Bin Laden: How They Got Him — And What Happens to al Qaeda Now

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Osama bin Laden, 1957-2011

The reports started coming in more than a month ago: Osama bin Laden was on the move, and the U.S. had its eye on him. Stressed by the turmoil sweeping his part of the world – tumult he had no roll in sparking – bin Laden was trying to bolster al Qaeda’s credibility as young people Tweeted and Facebooked about a future that didn’t involve him, or al Qaeda.

Surprisingly, he didn’t die a standoff death from an unseen Predator drone, as most would have expected. Instead, a team of U.S. special-operations forces helicoptered into a high-walled compound deep inside Pakistan and killed him and four others in a firefight, including a son of bin Laden and a woman allegedly being used as a human shield.

Dispatching a joint Navy SEAL-CIA team of four choppers into Pakistan makes two things crystal clear: the U.S. believed its intelligence was solid, and it wanted proof he was dead; they wanted his corpse. One of the choppers involved in the raid malfunction and was destroyed; no U.S. personnel were injured in the operation, which lasted about 40 minutes.

The whereabouts and fate of Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s deputy, remain unknown. Whether bin Laden’s death sparks a spasm of violence – or marks the end of al Qaeda as a potent terror force – also remains unclear. Al-Zawahri, an Egyptian-born doctor, recently encouraged Muslims to fight the U.S. and its allies in Libya. “I want to direct the attention of our Muslim brothers in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and the rest of the Muslim countries, that if the Americans and the NATO forces enter Libya then their neighbors in Egypt and Tunisia and Algeria and the rest of the Muslim countries should rise up and fight both the mercenaries of Gaddafi and the rest of NATO,” Zawahri said, according to the SITE Intelligence Group. (More on See photos of bin Laden’s family album)

There was a quiet giddiness among U.S. military personnel late Sunday as word began to spread that Osama bin Laden had been killed. This is scant consolation to the survivors of the 3,000 killed that late summer day, but it represents sweet vindication nonetheless.

U.S. intelligence had learned that bin Laden might be holed up in a high-walled compound in Abbottabad, some 50 miles northeast of Islamabad, last August. Basically a suburb of the capital, the well-to-do city is home to many retired Pakistani military officers as well as Pakistan’s military academy. That may explain the extraordinary secrecy surround the operation: few top officials in the U.S. government knew such an operation was afoot, and news of it wasn’t shared with any allies, including Pakistan. How bin Laden was able to reside in a posh compound for months, if not years, surrounded by former Pakistani military officers remains unknown.

A U.S. official said a key clue to tracking bin Laden down was learning the name of a trusted courier, which led U.S. intelligence to the compound raided on Sunday. After noting the compound had few electronic links to the outside world – and incinerated its trash, rather than putting it out to be picked up – Obama gave the go-ahead on Friday for a helicopter raid into the compound, after rejecting the idea of a bombing attack. Bin Laden “did resist the assault force,” the U.S. official said, but was shot in the head and killed “as our operators came into the compound.”

It would be churlish, but accurate, to point out that he had eluded a worldwide manhunt for close to a decade after eluding a tightening, but fraying, U.S.-Afghan net at Tora Bora on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in December 2001. As hundreds crowded around the White House to celebrate bin Laden’s demise, it’s also relevant to note that bin Laden’s impact peaked on 9/11, and has dwindled ever since. Nonetheless, the symbolic impact of his death cannot be under-estimated, either in the war on terror or on Obama’s re-election prospects. (More on See the top 10 defining moments of the post 9/11 era)

The Pakistani firefight only codified what a younger generation, where women are playing a major role, has made clear: OBL was a force in a region ruled by autocrats in the 20th Century; he had much less resonance among the younger cohort now taking over.

Pentagon officials have said that al Qaeda has played only a minor role in Afghanistan in recent years. The Americans and their allies there are primarily fighting the Taliban, an indigenous force of Pashtuns whose homeland straddles the Af-Pak frontier.

Bin Laden’s death only excises a tumor. The cancer that he represented remains in wide swaths of the world where local populations have been forced into have-not-dom while their leaders have lived well. Whether his demise marks the end of a particularly virulent strain, or will trigger a violent recurrence, remains unknown.

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