WASHINGTON — Osama bin Laden, the glowering mastermind behind the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that killed thousands of Americans, was killed in an operation led by the United States, President Barack Obama said Sunday.
A small team of Americans killed bin Laden in a firefight Sunday at a compound in Pakistan, the president said in a dramatic, late-night statement at the White House.
A jubilant crowd gathered outside the White House as word spread of bin Laden’s death after a global manhunt that lasted nearly a decade.
“Justice has been done,” the president said.
Former President George W. Bush, who was in office on the day of the attacks, issued a written statement hailing bin Laden’s death as a momentous achievement. “The fight against terror goes on, but tonight America has sent an unmistakable message: No matter how long it takes, justice will be done,” he said.
U.S. and Pakistani officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information, said today that bin Laden was killed in a helicopter raid on a mansion in an area north of the Pakistani capital. One of the four helicopters crashed after it apparently was hit by fire from the ground, the Pakistani official said. No word was given on casualties.
Women and children were taken into custody during the raid, the Pakistani official said.
During his speech, Obama said none of the Americans involved was harmed.
Sunday’s announcement came just months before the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, orchestrated by bin Laden’s al-Qaida organization, that killed more than 3,000 people.
The attacks set off a chain of events that led the United States into wars in Afghanistan, and then Iraq, and America’s entire intelligence apparatus was overhauled to counter the threat of more terrorist attacks at home.
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.
“I certainly think it does not end the difficulties that we have with al-Qaida and other extremist organizations, but it certainly sends a strong message of our resolve that here 10 years after the horrible attacks on Sept. 11, the U.S. has tracked down the perpetrator of the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history,” said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke County.
A senior administration official said Obama gave the final order for U.S. officials to go after bin Laden on Friday. The official added that a small team found their quarry hiding in a large home in an affluent suburb of Islamabad. The raid occurred in the early morning hours Sunday.
“The United States is not and never will be at war with Islam,” Obama said. “Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader. He was a mass murderer of Muslims. His demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity.”
Obama said the Pakistani government had cooperated with the United States to make the operation possible.
Officials also said they believe the death puts al-Qaida on a path of decline that will be difficult to reverse.
Obama spoke with Bush and former President Bill Clinton on Sunday night to inform them of the developments.
The attacks a decade ago seemed to come out of nowhere, even though al-Qaida had previously damaged American targets overseas.
The terrorists hijacked planes, flew one of them into one of Manhattan’s Twin Towers — and, moments later, into the other one. Both buildings collapsed, trapping thousands inside and claiming the lives of firefighters and others who had rushed to help them.
A third plane slammed into the Pentagon, defacing the symbol of America’s military night. A fourth crashed in rural Pennsylvania after passengers overpowered the hijackers and forced it down — before it could hit its intended target in Washington.
Obama struck a less than boastful tone in his brief announcement, although he said the death of bin Laden was “the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al-Qaida.
“His death does not mark the end of our effort. There’s no doubt that al-Qaida will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must and we will remain vigilant,” he added.
Moments after he spoke, American officials cautioned that the events could lead to heightened threats against the United States.
Officials said the U.S. would ensure that bin Laden’s body was handled in accordance with Islamic tradition.
Staff writer Jorge Valencia and McClatchy-Tribune contributed to this report.