A firsthand account of the commando raid by US navy Seals that killed Osama bin Laden contradicts previous accounts by administration officials, raising questions as to whether the terror mastermind presented a clear threat when Seals first fired upon him.
Bin Laden apparently was shot in the head when he looked out of his bedroom door into the top-floor hallway of his compound as SEALs rushed up a narrow stairwell in his direction, according to former navy Seal Matt Bissonnette, writing under the pseudonym Mark Owen in No Easy Day. The book is to be published next week by Penguin Group (USA)'s Dutton imprint.
Bissonnette said he was directly behind a point man going up the stairs in the pitch black hallway.
Near the top, he said, he heard two shots, but the book doesn’t make it clear who fired them.
He wrote that the point man had seen a man peeking out of a door on the right side of the hallway. The author writes that the man ducked back into his bedroom and the Seals followed, only to find the man crumpled on the floor in a pool of blood with a hole visible on the right side of his head and two women wailing over his body.
Bissonnette said the point man pulled the two women out of the way and shoved them into a corner. He and the other Seals trained their guns' laser sights on bin Laden's still-twitching body, shooting him several times until he lay motionless. Only when they wiped the blood off his face, were they certain it was bin Laden.
The Seals later found two weapons stored by the doorway, untouched, the author said. Administration officials briefing reporters in the days after the May 2011 raid in Pakistan said the Seals shot bin Laden only after he ducked back into the bedroom because they assumed he might be reaching for a weapon.
Bissonnette wrote that during a pre-raid briefing, an administration lawyer told them that they were not on an assassination mission. According to Bissonnette, the lawyer said that if bin Laden was "naked with his hands up", they should not engage him. If bin Laden did not pose a threat, they should detain him.
In the confused hours after the raid, White House counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan had originally said that bin Laden "was engaged in a firefight" with the navy Seals.
The White House amended that account a day later, saying he was not armed but had resisted capture inside an upper-floor bedroom in the compound.
National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor declined comment on the book.
"As President Obama said on the night that justice was brought to Osama bin Laden, 'we give thanks for the men who carried out this operation, for they exemplify the professionalism, patriotism, and unparalleled courage of those who serve our country’,’’ Vietor said.
In another possibly uncomfortable revelation for US officials who say bin Laden's body was treated with dignity before being given a full Muslim burial at sea, the author revealed that in the cramped helicopter flight out of the compound, one of the Seals was sitting on bin Laden's chest as the body lay at the author's feet in the middle of the cabin, for the short flight to a refuelling stop inside Pakistan where a third helicopter was waiting.
This was common practice, as US troops sometimes must sit on their own war dead in packed helicopters. Space was cramped because one of the helicopters had crashed in the initial assault, leaving little space for the roughly two dozen commandos in the two aircraft that remained.
When the commandos reached the third aircraft, bin Laden's body was moved to it.
Bissonnette wrote that none of the Seals were fans of President Barack Obama and knew that his administration would take credit for ordering the raid. One of the SEALs said after the mission that they had just secured Obama re-election by carrying out the raid. But he said they respected him as commander in chief and for giving the operation the go-ahead.
Colonel Tim Nye, spokesman for the Pentagon's Special Operations Command (SOCOM), said he and other Defense Department officials received copies of the book late last week from the publisher, Dutton.
US officials said last week they were surprised by the book, which was not vetted by government agencies to ensure that no secrets were revealed.
Pentagon officials now are reviewing its contents to see if it contains classified information and to determine if further steps can or should be taken against the author, who should have submitted the book for pre-publication review under the terms of his service in the navy Seals, Nye said.
Two sources familiar with official US government reporting on the bin Laden raid said it was unsurprising that there were discrepancies between the book's account of how bin Laden was killed and previous official versions.
In any combat situation, participants in the operation would normally come away with different accounts and perceptions of what happened, the sources said.
Officials familiar with the contents of the book questioned whether there was anything significant in it that could be considered classified.
One official who has followed the issue closely said that it could be difficult for authorities to bring legal action against the book's author because the Obama administration has itself released so much detailed information about the bin Laden raid.
Bissonnette said he had no desire to compromise national security in writing the book. It originally was due to be released on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, but was moved up a week due to high demand, Dutton said.
"No Easy Day is a book that I'm proud to have written. My hope is that it gives my fellow Americans a glimpse into how much of an honour it is to serve our country," Bissonnette said in a statement from Dutton.
"It is written with respect for my fellow service members while adhering to my strict desire not to disclose confidential or sensitive information that would compromise national security in any way," he said.
The author now faces threats against his life. An official al Qaeda website last week posted a photograph and the real name of the former navy commando, calling him "the dog who murdered the martyr Sheikh Osama bin Laden".
One of the sources familiar with the official US account of the bin Laden operation said that as US commandos went up the stairs to the third floor of his hideout, the al Qaeda chief popped his head out of the room where he was hiding, and that commandos shot at him and missed.
This account is not dissimilar, though not identical, to the account now proffered in the new bin Laden book.
- Reuters, AP