US & World

Operation that took out bin Laden 'unprecedented in recent times'

This undated file photo shows Osama bin Laden in an undisclosed location inside Afghanistan.
This undated file photo shows Osama bin Laden in an undisclosed location inside Afghanistan.
AFP/Getty Images

Colonel Joe Felter spoke about what went into the operation that took out Osama bin Laden.

"It's a really sophisticated operation," requiring the cooperation of a variety of agencies, intelligence resources and assets, says Felter. Colonel Felter is currently assigned to the U.S. Army War College and is a research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution.

"It was the result of just a long, long time of preparation, rehearsing, training for contingencies," says Felter. One example was how they handled a helicopter going down. Everyone got out safely and they blew up the helicopter, using a backup helicopter that was available for just such an event. "They rehearsed that scenario, I'm sure," says Felter.

"Certainly a difficult decision for a commander-in-chief," says Felter, but he says it was the right one. "The difference between success and failure is very slim."

Felter says this operation required "predictive intelligence" – knowledge of where someone will be in the future, in this case bin Laden. "This is the hardest of all information to cultivate."

While there was a $25 million reward for Osama bin Laden, dead or alive, the men who conducted this mission aren't eligible to receive that reward due to their service in the military.

Felter says that it's important to have a team in a mission like this that's just large enough while not being any larger. It's unknown how many men were aboard the two lead helicopters and the largely empty third helicopter, but Felter says about a dozen troops can fit on a Blackhawk helicopter.

The teams likely built mockups of the compound and practices, says Felter, with at least one helicopter going in empty which ended up being used to help bring everyone out.

Felter says there are historical parallels to this mission.

"Certainly I think the experience of Desert One in Iran in the early '80s was one example; the Son Tay raid in Vietnam before then," says Felter. With Son Tay, "there was no one on the target," while with Desert One, part of Operation Eagle Claw, it "ended in tragedy." Desert One was a 1980 mission in Iran that led to the destruction of multiple aircraft, helicopters being left behind and eight American servicemen being killed.

With the operation that killed bin Laden, "This is really unprecedented in recent times," says Felter, "and really an example of our special operations forces operating to an amazing level."