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Killing Bin Laden 'Like Mowing The Lawn,' Defense Official Tells Journalist

Policemen stand guard outside the compound used as a hideout by Osama bin Laden, the day after a U.S. raid killed the al Qaida leader in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Aamir Qureshi
AFP/Getty Images
Policemen stand guard outside the compound used as a hideout by Osama bin Laden, the day after a U.S. raid killed the al Qaida leader in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

The SEAL mission that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden was in doubt for around a full minute after one of its helicopters crash-landed at the al-Qaida leader's hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan. That and other details are in Nicholas Schmidle's account of the raid, in a piece in The New Yorker.

Update at 8:36 p.m. ET: In early versions of this story, the headline attributed the "mowing the lawn" quote to a SEAL. In fact, as Schmidle's article (and at least one reader) notes, the quote came from a "senior Defense Department official." I regret any confusion this may have caused.

The original post continues:

The problem was a phenomenon called "settling with power," when a helicopter can't escape its own downwash and is pulled toward the ground. It's often caused by a fast descent. In this case, it caused the SEAL team's chopper to perform a very hard landing; it was eventually destroyed. During the descent, the pilot sought to minimize casualties — and Schmidle says he did that by aiming the craft toward a muddy animal pen.

The pilot succeeded. But for a tense minute, it wasn't clear to those tracking the painstakingly planned mission whether it had just suffered a catastrophic failure.

As Schmidle told Morning Edition co-host Steve Inskeep, "There was about a minute that passed in which everyone who was in these various command stations in Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Pentagon, the CIA headquarters, and the White House were holding their breath waiting for some communication that these guys were OK."

Of course, they continued the mission — some 23 SEAL team members, along with a translator and a dog Schmidle identifies as "Cairo, a Belgian Malinois." In fact, as one of the only raid participants to be publicly identified, the dog has become a celebrity, even meeting the president along with the rest of the SEAL team.

Inside the compound, the team made its way up the house's staircases, killing bin Laden's son Khalid, 23, along the way. Then, Schmidle says, "as they got to the top of the third floor, they looked to the right and they saw bin Laden sticking his head out of the door."

They approached and entered another room. There, they found bin Laden and two of his wives. One of them, Amal, begins yelling. Schmidle says, "And she begins to step towards the first SEAL. And the first SEAL lowers his weapon and shoots her in the calf to disable her, and then proceeds to grab both of the women, wrap them in a bear hug and take them to the side of the room."

His intention was to limit the damage either woman might do if they happened to be wearing a suicide bomb vest. But that wasn't the case, Schmidle says — and the other SEAL then shot bin Laden twice.

"The code name for spotting bin Laden had been Geronimo," Schmidle says. "So the SEAL, right after bin Laden dropped, he said, for God and country, Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo. There was a pause, and then he said Geronimo E.K.I.A., Enemy Killed In Action. And that was it."

Another thing becomes clear from Schmidle's article, and his interview with Steve: the bin Laden mission was the result of a mind-numbing amount of practice, and thousands of night actions in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"They see this as being almost the culmination of that nightly rehearsal on this one special operation," Schmidle says. "Some guy mentioned to me that it was like mowing the lawn."

Over at the Popular Mechanics site, a feature story examines equipment and strategy used by SEAL teams, and some of the new tools they're looking to acquire. One thing they'd like to replace is a small submarine that is operated while flooded with water — usually cold seawater.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.