Updated at 2:30 a.m.
Nearly 10 years after he launched the deadliest domestic attack in U.S. history, al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden has been killed by American forces. Late Sunday evening, President Barack Obama addressed the American people from the White House while Vice President Joseph Biden called congressional leaders to inform them of the news. “Justice has been done,” Obama said.
Bin Laden’s death marks a long-awaited victory for the U.S. and its allies: for the families of nearly 3,000 victims killed at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania on Sept.11, 2001, and for the military and intelligence forces that hunted him in the years since. Massive crowds gathered outside the White House on Sunday night, singing the national anthem in a celebration that quickly spread nationwide.
In his statement to the country, Obama said the operation showed that “America can do whatever we set our minds to. It is the story of our history.” Former President George W. Bush called the raid a “momentous achievement [that] marks a victory for America, for people who seek peace around the world, and for all those who lost loved ones on September 11, 2001.”
Obama said the U.S. received a tip about bin Laden’s whereabouts last August and pursued it over the intervening months. A senior administration official told reporters early Monday morning that intelligence officials had learned from detainees that Bin Laden used a particularly trusted courier, who was a protege of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Officials were able to identify the courier’s real name four years ago, but not his location.
Last August, the U.S. got a lead on the courier’s location–a high-walled, $1 million compound in an affluent neighborhood on the outskirts of Islamabad. Eight times larger than other houses in the area, the roughly five-year-old compound had two security gates, no telephone or internet connections and its residents burned their garbage rather than putting it out for collection, as others in the neighborhood did, the senior administration official said. “The physical security measures of the compound are extraordinary,” the official said, and U.S. officials concluded that it had been built for the purpose of hiding bin Laden.
On Sunday, Obama ordered a small team of American forces to attempt to capture Bin Laden. In the process of executing that operation, Obama said, the team engaged in a firefight. There were no American casualties, but one U.S. helicopter was lost. Three men were killed along with bin Laden, including one of his sons and the courier. One woman was killed as a man in the compound attempted to use her as a shield, the senior official said. Bin Laden resisted the assault team and was killed. The raid lasted approximately 40 minutes.
A senior administration official said that bin Laden’s death would deal a crippling blow to al-Qaeda. But the consequences of bin Laden’s death may be more symbolic than strategic. For several years, U.S. officials have said that the hunt for Bin Laden had driven him from tactical control of the diffuse al-Qaeda network worldwide, and that it had been some time since he had been directly involved in the terrorist organization’s ground-level operations.
The possibility of retaliatory attacks led the U.S. to put its embassies around the world on alert. “In the wake of this operation there may be a heightened threat to the homeland and U.S. facilities abroad,” a senior administration official said early Monday. “The United States is taking every possible precaution to protect Americans.”