Bin Laden's killing: Firefights? Resistance? The real rule was to kill all the men.

Science, technology, and life.
May 5 2011 12:24 PM

Their Fates Were SEALed

Forget the U.S. version of the Bin Laden raid. Any adult male found in the compound was a dead man.

Inside Osama Bin Laden's compound, where he was killed during a raid by U.S. special forces. Click image to expand.
Bin Laden's compound

As new details of the raid on Osama Bin Laden's Pakistan compound are reported, apparently based on accounts from the SEAL assault team, crucial elements of the initial U.S. story are being abandoned. Instead, the U.S. is justifying its shoot-to-kill decisions based on the team's state of mind.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Here's what the latest reports indicate:

1. The only shots fired at the SEALs came from the guest house. NBC News, ABC News, the Associated Press, and the New York Times  are all reporting this. The compound had a main house and a guest house. Bin Laden's courier fired at the SEAL team from the guest house. Nobody in the main house fired a shot. These reports, based on U.S. sources, match a Reuters report that according to Pakistani officials, who have presumably interrogated the compound's other inhabitants, "The people inside the house were unarmed."

2. The shooting at U.S. personnel ended early in the raid. The new accounts agree on this point. Initial U.S. claims of an ongoing firefight throughout the raid seem to be discredited.

3. Nobody in the main house was carrying a weapon. NBC News and the AP are explicit about this. Bin Laden is a more complicated case. More on that below.

In the absence of immediate, objective grounds for shooting to kill in the main house—armed occupants, gunfire from within, an ongoing firefight in the guest house—the U.S. is emphasizing background conditions that justified its shooting decisions. Specifically:

4. The initial gunfire from the guest house created a presumption of armed threat. The New York Times reports that according to administration officials, "because the Special Operations troops had been fired upon as soon as they touched down in the compound, they were under the assumption that everyone inside was armed." An officials tells the Times, "They were in a threatening and hostile environment the entire time."

5. Weapons found in the house reinforced the presumption of armed threat. NBC News reports: "As the U.S. commandos moved through the house, they found several stashes of weapons and barricades, as if the residents were prepared for a violent and lengthy standoff." ABC News adds:

That early gunfire indicated to the SEALs that they might expect further resistance. And they did find a small arsenal of weapons in the home. "We recovered three AK-47s and two pistols from the compound. They weren't storming a PTA meeting. They were storming into Osama Bin Laden's fortress hideout," said the same U.S. official.

6. The presumption of armed threat led the SEALs to perceive occupants as armed. According to NBC News, "The second SEAL team entered the first floor of the main residence and could see a man standing in the dark with one hand behind his back. Fearing he was hiding a weapon, the SEALs shot and killed the lone man, who turned out to be unarmed." The Times adds: "When the commandos moved into the main house, they saw the courier's brother, who they believed was preparing to fire a weapon. They shot and killed him."

7. The presumption of armed threat did not extend to women. NBC News reports:

The SEALs then made their way up a staircase, where they ran into one of bin Laden's sons on the way down. The Americans immediately shot and killed the son, who was also unarmed. Once on the third floor, the commandos threw open the door to bin Laden's bedroom. One of bin Laden's wives rushed toward the NAVY SEAL in the door, who shot her in the leg. Then, without hesitation, the same commando turned his gun on bin Laden, standing in what appeared to be pajamas, and fire two quick shots, one to the chest and one to the head.

Read that passage again. The SEALs encountered a man—bin Laden's son, who reportedly "lunged toward" them," according to the Times—and shot him dead. Next, a woman "rushed toward" them, but instead of killing her, they shot her in the leg. Then, "without hesitation," the guy who had just shot the woman in the leg turned and put two fatal bullets in a man standing in pajamas. No rule of perceived resistance  can explain this sequence. It looks like a simple policy of neutralizing women but killing men. Maybe the team followed this policy because its job was to kill Bin Laden, so any man was treated as a presumptive target.

It's true that the SEALs killed one woman. According to the Times, they "shot and killed [the courier] and a woman in the guesthouse." But remember, the guest house is where the gunfire came from. So in that house, the SEALs may have shot first and ascertained later whether the people they'd killed were male or female.

The gender rule seems to have extended to suicide vests. U.S. officials have argued that the SEALs had reason to shoot Bin Laden, even if he was unarmed, because he might have been wearing a concealed suicide vest. But the AP, citing U.S. officials, reports  that "one SEAL grabbed a woman, fearing she might be wearing a suicide vest, and pulled her away from his team. Whether that was bin Laden's wife has not been confirmed." So the possibility that you might be wearing a suicide vest justified shooting you if you were a man (or looked as though you might be Bin Laden), but if you were a woman, you were only pulled away.

8. Did Bin Laden appear to be armed? The new accounts specify weapons near Bin Laden. ABC News says "at least one AK-47 was found in bin Laden's room." The Times says the SEALs killed him after they entered the room and saw him "with an AK-47 and a Makarov pistol in arm's reach." But recall the NBC News report: After shooting Bin Laden's onrushing wife in the calf, "without hesitation, the same commando turned his gun on bin Laden, standing in what appeared to be pajamas, and fire two quick shots, one to the chest and one to the head." It's hard to imagine how this commando, who must have been focusing entirely on the charging woman until he pivoted to Bin Laden, had time to notice anything about weapons lying around before he put the two fatal bullets in the guy in the pajamas. Commandos are trained to focus on people and whether they're armed, not on unaccompanied objects. I doubt the inventory of weapons in the room was taken until later.

On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the U.S. would divulge no further details about the raid. He read a statement: "The team had the authority to kill Osama bin Laden unless he offered to surrender; in which case the team was required to accept his surrender if the team could do so safely." It seems increasingly clear that the SEALs went into the compound with a presumption that while women and children would be spared, any adult male would be killed, in part to avoid U.S. casualties and in part because one of the men might be Bin Laden. The initial gunfire from the guest house reinforced that presumption. After that, if you were found in either house, you were a dead man.

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