SEALing the deal

An inside view of the raid that killed master terrorist Osama bin Laden.

Pakistan compound Bin Laden (photo credit: Reuters)
Pakistan compound Bin Laden
(photo credit: Reuters)
In 2007 Mark Owen and his SEAL team were called back to the Joint Special Operations base at Jalalabad in Afghanistan. A CIA officer briefed them that a source had seen “a tall man in flowing white robes in Tora Bora.”
Tora Bora had been the site of a major battle in 2001 when US forces invaded the country to rout the Taliban and al- Qaida. The 2007 intelligence turned out to be worthless.
“For all the time and effort, we essentially bombed some empty mountains and my teammates went on a week-long camping trip,” writes Owen in his gripping memoir, No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama bin Laden.
The author, who uses a pen name, grew up in Alaska and, after college in California, joined the Navy and became a SEAL (which stands for Sea, Air and Land) in 1998. He served in Iraq in 2003-4 and in 2005 decided to try out for SEAL Team 6, the most elite unit within the SEALs.
Most books by army professionals, especially by enlisted men, tend to be badly written, even when the author has the assistance of a ghost writer, as this one does. Furthermore, books about secret missions frequently lack detail.
However, No Easy Day is a fast-paced, hard-hitting account of Owen’s experiences as a soldier in US special forces the killing of Osama bin Laden that is impossible to put down.
In his deployments his unit worked exclusively at night, frequently being airlifted to the target, killing the occupants of the building and returning to base by morning. The brutal logic of fighting insurgents in Iraq was “the only way to permanently take them off the street was if they were dead.”
The author reveals the degree to which the enemy adapted to the tactics that the SEALs threw at them. When the enemy learned that special forces liked to rope down onto the roofs of buildings, they fortified their positions, necessitating multi-hour hikes to creep up on a target.
Moreover, as time went by, the SEALs were also hampered by regulations from above.
“Policy makers were asking us to ignore all of the lessons we had learned... on the last deployment, we were slapped with a new requirement to call [the enemy] out. After surrounding a building an interpreter had to get out a bullhorn.”
For people with years of specialized training in catching the enemy by surprise, this was crippling. As Owen puts it, “It felt like fighting the war with one hand and filling out paperwork with the other.”
In addition, approval for missions began to come at a slower pace.
Owen bemoans what he nicknames “the good idea fairy,” following whose visits upper-echelon policy wonks would bog missions down with what seemed like good ideas but were often just red tape.
During the mission to get bin Laden, for instance, “the CIA asked us to take a sixty-pound box that blocked cell phone signals. Weight was already an issue, so that good idea died quickly.”
Where this read really gets interesting, though, is in its description of the planning that went into the bin Laden raid.
Because the author was not an officer and thus didn’t have access to the political side of the story, it is very much told from ground level, which will leave many readers wanting to know about the bigger picture.
However, Owen was a central figure in the operation, a team leader of one of the groups of SEALs that raided the bin Laden house. He was present for all the problems that befell the mission as well, such as one of the choppers crashing in the bin Laden compound’s backyard.
He reveals, for example, how the only member of bin Laden’s staff to put up a fight was his courier, Ahmed al-Kuwaiti.
Owen was shocked by the fact that the terror mastermind himself hadn’t even prepared for his own defense.
“He asked his followers for decades to wear suicide vests or fly planes into buildings, but didn’t even pick up his weapon.”
The author also reveals his view that the US administration was complicit in revealing information right after the secret mission had taken place. “Washington was leaking everything,” he writes. This motivated Owen to set down in writing what really happened.
“I felt someone had to tell the true story,” he says.
All in all this is a fascinating book, one that reveals the day-to-day work men in the US special forces have been doing since 9/11, and the incredible strain it has put their families under.