never wanted it to be about me. It’s about a much bigger team that was able to do great things, and I was able to be a small part of that.”
One senses, however, that O’Neill will use the platform that history has given him for more than just helping fellow veterans and giving speeches to beer distributors, as he did last week, or hedge fund managers.
He speaks lucidly about the threat from Isis, also known as Islamic State, emphasising the need for Sunni allies, small numbers of American and British forces on the ground and an education programme throughout the Muslim world: “It can’t be stomped out with just military force. We’ve proved that doesn’t work.”
Despite his admiration for Bush, he praises Barack Obama: “He made the right call with Captain Phillips and he made the right call with bin Laden. The two times I’ve been directly associated with a decision that he made, he made the right call.”
He does not demur when I suggest that a political career might beckon. “I’ve always been interested in politics but I’m not interested in the negativity it comes with. I’ll hold off on that for a while but that’s always a chance,” he says.
This article originally appeared in The Sunday Times. It is reprinted here with permission.