The killing of Osama bin Laden is turning into a real-life who-dunnit.
On the morning of May 2, 2011, 23 U.S. SEALs and an interpreter assaulted bin Laden's hideout north of Islamabad, shooting and killing bin Laden, two of his bodyguards, one of his sons, and the wife of a bodyguard.
Who fired the shot that killed the world's most-wanted terrorist? It might not be long before all 23 Seals are claiming credit.
In a story published Tuesday by CNN, longtime foreign correspondent and author Peter Bergen takes on Esquire magazine for a story titled "The Shooter" that was published in February. Esquire's story quotes an unidentified SEAL team member who says he shot bin Laden twice in the forehead when he saw him reach for a gun after encountering him in a bedroom.
"The Shooter" tells this riveting tale:
"I thought in that first instant how skinny he was, how tall and how short his beard was, all at once. He was wearing one of those white hats, but he had, like, an almost shaved head. Like a crew cut. I remember all that registering. I was amazed how tall he was, taller than all of us, and it didn't seem like he would be, because all those guys were always smaller than you think.
"I'm just looking at him from right here [he moves his hand out from his face about ten inches]. He's got a gun on a shelf right there, the short AK he's famous for. And he's moving forward. I don't know if she's got a vest and she's being pushed to martyr them both. He's got a gun within reach. He's a threat. I need to get a head shot so he won't have a chance to clack himself off [blow himself up].
"In that second, I shot him, two times in the forehead. Bap! Bap! The second time as he's going down. He crumpled onto the floor in front of his bed and I hit him again, Bap! same place. That time I used my EOTech red-dot holo sight. He was dead. Not moving. His tongue was out. I watched him take his last breaths, just a reflex breath."
Bergen, one of the few western journalists who interviewed bin Laden, says he has spoken with a SEAL operator who charges "The Shooter" couldn't be telling the truth because the two guns found in bin Laden's bedroom after his death were found after a search of the room sitting on a high shelf above a door.
Bergen also contends that the Esquire story, suggesting a SEAL team member shot bin Laden in the face, runs counter to instructions the assault team was given just before the raid. The team's members were ordered not to shoot him in the face "unless you have to" because the CIA would need to analyze good pictures of bin Laden's face for facial recognition experts to work effectively.
The Esquire and Bergen stories both come in the wake of another version offered by former SEAL member Mark Owens, a veteran of 13 consecutive combat deployments, who claimed on "60 Minutes" and then in his book "No Easy Day" that his team’s point man shot bin Laden before the team entered his bedroom. Owens said bin Laden was shot again lying on the floor with a grievous head wound.
Rick Westhead is a foreign affairs writer at the Star. He was based in India as the Star’s South Asia bureau chief from 2008 until 2011 and reports on international aid and development. Follow him on Twitter @rwesthead