UPDATE: Bin Laden's demise: Long pursuit, burst of gunfire

WASHINGTON — Osama bin Laden, the elusive terror mastermind killed by Navy SEALs in an intense firefight, was hunted down based on information first gleaned years ago from detainees at secret CIA prison sites in Eastern Europe, officials disclosed Monday. The U.S. said a DNA match proved his identity, and millions of Americans rejoiced.

After the gunfire, U.S. forces swept bin Laden’s fortified compound in Pakistan and left with a trove of hard drives, DVDs and other documents that officials said the CIA was already poring over. The hope: clues leading to his presumed successor, al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri.

“The world is safer. It is a better place because of the death of Osama bin Laden,” declared President Barack Obama, hours after U.S. forces killed the al-Qaida leader. They then ferried the body out for a quick burial at sea.

Bin Laden’s death after a decade on the run unloosed a national wave of euphoria mixed with remembrance for the thousands who died in the Sept. 11 2001, terror attacks. Crowds celebrated throughout the night outside the White House and at ground zero in Lower Manhattan where the Twin Towers once stood. Thousands of students at Penn State University and in other college towns spilled into the streets and set off firecrackers to mark the moment.

“For my family and I, it’s good, it’s desirable, it’s right,” said Mike Low of Batesville, Ark., whose daughter Sara was a flight attendant aboard the hijacked plane that was flown into the World Trade Center North Tower. “It certainly brings an ending to a major quest for all of us.”

Halfway around the world, a prominent al-Qaida commentator vowed revenge for bin Laden’s death. “Woe to his enemies. By God, we will avenge the killing of the Sheik of Islam,” he wrote under his online name Assad al-Jihad2. “Those who wish that jihad has ended or weakened, I tell them: Let us wait a little bit.”

U.S. officials conceded the risk of renewed attack. The terrorists “almost certainly will attempt to avenge” bin Laden’s death, CIA Director Leon Panetta wrote in a memo that congratulated the agency for its role in the operation. “Bin Laden is dead. Al-Qaida is not.”

There were questions, as well, about Pakistan’s role in bin Laden’s years in hiding. Both Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said cooperation from the Pakistani government had helped lead U.S. forces to the compound where he died.

But John Brennan, White House counter-terrorism adviser, told reporters it was inconceivable that the terrorist fugitive didn’t have some support in Pakistan, where his hideout had been custom built six years ago in a city with a heavy military presence. “I am not going to speculate about what type of support he might have had on an official basis,” he added.

Others were not as reticent.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Pakistani Army and intelligence agency “have a lot of questions to answer, given the location, the length of time and the apparent fact that this was actually — this facility was actually built for bin Laden, and its closeness to the central location of the Pakistani army.”

By their condemnations, bin Laden’s supporters confirmed his death in what U.S. officials said was an operation years in the making. Even so, officials were weighing the release of at least one photo taken of bin Laden’s body as part of what Brennan called an effort to make sure “nobody has any basis to try and deny” the death.

U.S. officials said the information that ultimately led to bin Laden’s capture originally came from detainees held in secret CIA prison sites in Eastern Europe. There, agency interrogators were told of an alias used by a courier whom bin Laden particularly trusted.

It took four long years to learn the man’s real name, then years more before investigators got a big break in the case, these officials said. Sometime in mid-2010, the man was overheard using a phone by intelligence officials, who then were able to locate his residence — the specially constructed $1 million compound with walls as high as 18 feet topped with barbed wire.

U.S. counterterrorism officials considered bombing the place, an option that was discarded by the White House as too risky, particularly if it turned out bin Laden was not there.

Instead, Obama signed an order on Friday for a team of SEALs to chopper onto the compound under the cover of darkness. In the ensuing 48 hours, the president toured tornado-damaged Alabama and delivered a joke-filled after-dinner speech to the White House Correspondents Association. When the operation got under way, though, he slid into his chair in the Situation Room in the White House, where Brennan said the president and his aides “were able to monitor in a real-time basis the progress of the operation” from beginning to end. Brennan strongly suggested a live video feed was available.

According to officials who declined to be identified by name, bin Laden was shot in the head during a firefight, and his body was identified to near 100 percent certainty through DNA testing. Photo analysis by the CIA, confirmation by a woman believed to be one of bin Laden’s wives, who was also at the compound, and matching physical features added confirmation, they said.

In addition to bin Laden, one of his sons, Khalid, was killed in the raid, as was the wife who shielded him, Brennan said. Also killed were two of bin Laden’s al-Qaida facilitators, including the one who was apparently listed as the owner of the residence, Brennan said.

Some individuals found at the compound were left behind when the SEALs withdrew and were turned over to Pakistani authorities who quickly took over control of the site, officials said.

Within 40 minutes, the operation was over, and the SEALs flew out — minus one helicopter, which had malfunctioned and had to be destroyed. Bin Laden’s remains were flown to the USS Carl Vinson, then lowered into the North Arabian Sea.

There was one last nerve-wracking moment back inside the White House, Brennan said, when the Pakistanis started scrambling their jets and there was brief concern that the U.S. force might be in danger.

The decision to bury the body at sea drew condemnation from some Muslim clerics despite Obama’s statement that the burial was handled in accordance with Islamic tradition.

“They can say they buried him at sea, but they cannot say they did it according to Islam,” said Mohammed al-Qubaisi, Dubai’s grand mufti. “Sea burials are permissible for Muslims in extraordinary circumstances. This is not one of them.”

As quickly as bin Laden’s supporters vowed to avenge his death, administration officials worked to undermine his reputation.

“Here is bin Laden, who has been calling for these (terror) attacks, living in this million-dollar-plus compound, living in an area that is far removed from the front, hiding behind women who were put in front of him as a shield. I think it really just speaks to just how false his narrative has been over the years,” said Brennan.

Bin Laden’s death came 15 years after he declared war on the United States. Al-Qaida was also blamed for the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa that killed 224 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.

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Associated Press writers Ben Feller, Matt Apuzzo, Erica Werner, Pauline Jelinek, Robert Burns, Matthew Lee, Eileen Sullivan and Kimberly Dozier contributed to this story.

Mississippi reaction to death of Osama bin Laden

JACKSON — Reactions from Mississippi officials about the death of Osama bin Laden:

.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, Republican, ranking Republican on the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee:

“I am enormously grateful to the American military and intelligence operations that brought Osama bin Laden to justice. I hope bin Laden’s demise will bring some measure of comfort to all Americans and to people around the world whose lives were changed forever by his brand of evil. He is no more. We must, however, continue to be vigilant against the acts of terrorism and violence espoused by that bin Laden and al-Qaida.”

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U.S. Rep. Alan Nunnelee, 1st District, Republican:

“A decade ago, thousands of innocent people were murdered as al-Qaida sought to destroy America and the freedom we cherish. We remember that somber day all too well, and last night marks another moment we will remember just as vividly. It is a great day for America as Osama bin Laden has finally been brought to justice and evil has fallen. As we celebrate this victory around the globe, let us not forget those victims of 9/11 and the countless other attacks of radical extremism. I commend the brave men and women of our armed forces and intelligence personnel for their tireless efforts to combat terrorism and their continued resolve to defeat our enemies.”

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U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, Republican, member of the Senate Armed Services Committee:

“The news that Osama bin Laden, a murderer and mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, was killed confirms America’s resolve to bring this terrorist to justice. Following that dark day in our history, we pledged to end bin Laden’s terror. Countless Mississippians have made significant sacrifices for this effort, and I am thankful for the fighting men and the intelligence professionals who played a part in this operation to accomplish that mission.

“Even though bin Laden is dead, the war on terror continues. Unlike traditional celebrations in our nation’s history that marked the end of hostilities, there is no peace treaty. This also serves as a reminder that the U.S. will not rest until those who would do us harm are stopped. The remaining members of al-Qaida and other violent Islamist extremist groups are intent on killing innocent men, women, and children around the world.

“I will continue to support the members of our Armed Forces and intelligence personnel as they work to accomplish their difficult task. Constant vigilance is critical to protecting Americans both at home and abroad.”

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U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, 2nd District, ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee:

“Nearly 10 years after the horrific attacks on 9/11 costing thousands of lives, the United States has killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaida and mastermind of the attacks. This is an enormous victory — both strategic and symbolic — for the United States, the world, and all who lost their lives on 9/11. This could not have been done without great, tireless effort from our military and intelligence community. Almost a decade of hard work and perseverance has paid off. I commend the president and his administration on a job well done. Although we will all feel safer in a world without bin Laden, the fight against terrorism worldwide continues and we will remain steadfast in this effort. No matter how long it takes, those who do us harm will be brought to justice.”

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U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo, 4th District, Republican, member of the House Armed Services Committee:

“Last night’s announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden is a major turning point in the war on terror. I hope the news will strengthen America’s resolve to bring an end to nearly 10 years of conflict in Afghanistan on our terms: total victory over terror and those who harbor terrorists. As we approach the 10-year mark since the horrible attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, I cannot help but to think of the victims and their families.

“I think back to the days shortly after the attacks when President Bush stood at Ground Zero on top of a pile of smoldering rubble. He grabbed a bull horn, wrapped his arm around a fireman’s shoulders and said words that uplifted a nation, ‘I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.’ It has been 10 long years, but bin Laden has finally heard the clear message that the United States does not relent in our defense of freedom and liberty.

“President Obama also deserves credit for his efforts to bring Osama bin Laden to justice. As we rejoice today, we must remain vigilant and not forget that our brave military forces continue to fight the war on terror. I commend the armed forces and intelligence community for the sacrifice they’ve made to ensure America remains safe and free.”

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Remarks by President Barack Obama on Osama bin Laden

THE PRESIDENT: Good evening. 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.

It was nearly 10 years ago that a bright September day was darkened by the worst attack on the American people in our history. The images of 9/11 are seared into our national memory — hijacked planes cutting through a cloudless September sky; the Twin Towers collapsing to the ground; black smoke billowing up from the Pentagon; the wreckage of Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where the actions of heroic citizens saved even more heartbreak and destruction.

And yet we know that the worst images are those that were unseen to the world. The empty seat at the dinner table. Children who were forced to grow up without their mother or their father. Parents who would never know the feeling of their child’s embrace. Nearly 3,000 citizens taken from us, leaving a gaping hole in our hearts.

On September 11, 2001, in our time of grief, the American people came together. We offered our neighbors a hand, and we offered the wounded our blood. We reaffirmed our ties to each other, and our love of community and country. On that day, no matter where we came from, what God we prayed to, or what race or ethnicity we were, we were united as one American family.

We were also united in our resolve to protect our nation and to bring those who committed this vicious attack to justice. We quickly learned that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by al Qaeda — an organization headed by Osama bin Laden, which had openly declared war on the United States and was committed to killing innocents in our country and around the globe. And so we went to war against al Qaeda to protect our citizens, our friends, and our allies.

Over the last 10 years, thanks to the tireless and heroic work of our military and our counterterrorism professionals, we’ve made great strides in that effort. We’ve disrupted terrorist attacks and strengthened our homeland defense. In Afghanistan, we removed the Taliban government, which had given bin Laden and al Qaeda safe haven and support. And around the globe, we worked with our friends and allies to capture or kill scores of al Qaeda terrorists, including several who were a part of the 9/11 plot.

Yet Osama bin Laden avoided capture and escaped across the Afghan border into Pakistan. Meanwhile, al Qaeda continued to operate from along that border and operate through its affiliates across the world.

And so shortly after taking office, I directed Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, to make the killing or capture of bin Laden the top priority of our war against al Qaeda, even as we continued our broader efforts to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat his network.

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.

Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.

For over two decades, bin Laden has been al Qaeda’s leader and symbol, and has continued to plot attacks against our country and our friends and allies. The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda.

Yet his death does not mark the end of our effort. There’s no doubt that al Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must – and we will – remain vigilant at home and abroad.

As we do, we must also reaffirm that the United States is not –- and never will be -– at war with Islam. I’ve made clear, just as President Bush did shortly after 9/11, that our war is not against Islam. Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims. Indeed, al Qaeda has slaughtered scores of Muslims in many countries, including our own. So his demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity.

Over the years, I’ve repeatedly made clear that we would take action within Pakistan if we knew where bin Laden was. That is what we’ve done. But it’s important to note that our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden and the compound where he was hiding. Indeed, bin Laden had declared war against Pakistan as well, and ordered attacks against the Pakistani people.

Tonight, I called President Zardari, and my team has also spoken with their Pakistani counterparts. They agree that this is a good and historic day for both of our nations. And going forward, it is essential that Pakistan continue to join us in the fight against al Qaeda and its affiliates.

The American people did not choose this fight. It came to our shores, and started with the senseless slaughter of our citizens. After nearly 10 years of service, struggle, and sacrifice, we know well the costs of war. These efforts weigh on me every time I, as Commander-in-Chief, have to sign a letter to a family that has lost a loved one, or look into the eyes of a service member who’s been gravely wounded.

So Americans understand the costs of war. Yet as a country, we will never tolerate our security being threatened, nor stand idly by when our people have been killed. We will be relentless in defense of our citizens and our friends and allies. We will be true to the values that make us who we are. And on nights like this one, we can say to those families who have lost loved ones to al Qaeda’s terror: Justice has been done.

Tonight, we give thanks to the countless intelligence and counterterrorism professionals who’ve worked tirelessly to achieve this outcome. The American people do not see their work, nor know their names. But tonight, they feel the satisfaction of their work and the result of their pursuit of justice.

We give thanks for the men who carried out this operation, for they exemplify the professionalism, patriotism, and unparalleled courage of those who serve our country. And they are part of a generation that has borne the heaviest share of the burden since that September day.

Finally, let me say to the families who lost loved ones on 9/11 that we have never forgotten your loss, nor wavered in our commitment to see that we do whatever it takes to prevent another attack on our shores.

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.

The cause of securing our country is not complete. But tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to. That is the story of our history, whether it’s the pursuit of prosperity for our people, or the struggle for equality for all our citizens; our commitment to stand up for our values abroad, and our sacrifices to make the world a safer place.

Let us remember that we can do these things not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Thank you. May God bless you. And may God bless the United States of America.

David Espo and Kimbery Dozier/The Associated Press