‘Justice has been done,’ Barack Obama tells world after al-Qaida leader is killed by special forces at Abbottabad compound near the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the 11 September 2001 attacks and the world’s most wanted man, has been killed in a US operation in north-
western Pakistan, Barack Obama has announced.
“Justice has been done,” the US president said in a statement that America has been waiting a decade to hear. US special forces launched a helicopter-borne assault on a closely guarded compound in Abbottabad, 30 miles north-east of Islamabad, on Sunday night, Obama and US officials said. Bin Laden resisted the attackers and was killed along with three other men in a firefight. The operation lasted 40 minutes. The dead included Bin Laden’s most trusted courier, who carried his messages to the outside world, and one of Bin Laden’s sons, according to reports.US forces “took custody” of Bin Laden’s body, Obama said. The US stressed Islamic practices would be respected. No Americans were killed. Pictures on the Pakistani TV station Express 24/7 showed flames rising from what is said to be the site of Bin Laden’s last stand: a building surrounded by trees and high walls.
There had been years of speculation that Bin Laden was hiding in the remote tribal areas of Pakistan or across the border in Afghanistan. But the town where he was eventually found lies a short distance from Islamabad, and is the home to the country’s main military training institution, the Pakistan Military Academy, at Kakul. It is several hundred miles from Waziristan, where the CIA drone strike campaign has been concentrated.
The fact that Bin Laden was killed in a mainstream urban area of Pakistan will
raise questions about how the six-foot-four fugitive, one of the most famous faces in the world, managed to survive in Pakistan for so long. Obama praised Pakistan for its “close counter-terrorism co-operation”. But officials said the US was the only country that knew in advance of the operation. An official with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence declined to comment other than to say that it was a “highly sensitive intelligence operation”.
The dramatic news closes one chapter in the global turmoil sparked by the 2001 attacks on America that killed 3,000 people. It triggered the war in Afghanistan, was used as a pretext for the invasion of Iraq and inflicted grievous damage on America’s moral authority through CIA torture of al-Qaida suspects and the detention of more than 700 people at GuantÃ¡namo Bay in Cuba. The death of the Saudi-born fugitive is likely to have a major impact on US foreign policy in south Asia, where almost 100,000 soldiers are fighting in Afghanistan and CIA drones have been pounding al-Qaida targets in north-west Pakistan.
“It’s a game changer,” said a senior western diplomat in Afghanistan. “But just what it will mean is not clear yet.” There may be political repercussions at home. Hundreds of people gathered outside the White House before midnight to celebrate, singing The Star Spangled Banner and chanting “USA, USA”. The success that eluded George Bush sharply increases Obama’s chances of re-election next year. As a candidate during the 2008 election campaign Obama repeatedly vowed: “We will kill Osama bin Laden.”
Despite the massive resources America devoted to the “war on terror”, as the Bush administration termed it, Bin Laden has remained at large for almost a decade. Obama said over two years ago that he had ordered the CIA to make the capture or killing of the Saudi-born fugitive its priority. Obama’s big break came last August when the CIA learned of a location where Bin Laden may have been hiding: a tree-lined, high-walled compound near Abbottabad, a town in the foothills of the Himalayas two hours’ drive north of Islamabad.
In February the CIA confirmed that Bin Laden was hiding in the compound, part-owned by Bin Laden’s courier. On closer examination it appeared to be a custom-built hideout.The compound was eight times bigger than neighbouring residences and the walls were between three and six metres high, topped with barbed wire. Access was highly restricted. Although valued at over US$1m the place had no phone or internet connection.
After numerous conferences with advisers Obama ordered the operation on Sunday night. US officials said two American helicopters were involved but one crashed and had to be blown up.
US military bases and embassies around the world have been put on high
alert amid fears that al-Qaida might retaliate. Bin Laden’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, remains at liberty. Obama, seeking to avoid an air of triumphalism, adopted a dignified, low-key tone during his announcement. “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-Qaida and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.” He said the death would not mean an end to the violence and predicted al-Qaida would continue to pursue attacks.
Bin Laden’s death sparked a frenzy of analysis of al-Qaida’s future. Experts have debated for many years how important the leader is to the organisation. Some argued that because Bin Laden promoted decentralised fighting, with individuals acting on their own initiative, his death would make little difference. Others insisted Bin Laden and the other top al-Qaida leaders such as al-Zawahiri were crucial to the continued existence of the group. Though Bin Laden was an icon for many, his message of violence had been increasingly rejected across the Islamic world. From around 2005 repeated polls indicated flagging support for him personally and for his organisation.
The events of this spring, which saw popular mobilisation across the Arab world under slogans of democracy and pluralism, have been seen by many analysts as evidence of al-Qaida’s increasing marginalisation and the failure to achieve its key strategic aim of radicalising large masses of population to lay the basis for the establishment of a new caliphate — a Muslim state governed only by Islamic law (Guardian.co.uk/IM).