U.S. Forces Kill Osama bin Laden
Updated, May 2, 12:40 a.m.
Almost 10 years after the 9/11 attacks, the leader of al-Qaida is dead.
President Barack Obama announced Sunday night that Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. operatives.
In a “compound” near an area deep inside Pakistan called Abottabad — not far from the capital of Islamabad — U.S. operatives engaged in a “firefight” with bin Laden’s handlers, Obama said, and killed the terrorist leader. This was no drone strike. It was a “small team” of U.S. operatives, pulling the trigger and delivering what the president called “justice” on a man responsible for the deaths of nearly 3,000 Americans.
According to a senior administration official, the raid itself took less than 40 minutes. Bin Laden “did resist the assault force,” the official says, but was shot “as our operators came into the compound.” A woman was used as a human shield and died in the firefight, along with one of bin Laden’s adult sons and two “couriers.”
The operation was the result of eight months of intelligence work, with Obama giving the order to carry out the operation last week. Obama didn’t exactly specify, but it appears bin Laden’s death is the result of a joint operation by the CIA and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command.
But Obama said that bin Laden’s body has been recovered. It’s unclear where the body is, or if and when it will be be shown to the public. The senior administration official says that it’s being handled “in accordance with Islamic practices and traditions.”
The Afghanistan war will surely continue. Drone strikes in Pakistan will surely continue. Al-Qaida will surely proclaim imminently that it’s merely transitioning into its next phase. But Obama called it the “most significant achievement to date in our effort to defeat al-Qaida.” Killing bin Laden has been the dream of countless U.S. soldiers and intelligence operatives I’ve encountered since 9/11.
Bin Laden’s escape from U.S. forces at Tora Bora in 2001 became a potent symbol of American impotence. Since bin Laden reconstituted al-Qaida’s senior leadership in Pakistan, a terrorist cell defined by hijacked religious symbolism and conspiracy theories franchised operations to affiliates from Iraq to Yemen, willing itself into a geopolitical force and killing thousands worldwide. Bin Laden’s appearances in years’ worth of audio- and videotapes mocked the United States and pledged to “bleed it to bankruptcy.”
Starting in 2008, the United States massively accelerated attacks from armed Predator drones over the Afghanistan border in Pakistan, killing hundreds. It built an intelligence network in Pakistani tribal areas, largely from scratch and with — to be charitable — inconsistent assistance from the Pakistani intelligence service.
Obama said that the operation couldn’t have happened without Pakistani cooperation. But the senior administration official says that the Pakistanis didn’t know about the raid until after it occurred, citing the need for the “utmost operational security.”
There’s a longstanding debate in counterterrorism circles about the importance of bin Laden to al-Qaida. For years, al-Qaida theoreticians, chief among them a man known as Abu Musab al-Suri, have attempted to refashion al-Qaida into a global movement that can outlast bin Laden. Al-Qaida’s Yemen branch, in its English language magazine, has discouraged American Muslims from joining the jihad overseas, urging them instead to launch attacks inside the United States on their own.
Al-Qaida has now sustained two massive blows to its relevance in the past few months. First, the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia refuted al-Qaida’s argument that only violent actions focused on the “far enemy” — the United States — could overthrow sclerotic dictatorships. Now bin Laden is dead, without a charismatic figure to take his place. For al-Qaida, it’s show-and-prove time.
U.S. counterterrorism officials expect attempted retaliatory attacks, though there’s no specific intel on them right now. Officials are cautioning U.S. nationals not to travel to Pakistan.
But the senior administration official calls it a “major, essential step in al-Qaida’s eventual disruption.” Intelligence from the raid indicates that bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, will become the new leader, but his authority isn’t “universally accepted,” and the Egyptian Zawahiri will have difficulty maintaining the loyalty of “al-Qaida’s Gulf Arab followers.”
In the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — which would have been inconceivable without bin Laden’s 9/11 attacks — the United States learned painfully that the death of an organization’s leader doesn’t equate to the death of the organization. Al-Qaida in Iraq remains lethal — but at far diminished levels than during the horror years of 2004 to 2006.
But not every decapitation should be understood as “just” a decapitation. It took months of painstaking intelligence work to kill al-Qaida in Iraq’s most potent leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The maintenance of that intelligence acumen, along with al-Qaida’s miscalculations that alienated Iraqis, and along with a sustained U.S. military effort all led to what’s been a demonstrable attrition of the Iraq chapter of al-Qaida’s global efforts.
While pledging that “we will be relentless in defense of our citizens,” and not indicating that this 10-year-long war against al-Qaida is over, Obama is clearly hoping that the reversals suffered this year by al-Qaida are as durable. His senior aide predicts that the terrorist group that compelled a bloody upheaval of U.S. foreign and defense policies for the past 10 years is now on a “path of decline [that's] difficult to reverse.”
The feeling among the global jihadist community? Online, at least, it’s disbelief. “I will wait for the Mujahideen to confirm this, and will not believe until I see a picture of his dead body,” one internet extremist commented on the “Islamic Awakening” forum.
“Most top-tier al-Qaida forums have forbidden all discussion about the topic, insisting that they will not allow any more messages until there is official confirmation from al-Qaida,” says top terrorism watcher Evan Kohlman. “Nonetheless, people are posting dozens of messages praying for the safety and well-being of ‘the Mujahid Shaykh.’”
Photo: Osama bin Laden in Khost, Afghanistan, 1998 (Mazhar Ali Khan/AP)
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