WASHINGTON – Osama bin Laden was killed Sunday in Pakistan in a firefight with U.S. special forces 40 miles north of Islamabad. President Obama announced the terrorist leader’s death in a late-night address from the Oval Office. The U.S. team, which included Navy SEALS, arrived by helicopters and was in and out in less than 40 minutes. No U.S. soldiers were killed. Bin Laden resisted and was shot in the head. He was identified by DNA testing, the strike team took his body and buried it at sea.
U.S. officials speaking not for attribution said bin Laden had been traced to a heavily guarded compound in Abbottabad, an hour’s drive north of Islamabad, the capital.
Bin Laden’s 3-story compound was much larger than other homes in the area, with high walls topped with barbed wire, a second row of walls inside, but no Internet or telephone connections. The two men who allegedly owned it had no apparent source of wealth, and all trash was burned on the property.
Abbottabad is home to a large Pakistani army base and a military academy. Pakistan’s President Zardari quickly said that his country’s military had participated in the raid – a statement that U.S. officials denied. Pakistan, they said, had been notified about the raid only after it was over.
The CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies pinpointed the compound months ago after identifying a courier who made trips there. Then came the painstaking work of confirming that it held a “high value target.” Who that target was, was not certain until the raid had been finished. The courier and his brother were also killed, and one of bin Laden’s adult sons and a woman.
In his statement from the Oval Office Sunday night, President Obama said, “… last August, after years of painstaking work by our intelligence community, I was briefed on a possible lead to bin Laden. It was far from certain, and it took many months to run this thread to ground. I met repeatedly with my national security team as we developed more information about the possibility that we had located bin Laden hiding within a compound deep inside of Pakistan. And finally, last week, I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action, and authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice.
“Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.”
The raid came on the day that Taliban forces in Afghanistan said they would begin a spring offensive. U.S. officials said the strike team had taken bin Laden’s body to Afghanistan, identified it, then buried it at sea.
U.S. officials said that was in accord with Muslim practice. Left unsaid was that it also was done to preclude the establishment of a burial site that could become a rallying point. But in today’s conspiratorial world, the quick burial is sure to set off a round of doubts and denials.
Also in doubt is what the death of bin Laden, 54, will mean for al Qaeda: whether it will become consumed in an internal power struggle, or lash out somewhere in revenge, or both.
Nor is it clear what the death will mean to Pakistan, and to the U.S.’s increasingly frayed relationship with that country, which the White House portrays as an ally in the fight against terrorism, but which is believed to have a large contingent of military and intelligence officers who play a double and triple game.
What’s certain is that President Obama’s announcement of bin Laden’s death set off celebrations around the United States – outside the White House, at Ground Zero in New York, and as far away as California.
The mood inside the White House was described as relieved, but not celebratory.
“(H)is death does not mark the end of our effort,” Obama said in his address. “There’s no doubt that al Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must – and we will – remain vigilant at home and abroad. As we do, we must also reaffirm that the United States is not – and never will be – at war with Islam. I’ve made clear, just as President Bush did shortly after 9/11, that our war is not against Islam. Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims. Indeed, al Qaeda has slaughtered scores of Muslims in many countries, including our own. So his demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity.”
(This story was based on wire reports, including reports from The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, The Associated Press and Reuters.)