Operation Neptune Spear: Mission to Capture bin Laden

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What was Operation Neptune Spear? What did President Obama have to do with this military operation?

Operation Neptune Spear was the military operation by Navy SEALs to capture Osama bin Laden. This was a top priority for President Obama, and bin Laden was killed in action.

Read more about Operation Neptune Spear below.

Operation Neptune Spear

The night after his humiliation of Trump, Obama was going after a very different enemy—Osama bin Laden.

May 1 was the night that Obama had authorized for the execution of operation Neptune Spear, the raid to kill the man who had engineered the worst mass slaughter on U.S. soil since the Civil War. The Navy SEAL team consisted of 23 commandos, a translator, and a military working dog named Cairo. 

The plan was for the team to be dispatched from its base at Jalalabad, Afghanistan in two Black Hawk helicopters. After a 90-minute journey, they would arrive at the compound, where they would land, storm the barricades, execute all combatants, destroy the landing Black Hawk helicopters and leave via a second set of Chinook helicopters that would be hovering nearby. 

The entire mission—landing, execution, and departure from Pakistani airspace—had to be completed before the Pakistani security forces got wind of the operation.

Watching the Raid

The SEAL team had set up a live video feed of the compound for top administration officials to watch Operation Neptune Spear as it unfolded in real time. In an iconic moment, President Obama, Bill Daley, Leon Panetta, Hillary Clinton, Tony Blinken, Denis McDonough, Robert Gates, and Joe Biden squeezed into a tiny small conference room to watch the operation as Admiral McRaven narrated events on the ground.

As the Black Hawks approached the compound, Obama watched in horror as one of the helicopters appeared to lurch. For a second, Obama worried that it would crash, sending members of the team to fiery death, alerting the Pakistanis, and dooming his presidency in one fell swoop. 

McRaven, however, assured the president that all was well and that the helicopter had merely been caught in a vortex caused by slightly higher-than-anticipated air temperatures. Sure enough, the pilot improvised the maneuver and safely landed the helicopter and the SEALs on the ground of the compound. The raid was set to begin.

Geronimo EKIA

The team watched in the conference room as McRaven narrated the events. Obama was barely able to make out what was happening, as the Navy SEAL team executed a room-to-room search of the compound in near-total darkness.

For 20 agonizing minutes, Obama watched the footage, unsure of what he was looking at or how the mission was going. Suddenly, out of the silence, he heard McRaven’s voice proclaim over the feed, “Geronimo EKIA, Geronimo EKIA!” Instantly, the president and everyone assembled knew what that meant. “Geronimo”—the operation’s codename for Osama bin Laden—had been killed in action. 

Obama and the administration figures assembled in the conference room knew that they could not celebrate yet. The SEAL team had to spend the next 20 minutes bagging bin Laden’s body, attaching explosives to the landing helicopters, questioning the survivors in the compound (mostly women and children), and boarding the departing Chinook helicopters to get out of Pakistani airspace.

The SEALs boarded the helicopters at approximately 4:10 pm, Eastern Standard Time. The entire raid operation, from landing to departure, had taken place in 40 minutes. The team had executed Operation Neptune Spear flawlessly.

At 6 p.m., Obama received confirmation that the SEALs had safely departed Pakistani airspace. On board the helicopter, Admiral McRaven confirmed that the body was indeed Osama bin Laden’s, killed by a shot above the left eye. In accordance with the mission’s instructions, bin Laden was given a traditional Islamic burial at sea, to avoid the possibility of his grave becoming a pilgrimage site for future jihadists.

Nearly a decade after the 9/11 attacks, their perpetrator had finally been brought to justice.

A National Celebration

Within hours, tentative news about the raid began leaking out. The administration knew it would not be able to keep a lid on the story for much longer, so they began to make moves to announce it publicly. After informing the Pakistani government and army, Obama placed calls to former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, as well as to foreign leaders.

Obama worked with Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, to draft a speech announcing the successful raid to the American people. As he worked on drafting the speech, Obama recalled his own memories of 9/11. It had been Malia’s first day of preschool that morning as news of the unfolding horror in New York and Washington broke. He remembered calling Michelle from downtown Chicago and assuring her that they would be ok.

He looked back on the strange journey his life had taken since that awful September day 10 years before—how little he could have known that it would be him who would play the leading role in bringing Osama bin Laden to justice.

As the news of the raid began to break in the media before Obama’s scheduled announcement, celebratory crowds thronged the streets of Washington, D.C., exuberantly chanting, “USA, USA!” It was a cathartic moment for America, a restoration of wounded pride, and an unequivocal victory for the Obama administration. The country had experienced tremendous turmoil on 9/11 and in the years that followed. Killing bin Laden could not undo all the damage, nor could it bring back those who had been lost, but Operation Neptune Spear served as a powerful demonstration of the country’s strength and resolve. 

In the days ahead, Obama would meet with families of 9/11 victims, the police and firefighters who’d been present in Lower Manhattan on that day, and the SEAL team that executed the raid. In keeping with their solemn sense of mission and duty, none of the SEALs mentioned to Obama who among them had been the one to fire the fatal shot at bin Laden—and the president never asked.

Operation Neptune Spear: Mission to Capture bin Laden

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Barack Obama's "A Promised Land" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full A Promised Land summary:

  • How Barack Obama went from relative obscurity to the first Black president
  • What principles guided his political leadership style
  • Why Obama retained an unshakable faith in the potential and promise of America

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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