President Obama announced to a stunned but elated American television audience that Osama bin Laden, the man responsible for a number of attacks against American and Western interests, including the September 11, 2001 attacks, has been killed deep inside Pakistan. Shortly after 11:30 p.m. on Sunday, President Obama announced from the East Room of the White House, “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 Qaeda, and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.”
Several dozen Navy SEALS in four Chinook and Blackhawk helicopters ascended on a heavily fortified compound in Abbottabad, near Islamabad, Pakistan. In the spate of 40 minutes a firefight ensued that killed Osama bin Laden, a known Al Qaeda courier and one of bin Laden’s adult sons. No American was killed or injured in the raid and a helicopter that experienced mechanical problems was destroyed. Following Islamic tradition and practice that a body must be buried within 24 hours, bin Laden has been buried at sea, according to U.S. officials.
The Al Qaeda courier and the fortified compound provided the U.S. intelligence community the ability to pinpoint the Al Qaeda leader’s location. The compound was significantly larger than surrounding buildings and its value was estimated to be around $1 million USD. The U.S. intelligence community had been searching for the courier for several years and his travels to visit bin Laden gave important clues as to bin Laden’s whereabouts. Additionally, in order to give bin Laden a false sense of security, the administration had reduced drone missile attacks in the area to encourage bin Laden to stay longer in the area and not relocate to another safe house.
The killing of bin Laden could prove to be the defining moment in the nearly decade long war on terrorism. However, it remains to be seen whether bin Laden’s supporters will turn him into a martyr and whether his death affords the Obama administration enough political cover to start bringing home a limited number of troops from Afghanistan. The fact that bin Laden was killed rather than captured affords the administration and its Justice Department the ability to avoid the question of what they would have done with bin Laden once in custody.
Following objections from both Democrats and Republicans over the initial plans to try some September 11 suspects in civilian courts versus military courts the Justice Department eventually abandoned these plans and will rely on military tribunals. According to the White House, President Obama had convened a number of national security meetings before final approval was given for the mission by the president himself. Before leaving to survey tornado damage in Alabama, the president made the final decision to commence with the operation.
At the time of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 bin Laden evaded capture in the mountains of Tora Bora. Following other missed opportunities, bin Laden was believed to be hiding in Pakistan at which point the American intelligence community had lost his trail until further evidence to his whereabouts came to light last August. According to the president, “Then, last August, after years of painstaking work by our intelligence community, I was briefed on a possible lead to bin Laden. It was far from certain, and it took many months to run this thread to ground. I met repeatedly with my national security team as we developed more information about the possibility that we had located bin Laden hiding within a compound deep inside of Pakistan. And finally, last week, I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action, and authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice.”
The killing of bin Laden also affords the administration a rare foreign policy victory. It was during a presidential debate in 2008 that then-Senator Obama declared, “We will kill bin Laden. We will crush al Qaeda. That has to be our biggest national security priority.” With the outcome in Libya still undecided, American troops still stationed in Iraq and the Taliban’s spring offensive expected to be especially brutal for American troops, the administration needed this victory to give it breathing room in Congress.
Reminiscent of Obama’s speech in Tucson, following the Gabby Gifford’s shooting, the president used Sunday’s national television address from the White House to call for unity and importantly denied his supporters the opportunity to gloat. “And tonight, let us think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11. I know that it has, at times, frayed. Yet today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people,” Obama said.
After speaking with Obama by telephone, former President Bush said in a statement, “I congratulated him [Obama] and the men and women of our military and intelligence communities who devoted their lives to this mission. They have our everlasting gratitude. This momentous achievement marks a victory for America, for people who seek peace around the world, and for all those who lost loved ones on September 11, 2001.” Despite the fact that bin Laden’s death was well received with cheers in Washington, DC and in New York City as well as being greeted with sighs of relief in many European capitals, his death at the hands of American troops will surely exacerbate tensions with Pakistan.
Despite repeated calls by Obama that he would authorize unilateral operations if there was evidence that bin Laden was residing in Pakistan, the fact that Pakistani officials were not told of the operation before it took place could heighten tensions between the United States and Pakistan. Increased drone missile attacks along the Pakistan/Afghan border have already angered many local residents.
However, bin Laden’s location at a compound deep within Pakistan and not along the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan has raised significant questions about how well the Pakistani government has been cooperating with Al Qaeda elements to keep his location a secret.
Bin Laden’s death occurs at a precarious time for Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda’s anti-Western messaging has largely been rejected by many Arabs seeking wholesale change in the Middle East. Many Arab youths have rejected the notion that Osama bin Laden’s narrative was the only feasible path forward. According to the Brookings Institution’s Martin S. Indyk, “It comes at a time when Al Qaeda’s narrative is already very much in doubt in the Arab world…Its narrative was that violence was the way to redeem Arab honor and dignity. But Osama bin Laden and his violence didn’t succeed in unseating anybody.”
However diminished bin Laden’s role as leader of Al Qaeda has become due to his many years of hiding to avoid being killed or captured, his death brings into sharp focus the mission of the Obama administration to kill or capture the senior leadership of Al Qaeda. But despite the significance of killing bin Laden, the United States and its allies will have to still contend with Al Qaeda factions in Yemen, North Africa and the Far East. The war on terrorism is far from over but the killing of Osama bin Laden affords the United States a significant victory.