The Guys Who Got bin Laden
The amazing true story of America’s most elite and secret fighting force: The Navy SEALs
You are the most lethal warrior on the planet. You are part ninja, part science whiz, part wilderness survivalist, all rolled into a supreme supersoldier.
Tonight, you are headed into hostile territory on one of the highest-stakes military operations in U.S. history. The helicopter you’re flying in is loaded with high-tech weapons and explosives, not to mention top-secret technology that only a few people in the world even know about. The President himself is watching you from Washington, D.C. Failure is not an option.
This might sound like a scene from Call of Duty, but it’s a lot more hard-core than any video game. This is the real thing. Real bullets will fly.
Real explosives will go off. Real lives will be risked.
This is a scene from the historic night last May when Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden.
The success of the mission was celebrated across America. It brought to an end one of the greatest manhunts in modern history. And for some, it brought a profound sense of justice. Osama bin Laden was the mastermind behind the devastating terror attacks of September 11, 2001, which killed nearly 3,000 men, women, and children.
The bin Laden mission also shone a spotlight on the Navy SEALs—an extraordinary fighting force that operates under a wing of the military called Special Forces. But who are the SEALs? And why don’t we know more about them?
A Symbol of Evil
The SEALs trace their roots to World War II, when “frogmen,” or combat divers, would clear beaches of obstacles to prepare for invasion. Today, SEALs still perform sea missions, but they do a lot more than that. The name “SEAL” stands for “sea, air, and land,” because SEALs operate in all three environments—and in the most dangerous, remote places on Earth, whether it’s the scorching desert, humid jungle, or freezing Arctic.
In recent years, SEALs have carried out hundreds of high-risk missions. In 2009, for example, they rescued an American captain taken hostage by pirates off the coast of Somalia. With trademark skill, the SEALs fired three seemingly impossible shots from 100 yards away in rough seas. They disarmed the pirates and saved the captain’s life.
But the bin Laden mission was different from other missions. Bin Laden wasn’t just another bad guy. To many, he was a symbol of evil.
Bin Laden was the creator and leader of a terrorist group called Al Qaeda. On 9/11, as Americans have come to call that horrifying day, he instructed Al Qaeda members to hijack four airplanes. Hijackers crashed two planes into the Twin Towers in New York City, causing the buildings to collapse. Another plane was flown into military headquarters at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. A fourth plane went down in a field in Pennsylvania. Thousands of innocent people were murdered. In a sickening video, bin Laden openly celebrated their deaths.
After 9/11, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the government that was protecting Al Qaeda, but bin Laden himself escaped. Over the past decade, SEALs and other special-forces teams have hunted, captured, or killed 2,000 Al Qaeda agents; yet bin Laden remained at large.
At last, in August 2010, surveillance teams believed they had found bin Laden and some of his family living in a compound in a town in Pakistan. Getting to him would not be easy, though. It would require an expertly trained, highly disciplined team, along with a good deal of brute force. It was a mission tailor-made for the SEALs.
The bin Laden Mission
On a warm night last May, members of SEAL Team Six—the most elite of all SEAL teams—set out from Afghanistan for the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where bin Laden was thought to be hiding. Their mission was to capture or kill bin Laden. The element of surprise was critical. The SEALs had even outfitted their helicopters with special equipment to muffle their sound.
But the moment the helicopters arrived, disaster struck. One of the choppers lost its “lift,” the force of air necessary for flight. It plummeted to the ground and crashed loudly. The element of surprise was lost. Now everyone inside the compound knew the SEALs were coming.
Test of Courage
When you think of a SEAL, do you picture a cowboy with machine guns? A guy with biceps the size of basketballs? In reality, a SEAL probably doesn’t look like the tough guys you see in the movies. Look around your class. It might be the little kid in the back, the one with the glasses and Harry Potter T-shirt, who has the makings of a future SEAL.
SEALs have to be smart and disciplined. Before a mission, a SEAL will learn everything he can about his targets, including their culture. In addition, SEALs must have the mental toughness to stay sharp in the most chaotic situations, even when they haven’t slept in days.
So how do they learn these skills? SEAL training. It’s the most grueling in the world, designed to identify those who have tremendous mental and physical strength—as well as the courage to risk their lives on the most dangerous missions. It’s not surprising that only 25 percent of SEAL students graduate.
The first step to becoming a SEAL is taking a series of tests that measure physical ability and intelligence. (Only men are allowed to apply.) Those who pass begin six months of training that pushes them to the limit. It ends with Motivation Week, better known as “Hell Week.” During an agonizing five days, students are subjected to severe endurance tests. They are constantly in motion, constantly freezing, starving, and exhausted. Grown men break down and weep as they push themselves to keep going. Injuries are inevitable. More than one person has broken his neck. Anyone can quit at any point by ringing a brass bell, and usually two out of three students drop out during this week.
After Motivation Week, those who remain train for another year and a half. They learn to skydive. They build their wilderness-survival skills and become precision shooters. In the end, it’s those who have the courage to confront and master their own weaknesses who become SEALs, not those with the biggest muscles. It’s the ones who have the mental strength to carry them through long after their bodies have given up.
Prepped for Disaster
The SEALs chosen for the bin Laden mission spent months preparing; meticulous planning is a hallmark of the Navy SEALs. They planned for any possibility, including a downed helicopter. So when the chopper crashed, they knew exactly what to do.
Without hesitation, they climbed out of the helicopter’s wreckage, sprinted toward the wall of the compound, and placed explosives on the door. In a matter of minutes, the SEALs stormed the compound, located bin Laden, and executed him. Next they seized documents, computers, and other materials. These items contained the names of other Al Qaeda members and plans for another attack on the U.S. This information could save thousands of lives.
Then the SEALs boarded another helicopter and vanished into the night.
Justice Has Been Done
For the past decade, America has lived in the shadow of 9/11. The attacks shook our sense of safety. Though the war on terror is not over, in some ways bin Laden’s death marked the end of this terrible chapter in American history. President Obama said as much when he addressed the nation after the SEALs’ mission was completed: “We can say to those families who have lost loved ones to Al Qaeda’s terror: Justice has been done.” As the President’s message spread across the nation, Americans gathered together, just as they did in the days following 9/11. This time, though, they gathered not in grief and horror, but in pride and unity.
As for SEAL Team Six? The President thanked them in a private meeting—no journalists, no cameras, and no public recognition. After all, SEAL identities are secret. We may never know the names of the SEALs who killed bin Laden, but we will always remember them.—Kristin Lewis