WASHINGTON – After nearly a decade of anger and fear, America rejoiced Monday at the demise of Osama bin Laden, the terror mastermind behind the horrific 9/11 attacks. Navy SEALs who killed the world’s most-wanted terrorist seized a trove of al-Qaida documents to pore over, and President Barack Obama laid plans to visit New York’s ground zero.
Bin Laden, killed in an intense firefight in a daring raid at his fortified hideout in Pakistan, was hunted down based on information first gleaned years ago from detainees at secret CIA prison sites in Eastern Europe, officials disclosed.
His body was quickly taken away for burial at sea, but not before a DNA match was done to prove his identity. A U.S. official said there also were photos showing bin Laden with the fatal wound above his left eye, a gunshot that tore away part of his skull. The photos were not immediately released.
“The world is safer. It is a better place because of the death of Osama bin Laden,” Obama declared, hours after U.S. forces killed the al-Qaida leader in the middle-of-the-night raid on his compound in Abbottabad. Obama was expected to visit New York, the site of al-Qaida’s attack on the World Trade Center, and meet with the families of those killed, an administration official said.
The CIA already was poring over confiscated hard drives, DVDs and other documents looking for inside information on al-Qaida, including clues that might lead to his presumed successor, Ayman al-Zawahri.
Bin Laden’s death after a decade on the run unloosed a national wave of euphoria mixed with remembrance for the thousands who died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Crowds celebrated throughout the night outside the White House and at ground zero in Lower Manhattan where the Twin Towers once stood. Thousands of students at Penn State University and in other college towns spilled into the streets and set off firecrackers to mark the moment.
Obama reaped accolades from world leaders he’d kept in the dark about the operation as well as plaudits from political opponents at home. Republican and Democratic congressional leaders alike gave him a standing ovation at an evening meeting that was planned before the assault but became a celebration of its success.
“Last night’s news unified our country” much as the terrorist attacks of 2001 did, Republican House Speaker John Boehner said earlier in the day. Obama later appealed for that unity to take root as the U.S. presses the fight against a terrorist network that is still lethal – and vowing vengeance.
The SEALs dropped ropes from helicopters at the compound, killed bin Laden aides and made their way to the main building where U.S. officials say the terror leader was slain in a gunfight. Within 40 minutes the Americans were gone, taking bin Laden’s body to the USS Carl Vinson, where he was slipped into the sea.
“For my family and I, it’s good, it’s desirable, it’s right,” said Mike Low of Batesville, Ark., whose daughter Sara was a flight attendant aboard the hijacked plane that was flown into the World Trade Center North Tower. “It certainly brings an ending to a major quest for all of us.”
Halfway around the world, a prominent al-Qaida commentator vowed revenge for bin Laden’s death. “Woe to his enemies. By God, we will avenge the killing of the Sheik of Islam,” he wrote under his online name Assad al-Jihad2. “Those who wish that jihad has ended or weakened, I tell them: Let us wait a little bit.”
U.S. officials conceded the risk of a renewed attack. The terrorists “almost certainly will attempt to avenge” bin Laden’s death, CIA Director Leon Panetta wrote in a memo that congratulated the agency for its role in the operation. “Bin Laden is dead. Al-Qaida is not.”
Within a few hours, the Homeland Security Department warned that bin Laden’s death was likely to provide motivation for attacks from “homegrown violent extremists” seeking revenge.”
FBI spokesman Paul Bresson said, “While there are no specific, bin Laden-related threats at this time, every logical and prudent step is being taken to mitigate any developing threats.” There were questions, as well, about Pakistan’s role in bin Laden’s years in hiding. Both Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said cooperation from the Pakistani government had helped lead U.S. forces to the compound where he died.
But John Brennan, White House counterterrorism adviser, told reporters it was inconceivable that the terrorist fugitive didn’t have some support in Pakistan, where his hideout had been custom built six years ago.
“I am not going to speculate about what type of support he might have had on an official basis,” he added.
Others were not as reticent.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Pakistani Army and intelligence agency “have a lot of questions to answer, given the location, the length of time and the apparent fact that this was actually – this facility was actually built for bin Laden, and its closeness to the central location of the Pakistani army.”
U.S. officials said the information that ultimately led to bin Laden’s capture originally came from detainees held in secret CIA prison sites in Eastern Europe. There, agency interrogators were told of an alias used by a courier whom bin Laden particularly trusted.
It took four long years to learn he was a Kuwaiti-born man named Sheikh Abu Ahmed, then years more before investigators got a big break in the case, these officials said. Sometime in mid-2010, Ahmed was overheard using a phone by intelligence officials, who then were able to locate his residence – a specially constructed $1 million compound with walls as high as 18 feet topped with barbed wire.
U.S. counterterrorism officials considered bombing the place, an option that was discarded by the White House as too risky, particularly if it turned out bin Laden was not there.
Instead, Obama signed an order on Friday for a team of SEALs to chopper onto the compound under the cover of darkness. In the ensuing 48 hours, the president toured tornado-damaged Alabama and delivered a joke-filled after-dinner speech to the White House Correspondents’ Association. When the operation got under way, though, he slid into his chair in the Situation Room in the White House, where Brennan said the president and his aides “were able to monitor in a real-time basis the progress of the operation” from beginning to end.
Brennan strongly suggested a live video feed was available – SEALs customarily have video cameras attached to their helmets – and the White House released a photo showing the commander in chief, Vice President Joe Biden and top aides staring intently at something outside the picture. The White House did not say what they were looking at.
According to officials who declined to be identified by name, bin Laden was shot in the head during a firefight, and his body was identified to near 100 percent certainty through DNA testing. Photo analysis by the CIA, confirmation by a woman believed to be one of bin Laden’s wives, who was also at the compound, and matching physical features added confirmation, they said.
The only information about what occurred inside the compound came from American officials.
In addition to bin Laden, one of his sons, Khalid, was killed in the raid, Brennan said. Bin Laden’s wife was shot in the calf but survived, a U.S. official said. Also killed were Ahmed and his brother, both earlier identified as two of bin Laden’s al-Qaida facilitators.
Twenty-three children and nine women were in the compound at the time of the assault and were turned over to Pakistani authorities, said a U.S. official.