WASHINGTON—President Barack Obama announced late Sunday that Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaida responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks, was killed in a firefight during an operation that he ordered Sunday inside Pakistan, ending a 10-year manhunt for the world’s most wanted terrorist. U.S. officials were in possession of his body, he said.
“On nights like this one,” the president said, “we can say that justice has been done.”
The fate of Ayman al-Zawahri, the al-Qaida second in command, was unclear.
The death of bin Laden is a defining moment in the U.S.-led war on terrorism. What remains to be seen is whether the death of the leader of al-Qaida galvanizes his followers by turning him into a martyr, or whether it serves as a turning of the page in the war in Afghanistan and gives further impetus to the Obama administration to bring U.S. troops home.
Obama said that on Sunday, a small team of U.S. operatives launched a “targeted assault” on a compound in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad where months of intelligence work had established that bin Laden was living. Bin Laden was killed after a firefight, and the troops took custody of his body. The killing ended a 10-year manhunt in which bin Laden repeatedly eluded his pursuers, deeply frustrating the Bush administration and counterterrorism officials.
The news of the death of the leader of al-Qaida electrified the world — crowds gathered outside the White House, cheering, as they waited for the president to confirm the news.
Bin Laden was able to elude capture by hiding out in the mountains of Afghanistan and elsewhere. He initially escaped from Tora Bora in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan after a U.S. invasion routed the Taliban, his protectors. Since then, he issued some 30 messages, in audio, video or electronic text, sometimes taunting, sometimes gloating, sometimes urging new terrorist attacks. Intelligence officials believe the messages were passed from hand to hand repeatedly to obscure any trail back to his hiding place.
Even while in hiding, bin Laden remained a potent symbolic figure. And U.S. officials believe, based on intercepted communications from second- and third-tier al-Qaida operatives, that he also still helped shape al-Qaida’s strategy.