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Last updated: May 3, 2011 1:46 am
The killing of Osama bin Laden, following the most intensive manhunt in history, triggered jubilation among Americans, who had increasingly despaired of ever catching the man blamed for the most deadly attack on the US since the second world war.
The storming of bin Laden’s compound by US special forces in Abbottabad, 50km from the Pakistan capital, has deep ramifications for the US’s role in the region and raises new questions about Islamabad’s commitment to combating terrorism. It may also strengthen calls for accelerating the wind-down of operations in Afghanistan.
US officials said bin Laden had been shot dead in the night raid and his body given a sea burial in the Arabian Sea. John Brennan, US homeland security adviser, said bin Laden had been buried within 24 hours in accordance with Islamic tradition. He declined to comment on reports that Saudi Arabia had refused to take the remains of the al-Qaeda leader.
Barack Obama, US president, said the world was a better and safer place because of bin Laden’s death. “Justice has been done,” he told the nation on Sunday night.
But security officials warned of the dangers of reprisal attacks by followers of the Saudi-born terrorist.
In a staff memo, Leon Panetta, outgoing CIA director, said: “We have rid the world of the most infamous terrorist of our time.” But he said that terrorists would almost certainly attempt to avenge his death. “Bin Laden is dead. Al-Qaeda is not.”
The joy on the streets of New York and Washington, targets of the terrorist attacks in 2001, underlined the sense of closure felt by many ordinary people. It also brought relief to US political leaders and intelligence agencies, which have been chasing bin Laden for 15 years.
The killing marks a milestone for US intelligence agencies, which have battled criticism since the 9/11 attacks, including most recently for their lack of preparedness for the uprisings in the Arab world.
“This was a desperately needed intelligence success for the CIA, which has been beaten up by critics for a decade for the intelligence failures of 9/11 and the absence of [weapons of mass destruction] in Iraq,” said John Bellinger, a senior official in the George W. Bush administration.
A senior intelligence official said bin Laden had been identified on the scene of the raid, by a woman presumed to be one of his wives, and later through an initial DNA analysis which “virtually matched 100 per cent” with family members.
The image of US elite special forces slipping undetected into Pakistan, engaging in an intense firefight in an al-Qaeda safe haven and shooting bin Laden dead recreated the popular perception that the US military could conduct a seamless Hollywood-style operation and succeed.
It also provided an important boost to Leon Panetta, the outgoing CIA chief who will soon face Senate confirmation hearings as he moves to succeed Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Mr Obama won praise from unlikely critics including Dick Cheney, the hardline former vice-president who once accused Mr Obama of putting the US at risk by conducting the so-called war on terror as an exercise in “law enforcement”.
“I want to congratulate President Obama and his national security team,” Mr Cheney said. “Today, the message our forces have sent is clear – if you attack the United States, we will find you and bring you to justice.”
The only contrarian note from western governments came from Uri Rosenthal, Dutch foreign minister. He praised the killing as “historic” but added, “It would have been better if bin Laden had been captured alive and forced to answer for his deeds in a court of law.”
In the Middle East, many viewed bin Laden as an irrelevance. But Ismail Haniyeh, leader of Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian movement in the Gaza Strip, said: “We condemn the assassination and the killing of an Arab holy warrior.”
While the reactions on the streets of cities across the US were mostly ecstatic – crowds gathered in front of the White House and the site of the World Trade Center on Sunday night – the news also served as a reminder of the toll of the terror attacks on the US.
Family members of those who perished said in nonstop cable news coverage that bin Laden’s death would help end a nightmare that had lasted for nearly ten years.
Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, said the US needed to be “very cautious in assuming that [the killing] will now damage al-Qaeda and other Islamist extremist networks, or that we can predict the political and strategic consequences.
“It seems all too likely that many will see his death as a form of martyrdom that is more an example to follow than a deterrent to future action.”
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