Osama bin Laden has been killed in a American operation in Pakistan, President Barack Obama announced from the White House on Sunday night, calling his death "the most significant achievement to date in our nation's effort to defeat al-Qaida."
In a statement delivered from the East Room, Obama said a team of U.S. personnel attacked a compound Sunday in Pakistan's Abbottabad Valley north of Islamabad, where bin Laden had been hiding since last summer. After a firefight, he said, the U.S. team killed bin Laden and "took custody of his body."
"We will be relentless in defense of our citizens and our friends and allies," a somber Obama said in his nine-minute statement. "We will be true to the values that make us who we are. And on nights like this one we can say to families who have lost loved ones to al-Qaida's terror: Justice has been done."
The killing of bin Laden — which set off cheers outside the White House gates and lit up the Internet with celebration — will provide a clear moment of victory for Obama at a moment of deep political turmoil overseas that is upending long-standing U.S. policy in much of the Muslim world, particularly the Arab Middle East.
"For over two decades, bin Laden has been al-Qaida's leader and symbol," the president said. "The death bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation's effort to defeat al-Qaida."
His death comes just two months before Obama is scheduled to begin bringing home some of the 100,000 U.S. troops serving in Afghanistan, a drawdown he promised when he widened the American involvement there at the end of 2009.
Since then, public support for the war and Obama's management of it has deteriorated steadily, in part because many Americans are uncertain of the long-term U.S. goal in the nearly-decade old conflict and how much progress international forces have made there over that time.
Whether bin Laden's death will have a tangible impact on al-Qaida's operational capability is unclear, given that, hunkered down in Pakistan's lawless border region for years, he has served more as the group's spiritual leader than military commander.
But it will almost certainly help lift support for U.S. involvement in the war, which Obama intends to wind down through 2014, and give the president a national security achievement to showcase during his re-election effort. Obama said he has first received intelligence of bin Laden's possible whereabouts last August, and gave the order Sunday for the operation that ended in his death.
"There is no doubt that al-Qaida will continue to pursue attacks against us," Obama said. "We must and we will remain vigilant at home and abroad. As we do, we must also reaffirm that the United States is not at war with Islam."
With the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks approaching later this year, bin Laden's assassination could benefit Obama domestically even more than the capture of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein helped propel former President George W. Bush to re-election in 2004.
Although former Bush officials were quick to declare bin Laden's killing a military victory that transcended party lines, it represented the culmination of Bush's promise, never fulfilled during his time in office, to capture the al-Qaida leader "dead or alive."
Obama announced bin Laden's death eight years after Bush declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq, a war spawned in large part by the Sept. 11 attacks.
On Sunday, Bush said he has congratulated Obama after hearing about the death of bin Laden. Bush said Obama called to inform him that U.S. forces had killed bin Laden. Bush said he also congratulated the men and women of our military and intelligence communities who devoted their lives to the mission.
That bin Laden was killed — rather than captured — was a victory itself for U.S. officials, who had dreaded the prospect of a long and complicated legal battle if the al-Qaida leader was taken into U.S. custody alive.
With the military brig at Guantanamo Bay no longer being used to house new detainees, and with the country paralyzed by the politics of where and how to try other alleged perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks, the logistics of trying bin Laden could have turned the capture into a spectacle. Now, while bin Laden may become a martyr to his supporters, it will be as an invisible hero.
"Every day he was alive was a symbolic victory," said Dan Byman, director of research at the Saban Center for Middle East policy at the Brookings institution and professional staff member on the 9/11 commission. "This is a man we have hunted with different degrees of intensity for more than ten years. ... His successful defiance was damaging to the United States."
Bin Laden, the 54-year-old son of a billionaire Saudi Arabian contractor, was wanted by the United States not only for the Sept. 11, 2001 hijackings but also for al-Qaida's bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, which killed 224 civilians and wounded more than 5,000 people. The U.S. government had offered a $25 million reward for information leading to his capture or death.
He was one of a handful of Islamic radicals who founded al-Qaida — which means "the base" in Arabic — in 1988 to coordinate the efforts of groups fighting the Soviet Army in Afghanistan. After the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, al-Qaida eventually shifted its effort to target another superpower — the United States.
In what appeared at the time as a quixotic campaign, al-Qaida embraced a terrorist agenda to pressure Washington to withdraw U.S. troops from Saudi Arabia and cease its support of its allies in the Arab world. In 1996, bin Laden and al-Qaida issued a written declaration of war against the United States.
There had been no definitive sightings reported of bin Laden since December 2001, when he outfoxed the U.S. military and its proxy Afghan forces at the battle of Tora Bora and slipped away, presumably over the border into Pakistan.
Bin Laden's voice was ostensibly last heard in public in January, when al-Qaida's propaganda arm released an audio statement from him warning France to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan.
Over the past decade, he mocked the inability of the United States and its allies to find him, issuing dozens of audio and video tapes broadcast on the Internet and on television networks such as al-Jazeera. Despite the frequency of his statements, U.S. intelligence officials were unable to follow the trail back to him.
Senior U.S. intelligence officials said that bin Laden had remained in control of al-Qaida's central command and that its leadership council still reported to him, even as his whereabouts were carefully concealed. But they said bin Laden weighed in on major management decisions less frequently than he did prior to 2001 due to security precautions that left him inaccessible for long periods of time.
Bin Laden's death marks the culmination of a decade-long CIA effort that officials said began to build momentum against al-Qaida because of two key factors: a major escalation in the campaign of armed Predator and Reaper drones, and an expanding network of informants that the CIA has assembled from stations inside Afghanistan along the Pakistan border.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report