OPERATION Neptune Spear: 10 year anniversary

  • Published
  • By Walter W. Napier III, 514 AMW historian

Commentary by Walter W. Napier III

In September of 2010, the Central Intelligence Agency had become aware of an al Qaeda courier frequently visiting an upscale walled residence located in Abbottabad, Pakistan.[1] The CIA began devoting considerable assets to uncover who or what was hiding behind the compound’s walls.  Within a few months, the intelligence gathered indicated that Osama Bid Laden may possibly be at the location.  The individual in question never left the safety of the walls, but was consistently seen pacing around the compound.  The individual, dubbed the “pacer,” fit Bin Laden’s description and physical profile,[2] but there was no definitive proof that the “pacer” was Bin Laden.  Only a “best guess.”[3]

In late 2010, Vice-Admiral Bill McRaven of Joint Special Operations Command was contacted and briefed on the intelligence gathered so far.  In January of 2011, McRaven used the intelligence to begin work on raid plan in case the order came down.[4]  A number of JSOC officers gathered at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, to come up with a plan.  On March 14, 2011, President Barack Obama held a meeting with his national security advisors to discuss the various available options. The plans fell into two camps, an airstrike or a special operations raid. Each plan had positives and negatives, and each plan had a number of variants.  For example, the raid had variants of working with the Pakistani government or not.  President Obama decided against working with the Pakistani government, because he didn’t trust they could keep the information secret “for more than a nanosecond.”[5]  Without making a final decision on what to do, Obama ordered McRaven and the other advisors to continue planning for a potential mission.

McRaven then contacted the commander and chief petty officer of Red Squadron, US Naval Special Warfare Development Group. With these veteran SEALs, the team gathered to finalize a plan (without informing Red Squadron of the potential target).  On March 29, McRaven briefed the raid plan to the President and his advisors.  The national security team was divided on how to proceed.  Some felt the raid was the best option, while others favored an airstrike.[6]  The Air Force airstrike plan would drop a payload of 32 two thousand-pound bombs.[7]  The amount of ordnance was calculated to ensure success, even if the compound contained underground bunkers.  With an airstrike, there would be no need for boots on ground in Pakistan.  The downside, however, was the location.  Despite Bin Laden painting himself as a mountain-dwelling freedom fighter, he was actually in an upscale civilian neighborhood.  The airstrike would ensure everyone in the compound was eliminated, but it would also be the “equivalent of an earthquake,” civilian casualties in the surrounding area were all but guaranteed.[8]  The airstrike further made a positive identification of Bin Laden nearly impossible.

Obama decided against the airstrike, and gave McRaven the go ahead to begin rehearsals.  To train for the mission two different sites were used.  The first was in North Carolina where the specially selected SEALs began practicing on a mock compound.  The second location was in the Nevada desert, where the elevation and ground conditions reflected the situation the team would face in Pakistan.  These mock sites were hastily constructed and had chain link fence around the perimeters instead of the thick walls surrounding the target.[9] 

After extensive preparation, the SEALs boarded a C-17 out of Naval Air Station Oceana on April 26, 2011 and flew to Bagram Airfield.  After a night at Bagram, the team staged at Jalalabad to await the final order.  The timing was chosen because the moonlight over Abbottabad would be dim for the next few days.  On April 28, as President Obama considered whether to give the go ahead order, then-Vice President Joe Biden, “weighed against the raid,” and told him, “Don’t go.”[10]  Mulling over the decision, and despite the push back from his vice president, Obama contacted McRaven and gave him mission approval.  McRaven stated due to weather conditions, the mission would take place on Sunday, May 1.  The President endorsed the date and said, “Godspeed to you and your forces, please pass on to them my personal thanks for their service and the message that I personally will be following the mission very closely.”[11]

On May 1, at 10:30 p.m. local time, the team took off from Jalalabad, Afghanistan, and headed for the compound in two stealth equipped UH-60 Blackhawks.[12]  The two helicopters included twenty-three SEALs, an interpreter, and a combat dog (brought along in case Bin Laden hid in the compound).  The Operation was given the code name “Neptune Spear.” Neptune was the Roman variant of the Greek water god Poseidon, and his spear was the trident, the symbol of the Navy SEALs.  As the operators descended into the compound, one of the specially equipped Blackhawk’s lost control because the high walls presented different air conditions than the chain link fence the team had trained on.  The pilot was able to maintain some control, but the tail hit the walls surrounding the compound and forced the helo to make a soft-crash landing.[13]

A CH-47 Chinook on standby at Jalalabad was launched to make up for the downed craft, and the operators began conducting the raid.  The primary weapon system of the SEALs was the Hecker & Koch 416, and advanced AR platform with a piston-driven firing pin.  The weapon system comes in a number of configurations, but for close quarters operations, the short barrel variant would provide increased maneuverability in the compact urban space.  As the team began clearing the compound, resistance was met at both the guest house and the main building.  In the resulting shoot out, Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti (bin Laden’s primary courier), a second courier and his wife, bin Laden’s son Khalid, and Osama bin Laden himself were killed.[14]

 Who fired the shot that killed bin Laden is up for debate.  Both Matt Bissonnette and Robert J. O’Neill have claimed they killed bin Laden.[15]  Regardless of who pulled the trigger, the mission had been accomplished.  Over the radio the SEAL team leader reported, “For God and country- Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo,” the code word for bin Laden.[16]  Watching from the White House the President said, “We got him.”[17]  The SEALs were on the ground for around forty minutes.[18]  During that time the team accomplished the mission, gathered intelligence, scuttled the downed Blackhawk and evacuated the compound on the Chinook with bin Laden’s body.[19]  The team suffered no casualties.

After returning to Jalalabad at around 3 a.m., McRaven and a few other intelligence personnel were shown bin Laden’s corpse.[20]  Pictures and DNA samples were taken to accurately identify the body.  A unique, if macabre, incident took place when no one in the group had a tape measure to take record the dimensions of the corpse.  A SEAL with a known height, laid down next to bin Laden (who was 6’4”) in order to make a comparison.[21]  The president made a quip about all the planning that went into the mission but forgetting a tape measure (as a jest, Obama would later gift a tape measure to Vice-Admiral McRaven).[22]

The body was then taken to the U.S.S. Carl Vinson, operating out of the Arabian Sea, to be dumped into the ocean.[23]  As the son rose, the Pakistani government realized what had gone on the night before.  They made public comments on joint cooperation with the United States that led them to bin Laden.  Meanwhile, behind the scenes, they arrested a number of people suspected of providing assistance to the CIA.[24]  They even publicly released the (thankfully incorrect) name of the CIA chief working out of Islamabad.  The closeness of bin Laden’s compound to the Pakistan Military Academy, as well as some as certain contacts found at bin Laden’s compound, have led many in the US to believe that the Pakistani government provided assistance to bin Laden during his time there.[25] 

On May 6, 2011 Al Qaeda confirmed Osama bin Laden had been killed.  The terrorist group released quotes celebrating his martyrdom, and made threats of retaliation against the US.  That same day, President Obama met with the team that conducted the raid.  After explaining the action on the ground, the President awarded the team a Presidential Unit Citation and stated, “I had fifty-fifty confidence that bin Laden was there, but I had one-hundred-per-cent confidence in you guys.”[26]  The team then presented President Obama with the American flag that had been on board the Chinook.  Each of the SEALs signed the back, and on the front it said, “From the Joint Task Force Operation Neptune’s Spear, 01 May 2011: ‘For God and country. Geronimo.’”



Lin, Kris Osborn & Ho. n.d. "The Operation That Took Out Osama Bin Laden." Military.com. https://www.military.com/history/osama-bin-laden-operation-neptune-spear.

Pengelly, Martin. 2020. "Joe Biden Advised Against Osama Bin Laden Raid, Barack Obama Writes." The Guardian. November 12. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/nov/12/barack-obama-memoir-joe-biden-bin-laden-raid.

Pickrell, Ryan. 2020. "Obama Gifted McRaven a Tape Measure for Overseeing Navy SEAL Raid on Bin Laden." Military.com. November 23. https://www.military.com/daily-news/2020/11/23/obama-gifted-mcraven-tape-measure-overseeing-navy-seal-raid-bin-laden.html.

Schmidle, Nicholas. 2011. "Getting Bin Laden: What Happened that Night in Abbottabad." The New Yorker. August 1. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/08/08/getting-bin-laden.

Unknown. n.d. "Operation Neptune Spear." 911 Memorial. https://www.911memorial.org/learn/resources/digital-exhibitions/digital-exhibition-revealed-hunt-bin-laden/operation-neptune-spear.


[1] (Lin n.d.)

[2] (Schmidle 2011)

[3] (Lin n.d.)

[4] (Schmidle 2011)

[5] (Schmidle 2011)

[6] (Schmidle 2011)

[7] (Schmidle 2011)

[8] (Schmidle 2011)

[9] (Schmidle 2011)

[10] (Pengelly 2020)

[11] (Schmidle 2011)

[12] (Unknown n.d.)

[13] (Lin n.d.)

[14] (Unknown n.d.)

[15] (Lin n.d.)

[16] (Lin n.d.)

[17] (Schmidle 2011)

[18] (Schmidle 2011)

[19] (Lin n.d.)

[20] (Schmidle 2011)

[21] (Schmidle 2011)

[22] (Pickrell 2020)

[23] (Schmidle 2011)

[24] (Schmidle 2011)

[25] (Schmidle 2011)

[26] (Schmidle 2011)