It took close to ten years, hundreds of billions of dollars, a total revamping of the American intelligence community and two wars but the United States have finally killed Osama bin Laden, the most notorious terrorist in the world and the mastermind of the biggest terrorist attack in modern history.
Late Sunday evening, President Barack Obama addressed the nation live from the East Room at the White House to announce bin Laden’s killing. “The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s efforts to defeat Al Qaeda,” he said, adding that “we must and we will remain vigilant” in the face of future terrorist plots against the American homeland.
Immediately following the president’s announcement, scores of happy Americans rushed to the gates of the White House, chanting “USA! USA!” while New Yorkers converged on Ground Zero to celebrate the death of a man who killed their friends and family members.
The mood is truly euphoric, for many Americans often questioned whether the United States would ever find bin Laden, let alone kill or capture him. Indeed, bin Laden became a household name in American homes, not only for his central role in the 9/11 operation but also for his maneuverability and his propensity for avoiding justice.
Following the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and subsequent overthrow of the Taliban government, bin Laden managed to escape persistent bombing raids on his Tora Bora headquarters. Since that escape, he ventured into Pakistan and attained a ghostlike figure.
That ghostlike figure is now a ghost, literally. While the details are leaking out, it appears that American intelligence first discovered bin Laden’s large compound last August, culminating in Obama’s order last week for a Navy Seals Special Forces team to enter Pakistan and take him out.
There are more than a few interesting questions about the operation, as well as its potential fallout.
- The Pakistani military and Pakistan’s intelligence service were not involved in the kill or capture mission. US Special Forces and CIA personnel executed the operation unilaterally without any direct assistance from the Pakistani government. Was Washington keeping the mission secret, afraid that disclosure would leak and tip off bin Laden? If so, what does that say about the US-Pakistan strategic relationship, which has soured to its lowest point in years over counterterrorism?
- Contrary to popular wisdom, bin Laden was not hiding in a cave along the rugged Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. Rather, he was residing in a large mansion in Abbottabad, a city of 100,000 outside of Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. The fact that he was deep inside Pakistani territory raises questions as to whether Pakistani intelligence knew about his location.
- What will Al Qaeda’s response be? The terrorist organization has been famous for retaliating in short order whenever the United States or its allies killed one of their leaders or disrupted their plans. Precautions are already under way, with the State Department issuing a travel alert to all American citizens and police departments across the country beefing up their presence. Police in New York City will be on a heightened state of alert over the next couple of days and weeks.
Expect a statement from Al Qaeda soon, and an Al Qaeda orchestrated attack where security is especially weak, either in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Yemen.
Bin Laden’s death may not degrade Al Qaeda’s operational capabilities all that much since he has played more of a symbolic and spiritual role for the organization over the past couple of years. But his demise will certainly comfort families who lost loved ones on 9/11. No one can bring back the victims from that horrible day but at least now there is a small amount of closure.