The death of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has been the highest counterterrorism goal since the deadly Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and on Sunday a small team of U.S. special-operations commandos achieved it.
The death came during a daring covert raid on a compound in northwest Pakistan, ending a massive international manhunt by intelligence services and militaries throughout the world.
The raid followed a nine-month operation based on intelligence first obtained from an intelligence source in August that ultimately led to the al Qaeda leader’s residence near Abbottabad, Pakistan.
“After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body,” President Obama said late Sunday night in a White House address announcing the death. “For over two decades, bin Laden has been al Qaeda’s leader and symbol and has continued to plot attacks against our country and our friends and allies. The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda.”
Former President George W. Bush, who made getting bin Laden a top priority of his U.S.-led war on terrorism said in a statement: “The fight against terror goes on, but tonight America has sent an unmistakable message: No matter how long it takes, justice will be done.”
For Muslim extremists who make up al Qaeda — Arabic for “the base” — the death of the top leader does not necessarily mean the end of the organization, which has changed in recent years from a centralized terrorist organization into one that has several key affiliates, especially in Pakistan and Yemen, as well as Somalia.
But the end of the massive 10-year manhunt could affect the group by ending its top leader’s seeming invincibility in avoiding capture.
For years, U.S. intelligence officials have said bin Laden was thought to be in hiding in the remote areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
The last known whereabouts of bin Laden was in the mountainous Tora Bora region of Afghanistan. He was nearly caught there during the October 2001 military operation that eventually led to the ouster of the Taliban regime, which had given him safe haven and allowed him to operate terrorist training camps. It was at those camps where the deadly attacks were spawned on New York and Washington using hijacked airliners that killed about 3,000 people, along with a plane that crashed in western Pennsylvania after passengers stormed the cockpit.
Mr. Obama said in his address late Sunday that shortly after taking office he directed the CIA to make capturing or killing bin Laden its top counterterrorism priority.
Both the U.S. military and the CIA had dedicated large numbers of people and forces to developing intelligence and planning attacks on bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, when they were identified.
The Saudi-born Islamist extremist first came to the attention of U.S. intelligence in the late 1990s by issuing a fatwa, or Islamic religious edict, calling on Muslims to kill Americans, after the Saudi Arabian government permitted U.S. forces to set up bases in the kingdom during the 1991 Persian Gulf war, something bin Laden opposed.
For many years, U.S. intelligence agencies failed to understand the al Qaeda leader’s significance as a leader of the terrorist ground, viewing him instead as mainly a financier.
Bin Laden was the son of a wealthy Saudi Arabia construction magnate and used his money to fund al Qaeda operations.
The operation to kill bin Laden comes at a time of heightened tensions between the United States and Pakistan over U.S. unmanned aircraft strikes against terrorist targets in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s government in the past had denied bin Laden was hiding in its territory. A senior U.S. intelligence official said that Pakistan’s ISI military intelligence service operates a special directorate that had direct contacts with terrorist groups, such as al Qaeda.