Nearly a decade after the 9/11 attacks, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has been killed and his body buried at sea, with Americans celebrating his death across the country. Read details on the elite raid that killed bin Laden, photos of his compound, and more.
Inside the Situation Room
On Monday afternoon, the White House released an official photo of President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the rest of the national security team during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
White House Briefing
President Obama made one of the "most gutsiest calls" ever by a president, according to Homeland Security chief John Brennan, who spoke at a White House press briefing on Monday. Among the revelations Brennan revealed: Bin Laden apparently used one of his wives as a human shield during the raid that ended his life, causing her death as well. But Press Secretary Jay Carney said they did not yet have enough information from officials to determine whether bin Laden or one of his brothers deliberately used her as a shield, or if she threw herself in the line of fire in attempt to protect him. President Obama's reaction to the news that bin Laden had been killed? "We got him."
The Elite Team That Made the Kill
The dozen or so men who stormed bin Laden's compound hailed from the Navy's specialized "Team 6," a group so secretive and specialized that no one can apply to join. Instead, recruits are selected from existing Navy SEALs. Even the name of the group is meant to deceive; it was named "Team 6" in order to confuse the Soviets so they wouldn't know how many such units there were. Team 6 has also performed missions taking down members of the Taliban, as well as operations in areas as diverse as Yugoslavia and Iraq.
Inside the Raid
President Obama gave the order for a small team of Navy SEALs to go into the acre-large compound where it was believed bin Laden was hiding—though he hadn’t been spotted there. "I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action," said Obama in his Sunday night address, "and authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice." The U.S. says Pakistan was not informed of the raid, but Pakistan says it was a joint operation.
The CIA was responsible for “finding” and “fixing” the target, and the military finished the job, said a U.S. official. Late Sunday night, Navy SEALs along with intelligence collectors flew in by helicopter from Afghanistan and assaulted the compound. Bin Laden, his son, and several others opened fire on the U.S. forces. In total, 22 people were killed or captured in the raid. The U.S. team was on the ground for only 40 minutes, most of that time spent searching the compound for information about al Qaeda. On the way back, one helicopter experienced mechanical failures and was destroyed. Sohaib Athar, a 33-year-old computer programmer, accidentally live-tweeted the entire raid. Bin Laden died from two gunshots to the left side of his face.
"You cannot wait us out, you cannot defeat us, but you can make the choice to abandon al Qaeda and participate in a peaceful political process," said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday, addressing members of the terrorist cell. Clinton also noted that bin Laden's death coincided with the wave of uprisings in the Middle East in support of a democracy, a fact she said was not by chance. "There is no better rebuke to al Qaeda and its heinous ideology," Clinton said.
But as Americans from the White House to ground zero rejoice, the Clinton's State Department sounded a grimmer tone. The department has put embassies on alert and warned Americans abroad of possible reprisal attacks after the Osama Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan. It issued a worldwide travel alert shortly after President Obama’s address late on Sunday. The alert said there is an “enhanced potential for anti-American violence given recent counterterrorism activity in Pakistan.” It also said Americans abroad should limit travel outside of their homes and avoid large gatherings. An official with the Department of Homeland Security told CNN that it anticipated " threats of retaliation."
Al Qaeda’s No. 2
Talk has already turned to bin Laden's deputy, Ayman Al-Zawahri, who many experts believe will now rise to the top spot in al Qaeda. Al-Zawahri became a Jihadist activist when he was just a teenager and later went to Afghanistan as a doctor to treat Islamists fighting off Soviet forces. Bin Laden and al-Zawahri met in the late 1980s, when al-Zawahri reportedly tended to bin Laden's battle wounds in the caves of Afghanistan. The jihadist doctor immediately befriended the jihadist Saudi millionaire, and their bond was the foundation for the al Qaeda terror network. When the U.S. pushed al Qaeda out of Afghanistan in 2001 following the September 11 attacks, al-Zawahri played a crucial role in keeping the terror network together. In a 2001 treatise, al-Zawahri pronounced a longterm strategy for the jihadi movement—to inflict "as many casualties as possible" on the Americans.
‘Bin Laden Is Dead’
Late Sunday night, President Obama announced that Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind of the September 11 attacks who had eluded capture for nearly a decade, had been killed by U.S. forces. Saying that “ justice has been done,” Obama went on to explain that American military and CIA operatives had cornered Bin Laden in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, 30 miles from the capital, Islamabad. During the ensuing firefight, the U.S. team killed bin Laden and took custody of his body.
Photos: The World Reacts
Buried at Sea
A U.S. official says that after identifying the body by facial recognition, and getting a DNA match with his sister who died of brain cancer in Boston, they buried bin Laden’s body at sea. There were rumors that Saudi Arabia was asked to take the body, but refused, but the Washington Post reports that the ocean burial wasn’t simply a default: The U.S. government didn’t want an accessible gravesite that could become a shrine to bin Laden’s followers. The official says bin Laden was buried “in accordance with Islamic tradition,” meaning within 24 hours of his death. Generally, burial at sea means tipping the body overboard, wrapped in a shroud, after a brief service. Speaking on Monday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney would not disclose details concerning the Islamic specialists U.S. officials conferred with after bin Laden’s death and before his burial.
How the U.S. Found Him
Even before the September 11 attacks, the U.S. was gathering intelligence on bin Laden’s couriers, but after the attacks, they got the pseudonym of one courier of particular interest. Six years later, the U.S. learned his real name, and in August 2010, they traced him to Abbottabad. Specifically, they traced him to a mansion roughly eight times larger than any other home in the area, surrounded by 12-foot-by-18-foot walls topped with razor wire, no internet or telephone service, no windows facing the road, and whose residents had a suspicious habit of burning their trash. Built in 2005, it was “custom built to hide someone of significance,” says a U.S. official.
By mid-February, officials say they had decided there “was a strong probability” that bin Laden was hiding in the compound. By mid-March, the president led five National Security Council meetings on the plans for an operation, and on Friday, he gave the final order.
What was Pakistan’s role?
The Pakistani government and its ISI intelligence service are between a rock and a hard place. To get aid, they have to appear in compliance with Washington expectations—while appeasing their increasingly radicalized citizens. Islamabad has proven good at playing this double game over the past decade, specifically denying the presence of Osama bin Laden on its soil, pinning blame on Afghanistan. With Americans killing Bin Laden near the Pakistani capital, both the government and agency appear, to their own people, to have been caught with their pants down.
To convince its people that U.S. forces paid a heavy price for invading the sovereign space of their beloved country, government officials have been leaking to the media that the Pakistani surface-to-air defenses downed not one but two American helicopters, killing all forces on board, according to Al-Jazeera Arabic’s reporter in Islamabad.
The Pakistani government apparently needs to appear resistant to U.S. incursions to gain any legitimacy in the eyes of its own people—if that means claiming to down its own ally’s planes, so be it.
Recently Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, openly accused Pakistan’s intelligence service of aiding the Haqqani network, an especially dangerous wing of the Tailban, saying that “It’s fairly well known that the I.S.I. has a longstanding relationship with the Haqqani network,” and that Haqqani is supporting, funding, training fighters that are killing Americans and killing coalition partners.” Dexter Filkins writes that it seems Pakistan may have provided routine assistance without being told the identity of their target. That would make sense, because in recent months, it’s been common practice to execute drone strikes without informing Pakistani officials ahead of time, for fear they would tip off the targets.
In Washington, D.C., and New York, crowds spontaneously gathered to celebrate. Outside the White House, a crowd of students, tourists, and locals swarmed, waving American flags and chanting, “U.S.A.!” The crowd reportedly had been growing for hours, showing no signs of diminishing even as the clock ticks toward 2 a.m. There was a similar scene in lower Manhattan at Ground Zero as well as in Times Square, where the New York Times captured a poignant image of New York firefighters watching the news on a ticker. National Review’s Brian Bolduc has more.
Bin Laden’s death came on the eighth anniversary of when President George W. Bush marked an end to the Iraq War, famously declaring “Mission Accomplished” atop an aircraft carrier—and on the 66th anniversary of the announcement of Adolf Hitler's death. It also comes at time of turmoil in the upper ranks of the military and intelligence community: Defense Secretary Robert Gates will step down in the fall, to be succeeded by CIA director Leon Panetta. Their shuffle comes less than a year after Gen. Stanley McChrystal was forced out of office and was succeeded by Gen. David Petraeus.
The slaying could well be a boon for Obama, who faces re-election next year. But Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight says that while Obama’s approval rating will almost certainly improve, Bin Laden’s death may not be that big a deal by November 2012: that election will be decided by economic matters, not anti-terror efforts.
For all the questions that White House Press Secretary Carney answered today, there are many more that remain unanswered. Given that his compound was in Abbottabad, a military base in Pakistan, did the country know of bin Laden’s whereabouts? Is al Qaeda strong enough to launch another terrorist attack without their leader? Will they assign a successor to lead their group?
In his briefing on Monday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said that the United States’ anti-terrorist specialists and networks are doing everything they can to step up security measures on American soil and abroad.
He spoke on behalf of President Obama, saying how important it was for America continue to foster its “strategic relationship” with Pakistan,” he said. “What we’re doing for the Pakistani government is to see what we can do to help them provide the best lifestyle for the populace in the future.” He said Pakistan appreciated that the raid on bin Laden’s home was accomplished without any Pakistani casualties outside of the compound. He also said that though the two countries do not always see eye to eye, it’s important that the U.S. continue “a dialogue with our Pakistani colleagues, who are as much if not more on the frontlines of the war against terrorism [as us].”