Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the attacks of September 11 and the man who ever since has remained an elusive, shadowy presence at the centre of perhaps the world’s greatest manhunt, has been killed by special forces troops at a compound two hours outside of Islamabad.
The al-Qa’ida leader was killed on Sunday during an operation north of the Pakistani capital led by helicopter-borne US special forces. A Pakistan government official told The Independent that it was a joint operation, led by the US but with crucial Pakistani involvement.
The killing of Bin Laden - his death apparently coming after the CIA had for months tracked two couriers who worked for the al-Qa’ida leader over many years – immediately raises as many issues as it does provide answers. Where had he been hiding all this time; who within Pakistan knew about his presence; what now for the relationship between US and the country it insists is a vital regional ally?
As President Barack Obama delivered a televised address, revealing the news, crowds of Americans gathered to cheer and celebrate, not only outside of the White House but at Ground Zero in New York, the place that will forever be associated with Bin Laden and his network. “Justice has been done,” the president said. “His death does not mark the end of our effort. There’s no doubt that al-Qa’ida will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must and we will remain vigilant.”
Officials briefing in Washington told the Associated Press that a small team of special forces troops killed Bin Laden in a firefight on Sunday in the town of Abbottabad and took custody of his remains. American officials were quick to stress they were being handled in accordance with Islamic tradition. They are also performing DNA tests on his remains to confirm his identity.
The remarkable end to the hunt for the world’s most elusive person – an operation that for many years appeared to have been sidelined - came just months before the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centres and the Pentagon, orchestrated Bin Laden’s al-Qa’ida organisation, that killed more than 3,000 people.
Former President George W Bush, who was in office on the day of the attacks and who later vowed to track down Bin Laden and catch him “Dead or alive”, issued a written statement hailing his 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. For many years, Bin Laden had taunted Bush by his ability to evade capture.
President Obama said he ordered the operation after receiving undisclosed intelligence information. Senior administration officials said Bin Laden was found inside a custom-built compound with two security gates. They said it appeared to have been constructed to harbour one high-value target and that for undisclosed reasons, officials became convinced that it was that of Bin Laden. There was no word on the whereabouts of his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri.
The fact that Bin Laden’s was found in Abbottabad, home of a major Pakistani military academy, is hugely intriguing. It is a good way from the wild tribal areas of North and South Waziristan where it was assumed for many years that Bin Laden was hiding. It is not one of the areas that have been at the centre of controversial drone attacks, which have been stepped up under the presidency of Mr Obama. Many questions will now be as to how he could have remained there undetected for so long.
A senior administration official told the Associated Press that the president gave the final order for US officials to go after Bin Laden on Friday. The raid occurred in the early morning hours Sunday.
Officials in Washington that, based statements given by US detainees, intelligence officials have known for years that Bin Laden trusted one al-Qa’ida courier in particular and they believed he might be living with him in hiding. In November, intelligence officials found out where he was living, a huge fortified compound. It was surrounded by walls as high as 18 feet topped with barbed wire. There were two security gates and no phone or Internet running into the house.
Intelligence officials believed the $1m home was custom-built to house a major terrorist. CIA experts analysed whether it could be anyone else, but time and again, they decided it was almost certainly bin Laden. Three adult males were also killed in Sunday’s raid, including one of Bin Laden’s sons, whom officials did not name. One of bin Laden’s sons, Hamza, is a senior member of al-Qa’ida.
Mr Obama spoke with Bush and former President Bill Clinton on Sunday night to inform them of the developments. Under Bin Laden, al-Qa’ida was also blamed for the 1998 bombings of two US 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.
On September 11 2001, al-Qa’ida operatives hijacked planes, flew one of them into one of New York City’s Twin Towers and then in to the one. Both buildings collapsed, trapping thousands inside. A third plane slammed into the Pentagon, badly damaging the symbol of America’s military might. A fourth crashed near the town of Shanksville in rural Pennsylvania after passengers overpowered the hijackers and forced it down. It was believed the hijackers planned to fly that plane into the White House or else Capitol Hill.