"Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al-Qaeda, and a terrorist who's responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women and children," Obama said in a surprise late night White House address.
The world's most wanted man had been killed in a Pakistani compound in an operation on Sunday, which had been carried after cooperation from Islamabad, the US leader said.
Obama said in the historic address from the White House that he had directed the US armed forces to launch an attack against a compound in Pakistan on Sunday acting on a lead that first emerged last August.
"A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties."
US armed forces have been hunting the Saudi terror kingpin for years, an effort that was redoubled following the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon which killed 3,000 people in 2001.
But Bin Laden always managed to evade US armed forces and a massive manhunt, and was most often thought to be hiding out in Pakistan and Afghanistan border areas.
The death of Bin Laden will raise huge questions about the future shape of Al-Qaeda and also have steep implications for US security and foreign policy 10 years into a global anti-terror campaign.
It will also raise fears that the United States and its allies will face retaliation from supporters of bin Laden and other Islamic extremist groups.
WASHINGTON – Osama bin Laden, the glowering mastermind behind the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks that murdered thousands of Americans, was killed in an operation led by the United States, President Barack Obama said Sunday.
A small team of Americans killed bin Laden in a firefight Sunday at a compound in Pakistan, the president said in a dramatic late-night statement at the White House.
A jubilant crowd gathered outside the White House as word spread of bin Laden's death after a global manhunt that lasted nearly a decade.
"Justice has been done," the president said.
Former President George W. Bush, who was in office on the day of the attacks, issued a written statement hailing bin Laden's death as a momentous achievement. "The fight against terror goes on, but tonight America has sent an unmistakable message: No matter how long it takes, justice will be done," he said.
Few details were immediately available of the operation that resulted in bin Laden's death, although the president said none of the Americans involved was harmed.
The development came just months before the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Centers and Pentagon, orchestrated by bin Laden's al-Qaida organization, that killed more than 3,000 people.
The attacks set off a chain of events that led the United States into wars in Afghanistan, and then Iraq, and America's entire intelligence apparatus was overhauled to counter the threat of more terror attacks at home.
Al-Qaida was also blamed for the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa that killed 231 people and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 American sailors in Yemen, as well as countless other plots, some successful and some foiled.
A senior administration official says Obama gave the final order for U.S. officials to go after bin Laden on Friday. The official added that a small team found their quarry hiding in a large home in an affluent suburb of Islamabad. The raid occurred in the early morning hours Sunday.
Obama spoke with Bush and former President Bill Clinton Sunday night to inform them of the developments.
The attacks a decade ago seemed to come out of nowhere, even though al-Qaida had previously damaged American targets overseas.
The terrorists hijacked planes, flew one of them into one of Manhattan's Twin Towers — and, moments later, into the other one. Both buildings collapsed, trapping thousands inside and claiming the lives of firefighters and others who had rushed to help them.
A third plane slammed into the Pentagon, defacing the symbol of America's military night. A fourth crashed in rural Pennsylvania after passengers overpowered the hijackers and forced it down — before it could hit its intended target in Washington.
Obama struck a less than boastful tone in his brief announcement, although he said the death of bin Laden was "the most significant achievement to date in our nation's effort to defeat al-Qaida.
"His death does not mark the end of our effort. There's no doubt that al-Qaida will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must and we will remain vigilant," he added.
Moments after he spoke, American officials cautioned that the events could lead to heightened threats against the United States.
Osama bin Laden, who was killed in Pakistan on Sunday, was a son of the Saudi elite whose radical, violent campaign to recreate a seventh-century Muslim empire redefined the threat of terrorism for the 21st century.
With the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, bin Laden was elevated to the realm of evil in the American imagination once reserved for dictators like Hitler and Stalin. He was a new national enemy, his face on wanted posters, gloating on videotape, taunting the United States and Western civilization.
“Do you want bin Laden dead?” a reporter asked President George W. Bush six days after the Sept. 11 attacks.
“I want him — I want justice,” the president answered. “And there’s an old poster out West, as I recall, that said, ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive.’ ”
It took nearly a decade before that quest finally ended in Pakistan with the death of bin Laden during a confrontation with American forces who attacked a compound where officials said he had been hiding.
The manhunt was punctuated by a December 2001 battle at an Afghan mountain redoubt called Tora Bora, near the border of Pakistan, where bin Laden and his allies were hiding. Despite days of pounding by American bombers, bin Laden escaped. For more than nine years afterward, he remained an elusive, shadowy figure frustratingly beyond the grasp of his pursuers and thought to be hiding somewhere in Pakistan and plotting new attacks.
Long before, he had become a hero in much of the Islamic world, as much a myth as a man — what a longtime officer of the C.I.A. called “the North Star” of global terrorism. He had united disparate militant groups, from Egypt to Chechnya, from Yemen to the Philippines, under the banner of his Al Qaeda organization and his ideal of a borderless brotherhood of radical Islam.
Terrorism before bin Laden was often state-sponsored, but he was a terrorist who had sponsored a state. For five years, 1996 to 2001, he paid for the protection of the Taliban, then the rulers of Afghanistan. He bought the time and the freedom to make his group, Al Qaeda — which means “the base” — a multinational enterprise to export terror around the globe.
For years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the name of Al Qaeda and the fame of bin Laden spread like a 21st-century political plague. Groups calling themselves Al Qaeda, or acting in the name of its cause, attacked American troops in Iraq, bombed tourist spots in Bali and blew up passenger trains in Spain.
To this day, the precise reach of his power remains unknown: how many members Al Qaeda could truly count on, how many countries its cells had penetrated, and whether, as bin Laden boasted, he sought to arm Al Qaeda with chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
He waged holy war with distinctly modern methods. He sent fatwas — religious decrees — by fax and declared war on Americans in an e-mail beamed by satellite around the world. Al Qaeda members kept bomb-making manuals on CD-ROM and communicated with encrypted memos on laptops, leading one American official to declare that bin Laden possessed better communication technology than the United States. He railed against globalization, even as his agents in Europe and North America took advantage of a globalized world to carry out their attacks, insinuating themselves into the very Western culture he despised.
He styled himself a Muslim ascetic, a billionaire’s son who gave up a life of privilege for the cause. But he was media savvy and acutely image conscious; before a CNN crew that interviewed him in 1997 was allowed to leave, his media advisers insisted on editing out unflattering shots. He summoned reporters to a cave in Afghanistan when he needed to get his message out, but like the most controlling of C.E.O.’s, he insisted on receiving written questions in advance.
His reedy voice seemed to belie the warrior image he cultivated, a man whose constant companion was a Kalashnikov rifle that he boasted he had taken from a Russian soldier he had killed. The world’s most threatening terrorist, he was also known to submit to frequent dressings down by his mother. While he built his reputation on his combat experience against Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s, even some of his supporters question whether he had actually fought.
And though he claimed to follow the purest form of Islam, many scholars insisted that he was glossing over the faith’s edicts against killing innocents and civilians. Islam draws boundaries on where and why holy war can be waged; bin Laden declared the entire world fair territory.
Yet it was the United States, bin Laden insisted, that was guilty of a double standard.
“It wants to occupy our countries, steal our resources, impose agents on us to rule us and then wants us to agree to all this,” he told CNN in the 1997 interview. “If we refuse to do so, it says we are terrorists. When Palestinian children throw stones against the Israeli occupation, the U.S. says they are terrorists. Whereas when Israel bombed the United Nations building in Lebanon while it was full of children and women, the U.S. stopped any plan to condemn Israel. At the same time that they condemn any Muslim who calls for his rights, they receive the top official of the Irish Republican Army at the White House as a political leader. Wherever we look, we find the U.S. as the leader of terrorism and crime in the world.”
For bin Laden, as for the United States, the turning point came in 1989, with the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan.
For the United States, which had supported the Afghan resistance with billions of dollars in arms and ammunition, that defeat marked the beginning of the end of the cold war and the birth of a new world order.
Bin Laden, who had supported the resistance with money, construction equipment and housing, saw the retreat of the Soviets as an affirmation of Muslim power and an opportunity to recreate Islamic political power and topple infidel governments through jihad, or holy war.
He declared to an interviewer, “I am confident that Muslims will be able to end the legend of the so-called superpower that is America.”
In its place, he built his own legend, modeling himself after the Prophet Muhammad, who in the seventh century led the Muslim people to rout the infidels, or nonbelievers, from North Africa and the Middle East. As the Koran had been revealed to Muhammad amid intense persecution, Bin Laden saw his own expulsions during the 1990s — from Saudi Arabia and then Sudan — as affirmation of himself as a chosen one.
In his vision, he would be the “emir,” or prince, in a restoration of the khalifa, a political empire extending from Afghanistan across the globe. “These countries belong to Islam,” he told the same interviewer in 1998, “not the rulers.”
Al Qaeda became the infrastructure for his dream. Under it, bin Laden created a web of businesses — some legitimate, some less so — to obtain and move the weapons, chemicals and money he needed. He created training camps for his foot soldiers, a media office to spread his word, even “shuras,” or councils, to approve his military plans and his fatwas.
Through the 90s, Al Qaeda evolved into a far-flung and loosely connected network of symbiotic relationships: bin Laden gave affiliated terrorist groups money, training and expertise; they gave him operational cover and a furthering of his cause. Perhaps the most important of those alliances was with the Taliban, who rose to power in Afghanistan largely on the strength of bin Laden’s aid, and in turn provided him refuge and a launching pad for holy war.
Long before Sept. 11, though the evidentiary trails were often thin, American officials considered Bin Laden at least in part responsible for the killing of American soldiers in Somalia and in Saudi Arabia; the first attack on the World Trade Center, in 1993; the bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia; and a foiled plot to hijack a dozen jets, crash a plane into C.I.A. headquarters and kill President Bill Clinton.
In 1996, the officials described Bin Laden as “one of the most significant financial sponsors of Islamic extremism in the world.” But he was thought at the time to be primarily a financier of terrorism, not someone capable of orchestrating international terrorist plots. Yet when the United States put out a list of the most wanted terrorists in 1997, neither Bin Laden nor Al Qaeda was on it.
Bin Laden, however, demanded to be noticed. In February 1998, he declared it the duty of every Muslim to “kill Americans wherever they are found.” After the bombings of two American Embassies in East Africa in August 1998, President Clinton declared bin Laden “Public Enemy No. 1.”
The C.I.A. spent much of the next three years hunting bin Laden. The goal was to capture him with recruited Afghan agents or to kill him with a precision-guided missile, according to the 2004 report of the 9/11 commission and the memoirs of George J. Tenet, director of Central Intelligence from July 1997 to July 2004.
The intelligence was never good enough to pull the trigger. By the summer of 2001, the C.I.A. was convinced that Al Qaeda was on the verge of a spectacular attack. But no one knew where or when it would come.
By accounts of people close to the family, Osama bin Muhammad bin Awad bin Laden was born in 1957, the seventh son and 17th child among 50 or more of his father’s children.
His father, Muhammad bin Awad bin Laden, had emigrated to what would soon become Saudi Arabia in 1931 from the family’s ancestral village in a conservative province of Southern Yemen. He found work in Jidda as a porter to the pilgrims on their way to the holy city of Mecca, and years later, when he would own the largest construction company in Saudi Arabia, he displayed his porter’s bag in the main reception room of his palace as a reminder of his humble origins.
According to family friends, the bin Laden family’s rise began with a risk — when the father offered to build a palace for King Saud in the 1950s for far less than the lowest bid. By the 1960s he had ingratiated himself so well with the Saudi royal family that King Faisal decreed that all construction projects be awarded to the Bin Laden group. When the Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem was set on fire by a deranged tourist in 1969, the senior bin Laden was chosen to rebuild it. Soon afterward, he was chosen to refurbish the mosques at Mecca and Medina as well. In interviews years later, Osama bin Laden would recall proudly that his father had sometimes prayed in all three holy places in one day.
His father was a devout Muslim who welcomed pilgrims and clergy into his home. He required all his children to work for the family company, meaning that Osama spent summers working on road projects. The elder bin Laden died in a plane crash when Osama was 10. The siblings each inherited millions — the precise amount was a matter of some debate — and led a life of near-royalty. Osama — the name means “young lion” — grew up playing with Saudi princes and had his own stable of horses by age 15.
But some people close to the family paint a portrait of bin Laden as a misfit. His mother, the last of his father’s four wives, was from Syria, the only one of the wives not from Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden senior had met her on a vacation, and Osama was their only child. Within the family, she was said to be known as “the slave” and Osama, “the slave child.”
Within the Saudi elite, it was rare to have both parents born outside the kingdom. In a profile of Osama bin Laden in The New Yorker, Mary Anne Weaver quoted a family friend who suggested that he had felt alienated in a culture that so obsessed over lineage, saying: “It must have been difficult for him, Osama was almost a double outsider. His paternal roots are in Yemen, and within the family, his mother was a double outsider as well — she was neither Saudi nor Yemeni but Syrian.”
According to one of his brothers, Osama was the only one of the bin Laden children who never traveled abroad to study. A biography of bin Laden, provided to the PBS television program “Frontline” by an unidentified family friend, asserted that bin Laden never traveled outside the Middle East.
That lack of exposure to Western culture would prove a crucial distinction; the other siblings went on to lead lives that would not be unfamiliar to most Americans. They took over the family business, estimated to be worth billion, distributing Snapple drinks, Volkswagen cars and Disney products across the Middle East. On Sept. 11, 2001, several bin Laden siblings were living in the United States.
Bin Laden had been educated — and, indeed, steeped, as many Saudi children are — in Wahhabism, the puritanical, ardently anti-Western strain of Islam. Even years later, he so despised the Saudi ruling family’s coziness with Western nations that he refused to refer to Saudi Arabia by its modern name, instead calling it “the Country of the Two Holy Places.”
Newspapers have quoted anonymous sources — particularly, an unidentified Lebanese barber — about a wild period of drinking and womanizing in bin Laden’s life. But by most accounts he was devout and quiet, marrying a relative, the first of his four wives, at age 17.
Soon afterward, he began earning a degree at King Abdul-Aziz University in Jidda. It was there that he shaped his future militancy. He became involved with the Muslim Brotherhood, a group of Islamic radicals who believed that much of the Muslim world, including the leaders of Saudi Arabia, lived as infidels, in violation of the true meaning of the Koran.
And he fell under the influence of two Islamic scholars: Muhammad Quttub and Abdullah Azzam, whose ideas would become the underpinnings for Al Qaeda. Mr. Azzam became a mentor to the young Bin Laden. Jihad was the responsibility of all Muslims, he taught, until the lands once held by Islam were reclaimed. His motto: “Jihad and the rifle alone: no negotiations, no conferences and no dialogue.”
The Middle East was becoming increasingly unsettled in 1979, when bin Laden was at the university. In Iran, Shiite Muslims mounted an Islamic revolution that overthrew the shah and began to make the United States a target. Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty. And as the year ended, Soviet troops occupied Afghanistan.
Bin Laden arrived in Pakistan on the border of Afghanistan within two weeks of the occupation. He said later that he had been asked to go by Saudi officials, who were eager to support the resistance movement. In his book “Taliban,” the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid said that the Saudis had originally hoped that a member of the royal family might serve as an inspirational leader in Afghanistan but that they settled on bin Laden as the next closest thing when no princes volunteered.
He traveled like a visiting diplomat more than a soldier, meeting with leaders and observing the refugees coming into Peshawar, Pakistan. As the family friend says, it “was an exploratory rather than an action trip.” He would return twice a year for the next few years, in between finishing his degree and lobbying family members to support the Afghan mujahedeen.
Bin Laden began traveling beyond the border into Afghanistan in 1982, bringing with him construction machinery and recruits. In 1984, he and Mr. Azzam began setting up guest houses in Peshawar, which served as the first stop for holy warriors on their way to Afghanistan. With the money they had raised in Saudi Arabia, they established the Office of Services, which branched out across the world to recruit young jihadists.
The men came to be known as the Afghan Arabs, though they came from all over the world, and their numbers were estimated as high as 20,000. By 1986, bin Laden had begun setting up training camps for them as well, and was paying roughly $25,000 a month to subsidize them.
To young would-be recruits across the Arab world, bin Laden’s was an attractive story: the rich young man who had become a warrior. His own descriptions of the battles he had seen, how he lost the fear of death and slept in the face of artillery fire, were brushstrokes of an almost divine figure.
But intelligence sources insist that bin Laden actually saw combat only once, in a weeklong barrage by the Soviets at Jaji, where the Arab Afghans had dug themselves into caves using Bin Laden’s construction equipment.
“Afghanistan, the jihad, was one terrific photo op for a lot of people,” Milton Bearden, the C.I.A. officer who described bin Laden as “the North Star,” said in an interview on “Frontline,” adding, “There’s a lot of fiction in there.”
Still, Jaji became a kind of touchstone in the Bin Laden myth. Stories sent back from the battle to Arab newspaper readers, and photographs of bin Laden in combat gear, burnished his image.
The flood of young men following him to Afghanistan prompted the founding of Al Qaeda. The genesis was essentially bureaucratic; Bin Laden wanted a way to track the men so he could tell their families what had happened to them. The documentation Al Qaeda provided became a primitive database of young jihadists.
Afghanistan also brought Bin Laden into contact with leaders of other militant Islamic groups, including Ayman al-Zawahri, the bespectacled doctor who would later appear at Bin Laden’s side in televised messages from the caves of Afghanistan. Ultimately Dr. Zawahri’s group, Egyptian Jihad, and others would merge with Al Qaeda, making it an umbrella for various terrorist groups.
Through the looking glass of Sept. 11, it seemed ironic that the Americans and Osama bin Laden had fought on the same side against the Soviets in Afghanistan — as if the Americans had somehow created the Bin Laden monster by providing arms and cash to the Arabs. The complex at Tora Bora where Al Qaeda members hid had been created with the help of the C.I.A. as a base for the Afghans fighting the Soviets.
Bin Laden himself described the fight in Afghanistan this way: “There I received volunteers who came from the Saudi kingdom and from all over the Arab and Muslim countries. I set up my first camp where these volunteers were trained by Pakistani and American officers. The weapons were supplied by the Americans, the money by the Saudis.”
In truth, however, the American contact was not directly with bin Laden; both worked through the middlemen of the Pakistani intelligence service.
In the revisionism of the bin Laden myth, his defenders would later say that he had not worked with the Americans but that he had only tolerated them as a means to his end. As proof, they insisted he had made anti-American statements as early as 1980.
Bin Laden would say in retrospect that he was always aware who his enemies were.
“For us, the idea was not to get involved more than necessary in the fight against the Russians, which was the business of the Americans, but rather to show our solidarity with our Islamist brothers,” he told a French journalist in 1995. “I discovered that it was not enough to fight in Afghanistan, but that we had to fight on all fronts against Communism or Western oppression. The urgent thing was Communism, but the next target was America.”
Afghanistan had infused the movement with new confidence.
“Most of what we benefited from was that the myth of the superpower was destroyed not only in my mind but also in the minds of all Muslims,” bin Laden later told an interviewer. “Slumber and fatigue vanished, and so was the terror which the U.S. would use in its media by attributing itself superpower status, or which the Soviet Union used by attributing itself as a superpower.”
He returned to Saudi Arabia, welcomed as a hero, and took up the family business. But Saudi royals grew increasingly wary of him as he became more outspoken against the government.
The breaking point — for Bin Laden and for the Saudis — came when Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990. Bin Laden volunteered to the Saudis that the men and equipment he had used in Afghanistan could defend the kingdom. He was “shocked,” a family friend said, to learn that the Americans — the enemy, in his mind — would defend it instead. To him, it was the height of American arrogance.
The United States, he told an interviewer later, “has started to look at itself as a master of this world and established what it calls the new world order.”
The Saudi government restricted him to Jidda, fearing that his outspokenness would offend the Americans. Bin Laden fled to Sudan, which was offering itself as a sort of haven for terrorists, and there he began setting up legitimate businesses that would help finance Al Qaeda. He also built his reserves, in 1992, paying for about 500 mujahedeen who had been expelled from Pakistan to come work for him.
It was during that time that it is believed he honed his resolve against the United States.
Within Al Qaeda, he argued that the organization should put aside its differences with Shiite terrorist groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon, the better to concentrate on the common enemy: the United States. He called for attacks against American forces in the Saudi peninsula and in the Horn of Africa.
On Dec. 29, 1992, a bomb exploded in a hotel in Aden, Yemen, where American troops had been staying while on their way to Somalia. The troops had already left, and the bomb killed two Austrian tourists. American intelligence officials later came to believe that that was the first bin Laden attack.
On Feb. 26, 1993, a bomb exploded in a truck driven into the underground garage at the World Trade Center, killing six people. Bin Laden later praised Ramzi Yousef, who was convicted of the bombing. In October of that year in Somalia, 18 American troops were killed — some of their bodies dragged through the streets — while on a peacekeeping mission; bin Laden was almost giddy about the deaths.
“After leaving Afghanistan, the Muslim fighters headed for Somalia and prepared for a long battle, thinking that the Americans were “like the Russians,” he told an interviewer.
“The youth were surprised at the low morale of the American soldiers and realized more than before that the American soldier was a paper tiger and after a few blows ran in defeat,” he said. “And America forgot all the hoopla and media propaganda about being the world leader and the leader of the new world order, and after a few blows, they forgot about this title and left, dragging their corpses and their shameful defeat.”
By 1994, bin Laden had established new training camps in Sudan, but he became a man without a country. The Saudi government froze his assets and revoked his citizenship. His family, which had become rich on its relations to the royals, denounced him publicly after he was caught smuggling weapons from Yemen.
This only seemed to make him more zealous. He sent an open letter to King Fahd, outlining the sins of the Saudi government and calling for a campaign of guerrilla attacks to drive Americans from Saudi Arabia. Three months later, in November 1995, a truck bomb exploded at a Saudi National Guard training center operated by the United States in Riyadh, killing seven people. That year, Belgian investigators found a kind of how-to manual for terrorists on a CD-ROM. The preface dedicated it to Bin Laden, the hero of the holy war.