WASHINGTON — Osama bin Laden's death in a ripped-from-a-spy-thriller helicopter raid and firefight gives a storied unit of U.S. special operations forces bragging rights for what has become the most famous covert operation since the Sept. 11 attacks launched on bin Laden's orders.
The unit, called Navy SEAL Team Six, probably won't claim the credit publicly, however.
The Associated Press, citing unnamed U.S. officials, reported that units from SEAL Team Six dropped into bin Laden's high-walled compound in Pakistan, sliding down ropes in the predawn dark. The military won't confirm which unit carried out the attack.
But the head of the Navy SEALs, Rear Adm. Edward Winters, sent an e-mail congratulating his forces and warning them to keep their mouths shut.
"Be extremely careful about operational security," he added. "The fight is not over."
Made up of only a few hundred troops based in Dam Neck, Va., the elite SEAL unit officially known as Naval Special Warfare Development Group, or "DEVGRU," is part of a special operations brotherhood that calls itself "the quiet professionals."
SEAL Team Six raided targets outside war zones like Yemen and Somalia in the past three years, though the unit operates primarily in Afghanistan. The Associated Press will not publish the names of the commanding officers, to protect them and their families from possible retaliation by militants for the bin Laden operation.
The unit is overseen by the Joint Special Operations Command, which oversees the U.S. Army's Delta Force and other special units, and falls under the U.S. Special Operations Command that is based at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. JSOC's combined forces have been responsible for a quadrupling of counterterrorism raids that have targeted militants in record numbers over the past year in Afghanistan. Some 4,500 elite special operations forces and support units have been part of the surge of U.S. forces there.
"Officially, Team Six doesn't exist," says former Navy SEAL Craig Sawyer, 47, who advises Hollywood and acts in movies about the military.
After undergoing a six-month process in which commanders scrutinized his every move, Sawyer says he was selected in the 1990s to join the team.
"It was like being recruited to an all-star team," he said, with members often gone 300 days a year, only lasting about three years on the team before burning out.
"They train around the clock," he said. "They know that failure will not be an option. Either they succeed or they don't come home."
Other special operations units joke that "SEAL" stands for "Sleep, eat, lift," though the term actually stands for Sea, Air, Land.
"The SEALs will be the first to remind everyone that the 'L' in SEAL stands for land," says retired Army Gen. Doug Brown, former commander of U.S. Special Operations Command. "They have skills on the land equal to their skills at sea."
Brown, who led the command from 2003-2007, said the operation against bin Laden is the most significant mission conducted by U.S. commando forces since the unit was formed in 1987 in the wake of the failed attempt in 1980 to rescue the American hostages in Iran.
"I can't think of a mission as nationally important," Brown said.
DEVGRU is the same unit that rescued an American ship captain, Richard Phillips, held hostage on a lifeboat by Somali pirates after his capture from the USS Maersk Alabama in 2009. A DEVGRU unit fired precision shots from the rocking stern of a Navy ship, killing all three pirates.