Small Wars Journal Book Review
SEAL Target Geronimo:
The Inside Story of the Mission to Kill Osama bin Laden
It is ironic that the most famous military operation of the Information Age – the SEAL Team Six raid on May 1st that killed Osama bin Laden – remains a mystery to some degree. Despite the instantaneous connectivity provided by cell phone cameras, communications satellites, and Twitter, the details of what happened on that cloudless night in Abbottabad, Pakistan, remain obscured by the fog of war.
In part, this uncertainty is the result of the ham-handed nature by which the Obama administration released information on the raid, with some officials speaking to the media before all members of the assault team were debriefed; leading to subtle shifts in detail that created suspicions something was being covered up or hidden. In part, the uncertainty is purposeful. Members of “Tier One” special operations units – such as SEAL Team Six and its Army counterpart, the Delta Force – are bound by strict non-disclosure rules necessary to protect operational security as well the personal security of U.S. commandos and their families.
Although Kimberly Dozier’s reporting for the Associated Press was detailed and informative, it was inevitably an incomplete first draft of history. Nicholas Schmidle’s New Yorker piece was riveting, but quickly revealed to be based on hearsay. Consequently, the Abbottabad raid has lacked a definitive account equivalent to Mark Bowden’s retelling of the 1993 “Battle of Mogadishu” in Black Hawk Down.
Hoping to fill this void is Chuck Pfarrer’s SEAL Target Geronimo: The Inside Story of the Mission to Kill Osama bin Laden, purportedly the first account of “Operation Neptune Spear” based upon interviews with the SEALs who actually conducted the raid. A former member of SEAL Team Six in the 1980s, Pfarrer’s pre-publication publicity derided previous accounts of the operation as “fairy tales,” and hinted at numerous revelations to set the record straight.
Pfarrer’s account of the raid is compelling, building up the tension from the helicopter flight through Pakistan heading towards Abbottabad. The SEALs entered the compound from the main house’s roof, Pfarrer claims, rather than working from bottom-to-top as previous accounts assert. Bin Laden was quickly discovered on the third-floor, and subsequently killed in his bedroom 90 seconds into the raid as he reached for the AK-47 that had appeared in numerous video appearances. Pfarrer says that it was only after the Saudi was killed that the “Stealth Hawk” helicopter crashed in the compound’s courtyard due to a “million-to-one” mechanical failure, rather than the air vortex previously reported to have caused the bird to lose its lift capability.
Pfarrer’s account is tactically plausible, and would explain why bin Laden did not get a shot off despite a helicopter crash and a firefight in his yard and explosions in his house as SEALs blew the gates separating the floors. Yet Pfarrer does not offer an explanation for why the prevailing story took hold or why despite the relative innocuousness of the details they were never subsequently corrected (as if potential targets don't know by now that U.S. commandos can fast-rope onto a target). Additionally, although Pfarrer expertly recounts the technical aspects of the raid, especially the capabilities of the SEALs’ equipment, he pays little attention to the thoughts and emotions of the men who conducted the mission. Given that the primary objective of the raid – killing or capturing bin Laden – was achieved in less than two minutes, the inattention to the human dimension of the mission gives the second half of his account an anti-climactic feel.
But in reality, this is the least of SEAL Team Geronimo’s problems. Because Pfarrer does not offer any citations, even to distinguish which anonymous source provided which detail, there is absolutely no way to verify whether anything he says is true. (Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the Department of Defense and U.S. Special Operations Command have dismissed Pfarrer’s account as inaccurate). Although Pfarrer sneeringly says this complete lack of attribution “may be a passing annoyance to historians,” it requires the reader to take everything the author says on faith, which is problematic when he also admits “it has been necessary to obscure, rather than clarify certain aspects of the mission at Abbottabad.”
More problematic is the slipshod nature of the remainder of SEAL Team Geronimo, less than a quarter of which actually deals with the Abbottabad raid. At the book’s outset, Pfarrer offers a retelling of the operation that killed al-Qa’ida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi on June 7, 2006. Specifically Pfarrer claims:
The capture of an al-Qa'ida in Iraq courier in late May produced the intelligence that led U.S. forces to an AQI safehouse in Baghdad. (Every other account says it was the capture and subsequent interrogations of a mid-level AQI operative in April that eventually lead U.S. forces to Zarqawi's spiritual advisor).
Two SEAL Team Six snipers observed the target, and when Zarqawi's phone call from the house was intercepted, they lazed the target. (Every other account says an unmanned aerial vehicle followed the spiritual adviser after he got in a blue car that stopped at a house in Hibhib, a small village in Diyala Province, to meet with Zarqawi).
A Predator drone subsequently delivered a Hellfire missile that destroyed the safehouse, killing Zarqawi. (Every other account says it was an F-16 that bombed the house).
In other words, Pfarrer directly contradicts the accounts of Mark Bowden, Dexter Filkins, interrogator “Matthew Alexander,” and SOCOM’s own official history, all cited as sources in Benjamin Runkle’s account of the operation in Wanted Dead or Alive. Pfarrer could be right, and all those other authors could be wrong. But to believe him is to believe that two of the premier military correspondents were duped and that two participants in the Zarqawi manhunt (Alexander, and General Stanley McChrystal, the Joint Special Operations Task Force Commander and Filkins' primary source) were complicit in perpetuating a lie. This is possible, albeit extremely unlikely, and Pfarrer's lack of citations does not bolster his case.
More damning is Pfarrer's claim that the Hellfire strike triggered secondary explosions that sent “pieces of men” falling to the ground. If so, then how were U.S. forces able to recover Zarqawi’s corpse intact, an image famously captured in the photos released after the terrorist’s death was announced. Thus, Pfarrer begs the question: who are you going to believe, his anonymous sources, or your lying eyes?
The rest of the book is riddled with poor editing and factual errors that belie its rush to publication:
- The time elapsed between the 1970 raid on Son Tay prison in North Vietnam and the formation and the formation of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in December 1970 is described as “almost two decades.”
- The October 23, 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut is depicted as having taken place after the October 25 invasion of Grenada in the space of a single page.
- Bin Laden is reported to have been “introduced” to the writings of Sayyid Qutb both while in high school, and then three pages later again in college.
- The British military defeat in Afghanistan is cited as having occurred in 1820 when the First British-Afghan War did not begin until 1839.
- Tora Bora is mistranslated as meaning “Black Rock” rather than its actual meaning, “Black Dust.”
- Pfarrer recounts the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Mombassa, Kenya, when the attack actually occurred in Nairobi.
- The date for an alleged AQI nerve gas attack in Iraq is alternatively given as May 2003, May 2007, and then in May 2003 again over the course of one chapter.
- Pfarrer claims that both Zarqawi and bin Laden’s voices were captured by signals intercepts despite both terrorists being notoriously vigilant about not using cell phones or other means of electronic communications.
- Pfarrer places Admiral William McRaven’s nomination for command of the JSOC in 2011 rather than when he actually assumed command in 2009, and worse, misspells his name the first time he is mentioned.
Informed readers can likely find other examples of such sloppiness, which at best are an annoyance. More importantly, the errors make it difficult to accept two of Pfarrer’s more incendiary claims: that al-Qa’ida’s number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, intentionally betrayed bin Laden; and that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate knowingly shielded both bin Laden and Zawahiri. Again, as with the raid itself, this scenario could be true, but Pfarrer offers no citations to support such explosive charges.
American forces have been deployed to target individuals for more than 125 years. In 1886, U.S. cavalry troops plunged 230 miles into Mexico in pursuit of Geronimo. More than a century before SEAL Team Six travelled 130 miles into Pakistan by helicopter to capture or kill bin Laden, Brigadier General Frederick Funston led a ninety-man patrol 100 miles on foot behind enemy lines through the Philippine jungle to capture insurgent leader Emilio Aguinaldo. Both operations (as with the subsequent hunts for Pancho Villa and Augusto Sandino) were conducted by conventional forces, many of whom became legends for their courageous exploits.
Now, strategic manhunts are primarily conducted by various special operations forces such as SEAL Team Six, and the professionalization of the commando trade has led to the anonymization of the men who undertake these dangerous missions. Although these “Quiet Professionals” embrace this anonymity, SEAL Team Geronimo ultimately represents a lost opportunity. Pfarrer admirably wants to set the record straight against various accusations that the Abbottabad raid was actually a “kill mission,” and that therefore the SEALs were little more than assassins rather than the noble warriors they indisputably are. But Pfarrer’s sloppiness and vitriol towards almost every actor besides SEAL Team Six (especially the Central Intelligence Agency) renders this book little more than “Special Forces porn,” an occasionally interesting read that may or may not have some relation to the truth.