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 last night.
"Justice has been done," the president said solemnly in a hastily arranged late-night televised address from 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.
A U.S. official said later that bin Laden had been buried at sea.
Administration officials had said the body would be handled according to Islamic practice and tradition. That practice calls for the body to be buried within 24 hours, the official said. Finding a country willing to accept the remains of the world’s most wanted terrorist would have been difficult, the official said. So the U.S. decided to bury him at sea.
The official did not say where that occurred.
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 Shaikh Mohammed, the operational mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, 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 Abbottabad.
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 Pakistani-Afghan 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.
Yesterday 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.
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, which 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. 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."
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.
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 officials assumed he would never be taken alive.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder was asked in early 2010 whether bin Laden would enjoy constitutional protections. "The reality is that we will be reading Miranda rights to the corpse of Osama bin Laden," he said. "He will never appear in an American courtroom."