Believe or Not Believe: Seymour Hersh and the Truth of the Osama bin Laden Raid at Abbottabad, Pakistan

By Liam H. Dooley

Fiction author of The Holy Diamond


Conspiracy Skeptic

I am not a conspiracy theorist.  I believe that terrorists  and al Qaeda attacked the USA on 11 September 2001.  I am certain that while the US had strategic warning about an imminent attack by Japan in 1941, they were operationally surprised when the bombs fell upon Pearl Harbor.  I don’t think some bizarre combination of the CIA, mafia, military-industrial complex, and aliens assassinated President John F. Kennedy.  I am firmly convinced that there is no Illuminati nor freemason society running things – anymore than the world is influenced by powerful people of all types and forms in very public ways such as campaign donations, government lobbying, charitable donations, and the like.

So when I first read about Seymour Hersh’s article that the May 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden by US special forces was largely fabricated or altered by the US and Pakistan, I greeted it not with just scepticism but outrage.  How could such a reputable and accomplished journalist publish a story that could have come straight out of the Republic of Texas or a bad season of 24?  But then, I started thinking.

Seymour Hersh Article link:

Let me say that I have never been in the military, though I have worked for military and security organizations as a contractor, consultant, appointee, etc.  I have never planned a major military operation, and my shooting skills have gone from passable at best to embarrassing.

But as a writer of fiction who hopes to write about modern warfare, I have thought about military issues extensively.  At one point I had a focus on World War Two, but now it is fair to say I am more familiar with present-day operations thanks in large part to extensive coverage of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the form of TV documentaries, news pieces, books, and even films.  I can watch films and guesstimate with some accuracy the good and the bad; the fabricated and the authentic.  A sniper running around in gym clothes in Behind Enemy Lines?  Utter nonsense.  Needing to make a phone call to call in air support over a telephone?  Not only possible, but happened and will likely happen again (at least to some military, not necessarily the US military as had happened in Grenada, 1983).

I saw Zero Dark Thirty and read a few books on the bin Laden raid, such as Mark Owen’s No Easy Day.  The film captured the nature of intelligence collection and analysis – what President George W. Bush referred to as connecting the dots.  The book related the intensive training and operations that US special forces were engaged in during the wars of the past fourteen years.  The hunt for bin Laden, in these books, was a long, patient effort that required luck and perseverance and, indeed, did not necessarily figure as a priority in intelligence or policy.

Yet even when the raid occurred, and some US Republicans were criticizing President Obama for taking credit for the operation and also claiming that the decision to conduct the operation was easy, I had some fundamental questions of operations and policy.

obama bin laden death

Why Not Bombs Away?

Why was the raid necessary at all?  The US has had a broad policy of using airstrikes by manned aircraft and drones against high value targets except when a ground assault or raid is possible and likely to succeed.  During the Battle of Tora Bora, the US did not hesitate to drop bombs from its heavy bomber fleet on any Taliban or al Queda target, even at the “risk” of killing bin Laden.  In Pakistan and Yemen, US drones are attempting to decimate high-level Islamic militants even if their capture for intelligence purposes, as well as sensitive site exploitation (ie. obtaining documents, computers, and other intelligence material at the location of the raid).  Why not have bombed the suspected building with a few 2000 pound JDAMs (guided iron bombs) from a B-2 stealth bomber?  Moreover, it would have taken just a few days at most to plan such a strike, while the SEAL raid required months of planning and intelligence collection – during which bin Laden might have left the compound altogether.

Theoretical answer: Because we wouldn’t have bin Laden’s body, and no one would know he was dead.

This is a good justification, except for one thing: for all of al Qaeda’s evilness, they have never claimed that one of their militants or leaders was alive when he was dead.  They never said he was only mostly dead, or that he’d be back, let alone alive.  If bin Laden had been killed in a bombing strike, al Qaeda would have acknowledged the passing of their leader into martyrdom.


Why Raid if You Can Bomb?

The reason is simple: bombing would carry few risks, while raiding had almost nothing but risks.  From a political perspective, if the bombing raid had failed the US could have claimed that it was a technical or mechanical error (these happen all of the time, including when the bombs fall on friendly forces); the US could have simply have denied that it had dropped the bombs; or if the US and Pakistan had wanted to simply have avoided questions at all, it could have merely been attributed to a gas main explosion or a car bomb which, sadly, is frequent enough in Pakistan.


What Then Are the Risks of a Special Forces Raid?

Very simple, almost everything.

Diplomatic Disaster?

Special forces raids are fine in a combat zone such as Iraq and Afghanistan, where the coalition controls more rather than less of the factors and definitely controls the airspace.  But it is rare, except of course in the movies, for US special forces to attack within another country with which the US is not at war or in some conflict, or at least with which the US has a complicated relationship.

And this was an attack, not a non-combat evacuation, not a humanitarian operation to feed or rescue people.  This was an armed attack on a foreign country already sensitive about perceived slights to their sovereignty.  They did, after all, go nuts when a CIA contractor shot and killed a robber.  So one would not be amiss to conclude that an armed raid with several helicopters and a few dozen special forces operatives would raise any number of objections from Islamibad.


Operational Considerations Abound

The operation might have involved hundreds of military personnel that did or could have gone into Pakistan.  This would include the door-kickers (in this case, the US Navy SEALs), the pilots 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), a quick reaction force if there was a problem, search and rescue personnel from the US Air Force, and on top of that possibly a stack of bombers, fighters, and gunships all prepared for the worst.

Getting There Was Half the Battle

In a military operation in enemy territory, getting there is half the battle as the ill-fated Desert One mission in Iran discovered in 1980.  Everything can go wrong: mechanical problems, weather, hitting unseen objects such as towers or birds, or of course getting shot down.  A chance, unexpected fighter patrol could have detected the raid force and either forced it down or shot it down.  And if the force or an element of it had gone down, what might have happened?  First, there would have been no concealing the fact that US troops were in Pakistan.  At best, they could have made a diplomatically awkward withdrawal the next day.  But at worst, a firefight could have erupted.  If the helicopter had gone down in Taliban territory, how would the Pakistanis have known that it was an American force?

mh-x3 blackhawk


An artist’s guess of what the stealth helicopter looked like (top).  It was probably based on the tried and true UH-60 Blackhawk (bottom).  One of the helicopters crashed on the compound wall, but at least not on the way or on the way back. (Wired Magazine)


Green-on-Green Combat?

From the American and Pakistani perspective, the armies are not allied forces.  They are sort of ad-hoc partners.  If they were Facebook friends, their relationship would be “complicated”.  So a firefight en route would not be blue on blue or blue on red (blue being the friendlies, red being the baddies), but green on green – from both perspectives.  But the next day how would the news have looked if this was the headline:

Dozens of American and Pakistani soldiers killed in a firefight outside of Islamabad

 Neither Americans nor Pakistanis would be thrilled with this story, to say the least.  And the “complicated” relationship would probably slip into a complete defriending.

And this is just on the way to the target.


The Raid: Or Everything that Could Have Gone Wrong

The US forces by good luck, we are told, were able to make it to the target.  The story is that the stealth helicopters slipped beneath the radar coverage – without, notably, radar jamming which would have probably raised the Pakistani alert level.


US Navy SEALs in training (US Navy photo)

One helicopter crashed, but there were no major injuries or fatalities.  According to multiple stories, the US Navy SEALs of SEAL Team Six conducted a textbook assault, taking minimal fire and no casualties.  Within twenty minutes, Osama bin Laden was killed and his identity tentatively confirmed.  But it was, in my assessment, nothing short of a miracle that nothing went wrong.  Almost too good to be true.  Here is a list of what could have gone wrong:

  • Ferocious resistance. By all accounts, there was a minimal exchange of gunfire.  The SEALs had the element of surprise and darkness.  But how come the residents and guards did not have heavier weapons, murder holes, hallway barriers, or night vision devices themselves?  While it is true that some raids go off without major resistance, it would be unreasonable to think that bin Laden’s guards would have rehearsed and prepared for an assault, day or night.
  • Building detonated with explosives. At some point, bin Laden must have known he was under attack; and all along he knew he was being hunted.  Why not have prepared the building for a massive demolition?   He could have had a few big red buttons around the house, so that when anyone came after him and came close to grabbing him, he could have pressed a button and BOOM! everyone goes.  Suicide bombing and operations are, after all, an al Qaeda specialty.
  • Panic Room. Even if the film with Jodie Foster had a couple of plot holes, such as why couldn’t the house burglars have just returned another day when no one was home, the concept was not all bad.  The White House has a panic room, in the form of a nuclear bunker.  The world’s most wanted man should have surely had his own panic room or rooms.  A bunker, a steel/concrete reinforced closet, or shoot at least a good cabinet to hide in.  But instead, we are told, he hears gunfire and sticks his head out of the doorway.  And what would have happened if he had gotten into a panic room?  How long would it have taken to open it?  Explosives work well on conventional doors and walls, but they work poorly on steel and steel-reinforced concrete.  Yes, eventually an entry into the room could have been breached, but the SEALs would have had to a) find the room; b) determine bin Laden was in it; and c) have the time to breach the wall or door.
  • More Green on Green? During the raid, the Pakistanis might have intervened.  What police/military force does not respond to unknown helicopters flying around, gunfire, and such?  The neighbors were tweeting about it, and it was not as if it was just gyrocopterman.  What would have happened, diplomatically let alone militarily, if Pakistanis had shown up?  Same problem as with the entry: a bunch of Pakistani and Americans killed fighting for one another would not make for a good story.  What were the rules of engagement for the Americans?  Hope for the best?  That is hardly an operational strategy.


Exfiltration and Things That Can Still Go Wrong

Got the goods?  Rounded up the troops?  Great, now it’s just time to get the hell out of dodge.  The good news for a raid force is that speed is more important than stealth, and it is not a long, straight trip back into Afghanistan.  But that does not mean nothing can go wrong, and again a chance encounter with a Pakistani fighter, a mechanical problem, or human error could have brought down one or more of the aircraft.  Again, it’s the same problem as before: how to explain a bunch of US soldiers in Pakistan?  What would have happened if there was a gunfight?


The Body Snatchers

The one part of the Hersh story that I cannot give any credence to is the notion that his body was too torn up by gunfire, and was then thrown out of the helicopter.  The 5.55 millimetre bullets used on most US small arms such as the M-4 and the M-416 for such an operation, and at most 7.62 millimetre rounds used on larger weapons such as the M-240, can tear apart huge parts of the body, but are not going to cut it into tiny pieces.  Moreover, if only the head was struck and a few rounds were pumped into bin Laden’s inert body just to ensure that he would not detonate a suicide vest, this would still leave the body more intact than not.  Intelligence and coronary analysts would have had every reason to want to inspect the body before its disposal.

Was the Whole Zero Dark Thirty Story Fake?

Most of it was probably true.  The Pakistani walk-in Hersh talks about?  He might have provided a great tip, but it is not as if the US would just shake his hand and hand over a chest of gold Doubloons.  The US would have had to confirm the report, and thus the vaccination programme and the whole courier story.  And while some Pakistanis might have known of the raid, it didn’t mean that all did, so the US had to be prepared for as many contingencies as possible.  Thus, it was better to go in on stealth helicopters than by the Good Year Blimp, or the Duff Beer Blimp if they wanted to be even funnier.

And the raid?  For reasons of plausible deniability, the SEAL team members and others such as the SOAR pilots were told what they were told: that bin Laden might be in the compound, and that he had to be taken dead or alive.


Conclusion: More than Meets the Eye

Seymour Hersh’s story is probably not entirely accurate, but his main theme that the operation was staged and worked out as part of a deal with Pakistan sounds more likely than not.  Why?

To summarise:

  • The US took so long to organize the raid that bin Laden might have easily relocated elsewhere…as if someone knew he was there, and was keeping him there.
  • The US does not conduct major covert operations in friendly or somewhat friendly countries without permission due to the likelihood of green-on-green combat, as well as diplomatic embarrassment. Remember, the US needs Pakistan to fight the Taliban, and they are after all a nuclear power.
  • Bin Laden would have been equally dead if a few 2000 pound bombs had been dropped on the compound by a B-2 Spirit stealth bomber.
  • There was no real hedge against the building being set up for demolition, or a bin Laden hiding in the house or in a panic room.

In the world of special operations, there are always secrets.  They might not be revealed for decades.  But the Seymour Hersh story is not about secrecy to protect covert operations, but about the entire narrative the world has been told and sold, and people are right to demand the truth and perhaps ask about the issues I have raised above.


“In order to seek truth, it is necessary once in the course of our life to doubt, as far as possible, all things.” 
― René Descartes


About Liam H Dooley

Liam H. Dooley is an Irish-American author living in Asia and Europe. He has a passion for history and traveling. Most of his time is spent touring the world, visiting museums, iconic buildings, monuments, and grand squares in search of knowledge and inspiration. As a child and university student he played the cello while studying international relations, and when he is not researching and writing novels or planning trips he immerses himself in current events and international affairs. You may learn more about Liam H. Dooley at his official web site:
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