When Osama bin Laden died, two weapons were within easy reach–an AK-47 assault rifle and a Russian-made nine-millimeter Makarov pistol.
But according to his wife, Amal, he was shot by Navy SEALS before he could reach either one.
A SEAL flashed coded news of bin Laden’s death to the Pentagon and the White House Situation Room, where President Barack Obama and the topmost officials of his administration anxiously followed events via a closed-circuit television.
“Geronimo E-KIA” read the message: “Geronimo [bin Laden] E-KIA [Enemy Killed in Action].”
The entire raid–including Intelligence sweeps of the compound–was over in less than 40 minutes. The SEALS moved quickly because they rightly feared that the Pakistani army would intervene to protect bin Laden.
Bin Laden had been living undisturbed at a large compound in Abbottabad for at least five years, just a short distance from Pakistan’s version of West Point.
Furthermore, the ISI–Pakistan’s Intelligence agency–had long been riddled with Al-Qaeda sympathizers, if not agents.
Within 24 hours of his death, Bin Laden’s body was transported to the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson for final rites and burial at sea.
U.S.S. Carl Vinson
President Obama and other U.S. officials feared that his grave site would become a memorial for members of Al-Qaeda and other Islamic terrorist organizations.
In the late evening of May 1, 2011, the White House surprised major television networks by informing them that the President had a major announcement to make.
At 11:35 P.M. Eastern Standard Time, the President appeared at a podium in the East Room of the White House.
“Good evening. Tonight I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States had 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….
“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 efforts to defeat Al-Qaeda.”
He added that “no Americans were harmed” in the raid and that the SEALS had taken care to avoid civilian casualties.
President Barack Obama announcing Osama bin Laden’s death
Like Ernesto “Che” Guevara, bin Laden had become a pale, largely irrelevant figure by the time of his death.
Knowing he was the world’s most wanted man, he imprisoned himself within a fortified compound–which he never left.
Afraid to use a phone or the Internet, he relayed orders–which were often ignored–via the cumbersome use of couriers. All trash generated by the inhabitants of the compound was burned within its walls.
Ironically, the lack of Internet and phone lines to the compound–and the burning of its trash–had led CIA officials to suspect that Osama bin Laden might be hiding there.
Pakistan was outraged. Officially an American ally, its territory had been secretly invaded by American military forces. Even more embarrassing: For years, Pakistani Intelligence had denied knowing bin Laden’s whereabouts.
Meanwhile, leaders of Islamic expansionist groups rallied to praise the dead bin Laden. Among these was his son, Omar, who denounced his father’s killing as a “criminal” act, and his burial at sea as demeaning to the Islamic faith.
In a letter published on the website of Islamic ideologue Abu Walid al-Masri, the younger bin Laden said the former Al-Qaeda leader’s children reserved the right to take legal action in the United States and internationally to “determine the true fate of our vanished father.”
Bin Laden’s death drew protests from hundreds of people in the city of Quetta, in southwestern Pakistan, who burned American flags and paid homage to the late terrorist leader.
On May 13, a pair of Taliban suicide bombers attacked paramilitary police recruits eagerly heading home for a break after months of training, killing 80 people. It was the first act of retaliation for the killing of bin Laden.
Americans reacted differently.
Almost as Obama was addressing the nation, cheering crowds gathered outside the White House and in New York City’s Times Square. Many of them shouted “USA! USA! USA!” and waved American flags in celebration.
Celebration also broke out at the site of the former World Trade Center, the primary victim of the September 11 attacks.
For the next two weeks, Americans continued to rejoice. Much of their feelings were best expressed in grisly humor on websites and late night comedy shows such as “Tonight” and “Late Night With David Letterman.”
Killing Osama bin Laden removed Al-Qaeda’s most important member. But its treasury of secret materials–such as computer hard-drives, DVDs, notebooks, diaries–proved even more important to American military and Intelligence officials.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, many Vietnam protesters marched carrying blown-up photos of Ernesto “Che” Guevara or tacked them to the walls of their dormitory rooms.
Most of these college students were members of the middle-class which Guevara had so despised.
Going on five years since the death of bin Laden, his poster has been noticeably absent from American college campuses–and everywhere else in the United States.
It remains to be seen whether, decades from now, Osama bin Laden will attain the iconic status of Ernesto “Che” Guevara.