Osama bin Laden’s death Sunday in a million-dollar mansion in Pakistan at the hands of U.S. special operations forces punctured the mythology of a revolutionary leader sacrificing creature comforts for the good of jihad, American officials said Monday as the world digested the demise of its most notorious terrorist leader.
President Obama said bin Laden’s death was “a good day for America,” and his top counterterrorism adviser said the U.S. will seek to exploit intelligence found in the compound to try to roll up the rest of the al Qaeda terrorist network, which has affiliates in Pakistan, Yemen and North Africa.
The White House said bin Laden was buried at sea in keeping with Islamic law, but that action also denies him a grave site that could become a rallying point for supporters. Administration officials said his death - he was shot by Navy SEALs after trying to use a woman reputed to be his wife as a human shield - exposes him to potential followers as far different from the image of a committed fighter living in caves along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
“Here is bin Laden, who has been calling for these attacks, living in this million-dollar-plus compound, living in an area that is far removed from the front, hiding behind women who were put in front of him as a shield,” said John Brennan, Mr. Obama’s homeland security and counterterrorism adviser. “I think it really just speaks to just how false his narrative has been over the years.”
Other details emerged of the dramatic raid on the compound in Abbottabad, north of Islamabad, including that bin Laden reached for a weapon to try to defend himself in the firefight.
One military source told The Washington Times that bin Laden’s compound was rigged for communication with other al Qaeda affiliates and that the raiding party found evidence that bin Laden was in regular contact by courier and other means with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as well as al-Shabaab and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
The compound had a dedicated fiber-optic cable that gave bin Laden access to the Internet without having to broadcast an electromagnetic signal, which helped him avoid detection by U.S. signal intelligence stations and aircraft.
Administration officials said bin Laden’s death does not end the threat from global terrorism, though it is a significant symbolic blow to al Qaeda, the organization bin Laden founded in the 1980s.
Al Qaeda has been implicated in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole, in addition to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that left nearly 3,000 dead in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania.
“Though bin Laden is dead, al Qaeda is not,” CIA Director Leon E. Panetta told agency employees Monday.
Mr. Panetta, who was nominated by Mr. Obama to be secretary of defense, added, “We have struck a heavy blow against the enemy. The only leader they have ever known, whose hateful vision gave rise to their atrocities, is no more. The supposedly uncatchable one has been caught and killed. And we will not rest until every last one of them has been delivered to justice.”
Bin Laden’s identity was confirmed by a DNA match to relatives, but Mr. Brennan said the administration is still in the process of deciding whether to release additional proof, such as photos of the corpse or a video of the burial, to convince skeptics that bin Laden is in fact dead.
“We are going to continue to look at the information that we have and make sure that we are able to share what we can, because we want to make sure that not only the American people but the world understand exactly what happened,” he said.
Officials declined to offer many details about bin Laden’s burial at sea other than to say that it was within 24 hours of his death, in accordance with Islamic law.
Mr. Brennan said U.S. forces were prepared to take bin Laden alive if he did not pose a “threat.” But, as was expected, he resisted capture and was killed.
“If we had the opportunity to take him alive, we would have done that,” he said. A U.S. official later told Reuters News Agency that the woman killed during the U.S. raid was not bin Laden’s wife and was not used as a human shield, but Mr. Brennan had not backtracked on his description of the events as of last night.
Lawmakers at the Capitol said the first inklings of intelligence that eventually led to bin Laden were collected years ago and that the operation serves notice that attacks against the U.S. and its allies will be punished.
“Justice has a long memory and has a long arm,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat.
Officials warned of the possibility of a retaliatory terrorist strike. Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano said the U.S. is on heightened alert, but there is no specific or credible information to make her raise the terrorism-threat level.
Attention has turned to likely candidates to succeed bin Laden at the head of al Qaeda, and to how his death will affect the war on terrorism.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said Mr. Obama told him that the withdrawal timetable for U.S. troops in Afghanistan will not change.
“The president has a timetable to begin withdrawal of Afghanistan,” Mr. Reid told reporters. “He’s indicated he’s going to stick with that. I think that’s appropriate.”
But Matthew Hoh, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and the director of the Afghanistan Study Group, said removing bin Laden should be a clear signal that it’s time to expedite the withdrawal.
“Where do we find bin Laden?” he asked. “In a villa, next to a Pakistani military academy an hour or two northeast of Islamabad. Families that have lost service members in Afghanistan are told their child or husband or wife is fighting al Qaeda and keeping us safe from terrorism. It has nothing to do with that. This needs to be a wake-up call.”
Mr. Hoh is a former captain in the Marine Corps who in 2009 resigned in protest of U.S. policy while serving with the State Department in Afghanistan.
U.S. officials are trying to determine what kind of support system bin Laden had in Pakistan and whether any members of the troubled country’s government were complicit in keeping his whereabouts under wraps, Mr. Brennan said. He refused to speculate, but noted it’s suspicious that bin Laden was found in Abbottabad, outside the major city of Islamabad.
“I think people are raising a number of questions and understandably so,” he said. “I’m sure a number of people have questions about whether or not there was some type of support that was provided by the Pakistani government.”
Some members of Congress are calling for more strings to be attached to military and civilian aid the U.S. funnels to Pakistan.