By Bob Drogin, Ken Dilanian and David Cloud
Tribune Washington Bureau (MCT)
WASHINGTON– A U.S. special forces team killed Osama bin Laden at a compound inside Pakistan and recovered his body, bringing a close to the world’s highest-profile manhunt after a decade-long search, President Barack Obama announced to the world Sunday night.
“Justice has been done,” the president said solemnly in a hastily arranged late-night televised address from the East Room of the White House.
Bin Laden, he said, was “a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women and children,” and his death was “the most significant achievement to date” in the U.S. war against the al-Qaida terrorist network.
As described by the president and top administration officials who briefed reporters after the president’s speech, the successful effort to track down bin Laden centered on a trusted courier for al-Qaida, a man whom officials described as a protege of Khalid Shaiikh Mohammed, the operational mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.
U.S. intelligence officials had identified the courier four years ago, based on information from detainees in U.S. custody who said he was one of the few al-Qaida couriers trusted by bin Laden, a senior official said. Two years ago, they succeeded in identifying areas in Pakistan in which the courier operated. In August, they succeeded in finding the man’s residence, a walled compound in the Pakistani city of Abbotabad.
The compound had drawn the CIA’s interest because it was far larger than residences around it, had walls 12 to 18 feet high that were topped with barbed wire and few windows in the three-story building. The compound was valued at $1 million but had no telephone or Internet, and all trash was burned in the compound.
To the CIA, the compound appeared custom built to hide someone of major significance. After years of speculation that the world’s most-wanted man was hiding in the caves and rugged redoubts of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region, officials now came to believe that he was hiding there, less than 40 miles north of Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad.
Obama was briefed on the intelligence in August, but “it took many months to run this thread to ground,” he said.
“The bottom line of our collection and our analysis was that we had high confidence that the compound harbored a high value terrorist target … and strong probability the terrorist who was hiding there was Osama bin Laden,” the senior official said.
By early Friday morning, the official said, the evidence had become sufficiently certain that Obama, meeting with his top national security advisers in the White House Diplomatic Room, was able to give the go-ahead for a helicopter-borne team of special forces, including Navy SEALS, to attack the compound. It was the fifth formal meeting of his National Security Council on the progress of the hunt, officials said.
The president then left Washington to fly to Alabama to survey tornado damage. As he did so, his national security adviser, Tom Donilon, prepared the formal orders for the operation. On Saturday, White House officials gave a few key congressional leaders advance word that an unspecified national security development could happen over the weekend.
On Sunday, the special forces launched their raid, which lasted approximately 40 minutes, the senior official said. After what the president described as a firefight, they killed bin Laden. No Americans were injured in the raid, Obama said, although the senior official said that one of the helicopters used in the operation was damaged and had to be destroyed.
The courier, his brother, one of bin Laden’s sons, and a woman whom officials said was being used as a shield were also killed.
White House officials were told at 3:50 p.m. Eastern time that bin Laden had been tentatively identified as among the dead. DNA tests confirmed his identity later in the day, U.S. officials said.
Vice President Joe Biden and CIA Director Leon Panetta called members of Congress and leaders around the world earlier Sunday night to break the long-awaited news. Obama, himself, called House Speaker John Boehner, officials said. Shortly afterward, White House officials began alerting reporters to prepare for a rare, late-night broadcast statement by the president on an unspecified national security topic.
In addition to announcing the news, Obama praised the joint efforts of U.S. and Pakistani intelligence, and appealed to Muslims around the globe to support the U.S. action.
“Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader,” he said. “He was a mass murderer of Muslims.”
In Islamabad, a Pakistani intelligence official also confirmed bin Laden’s death and said that Pakistani forces were involved in the attack on the compound, an assertion that U.S. officials denied. Pakistan had not been informed of the intelligence in advance, U.S. officials said.
Analysts said bin Laden’s death is likely to accelerate the fracturing of militant groups loosely associated with al-Qaida, especially in the Middle East, that have taken their inspiration from bin Laden’s call for attacks on the U.S. and its allies for the more than a decade.
His killing deprives al-Qaida of its most charismatic and important leader. It leaves Ayman al Zawahri, an Egyptian physician and Islamist ideologue, as the putative leader of the group, whose ranks already have been badly depleted in recent years as a result of arrests and attacks by the U.S. and allied nations.
It was bin Laden’s fervent call for attacks on the U.S. _ which he referred to as the “far enemy” _ and al-Qaida’s ability to recruit and train operatives from its sanctuary in Afghanistan that led to some of the world’s deadliest terrorist attacks.
As the first word of bin Laden’s death leaked out, a jubilant and fast-growing crowd gathered outside the White House. The throng waved flags, chanted “USA! USA!,” and sang the “Star Spangled Banner.”
Elation over his death crossed hardened party lines.
Obama called former President George W. Bush, who issued a statement saying that he had “congratulated him and the men and women of our military and intelligence communities who devoted their lives to this mission.”
“Tonight America has sent an unmistakable message: No matter how long it takes, justice will be done,” Bush said.
Boehner called the development “great news” and congratulated U.S. forces.
“I also want to commend President Obama and his team, as well as President Bush, for all of their efforts to bring Osama bin Laden to justice,” Boehner said.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also commended “the president and his team” for the achievement. “I am overjoyed that we finally got the world’s top terrorist,” McCain said. “The world is a better and more just place now that Osama bin Laden is no longer in it.”
But there was a sense that the development would accrue to Obama’s political benefit in tense dealings with Republicans on other issues.
“It’s the mission accomplished moment that President Bush only fantasized about,” said Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y.
Inside the White House, aides said Obama’s mood was not celebratory when told of bin Laden’s death, but rather was “sober and serious.”
Aides walked through the corridors after the president’s announcement with looks of elation and relief. “We’re not going to gloat,” said one aide who was not authorized to speak publicly. Such was the level of secrecy surrounding the bin Laden mission that even veteran White House aides who work steps from the Oval Office were caught by surprise.
One aide was wearing a Washington Capitals hockey jersey, having come to the West Wing directly from a playoff game at Washington’s Verizon Center. Others who are normally never seen in the West Wing without a jacket and tie wore jeans and sneakers.
Asked what the day was like, one top national security adviser gave a one-word answer: “excruciating.”
The news came months before the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which were orchestrated by al-Qaida. More than 3,000 people were killed.
Al-Qaida also was blamed for the 1998 bombings of two U.S. 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.
Bin Laden first gained attention in the 1980s, when he drew on his family’s vast fortune, derived from the construction industry, to build hospitals, mosques and other facilities to help support Afghans then fighting Soviet troops in Afghanistan. The CIA considered him a financier, not a terrorist leader.
In 1991, bin Laden bitterly opposed the introduction of U.S. troops onto bases in Saudi Arabia during the run-up to the first Persian Gulf War, which ousted Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi troops from Kuwait.
His fiery sermons demonized the Saudi rulers, and infidel Westerners, and soon attracted like-minded extremists to al-Qaida.
The CIA had been on bin Laden’s trail since the mid-1990s, when it set up a separate intelligence unit to penetrate his organization and track his whereabouts.
Though the U.S. had made plans to hold and interrogate bin Laden if he was captured, most U.S. officials assumed that he would never be taken alive.
“You’re talking about a hypothetical that will never occur,” said Attorney General Eric H. Holder when asked in early 2010 if bin Laden would enjoy constitutional protections. “The reality is that we will be reading Miranda rights to the corpse of Osama bin Laden. He will never appear in an American courtroom.”