(CBS/AP) The founder and spiritual figurehead for al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, is dead.
President Barack Obama said in an address from the White House that a small team of Americans carried out the operation to kill bin Laden in Pakistan, and that cooperation from Pakistani authorities was crucial.
“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,” Mr. Obama said. “Tonight, we can say to those who have lost loved ones to al Qaeda’s terror, justice has been done.”
Mr. Obama chaired no fewer than five National Security Council meetings meeting on the pursuit of bin Laden, CBS News has learned, and gave the order to plan an attack on his suspected compound on the morning of April 29. He gave final order for the attack Sunday morning, which he described in his speech as resulting in a “firefight” in which no U.S. personnel were harmed.
U.S. officials said the helicopter raid in Pakistan was carried out by CIA paramilitaries together with the elite Navy SEAL Team Six. The U.S. team took custody of bin Laden’s remains, which American officials said were being handled in accordance with Islamic tradition.
One U.S. official said inside information was key to the successful operation. Detainees and cooperation from foreign authorities were crucial in providing information that led to his capture.
The CIA has for decades tried to gain the confidence of people close to the al Qaeda boss. Terror detainees “flagged to us people who were providing direct support” to bin Laden. A lone courier in particular, an associate of other senior al Qaeda members, proved crucial in the end.
CBS News was told that the courier was “trusted” by bin Laden. “We identified areas where this courier and his brother operated, but they had extensive operational security,” said the official — and those elaborate security procedures made the U.S. even more suspicious of whom they were catering to.
In August, 2010, intelligence officials found what they suspected to be bin Laden’s residence in Abbotabad, Pakistan, an affluent area with lots of retired military. The compound was surrounded by an 8-foot wall with barbed wire. There were extra walls inside and 2 security gates. Also telling was that they burned trash, unlike their neighbors. There was a terrace on the 3rd floor with a 7-foot privacy wall. It was a million-dollar home with no telephone or internet connections, custom built to hide someone of significance. Another major indicator was that a family lived there, one whose size and make up was same as bin Ladens.
Bin Laden’s capture sent crowds outside of the White House, in Times Square and at West Point into spontaneous celebrations.
The long-lost terrorist mastermind had eluded an aggressive hunt by U.S. authorities for nearly ten years since the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 11, 2001.
CBS News correspondent Lara Logan reports that human intelligence was vital in killing bin Laden, which is an important boost to the image of U.S. international intelligence gathering, because it says that no enemy is safe anywhere.
Bin Laden’s death is a major accomplishment for Mr. Obama and his national security team, as the administrations of both presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush hunted the Saudi-born terrorist.
In a statement late Sunday, former President Bush said: “This momentous achievement marks a victory for America, for people who seek peace around the world, and for all those who lost loved ones on September 11, 2001. The fight against terror goes on, but tonight America has sent an unmistakable message: No matter how long it takes, justice will be done.”
Moments after Obama spoke, the State Department put U.S. embassies on alert and warned of the heightened possibility for anti-American violence. In a worldwide travel alert, the department said there was an “enhanced potential for anti-American violence given recent counterterrorism activity in Pakistan.”
Security at “strategic places in Pakistan has been beefed up as a precaution against any retaliation to news of Osama bin Laden’s death”, a senior Pakistani security official told CBS News early on Monday. “If he (bin Laden) is really dead, there will be attempts to seek revenge,” said the official who spoke to CBS News on condition of anonymity.
Officials also said they believe the death puts bin Laden’s al Qaeda on a path of decline that will be difficult to reverse, but there was no word on the whereabouts of bin Laden’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri.
The stunning end to the world’s most widely-watched manhunt came just months before the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Centers and Pentagon, orchestrated by al Qaeda, that killed nearly 3,000 people.
The attacks a decade ago seemed to come out of nowhere, even though al Qaeda had previously struck 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 also 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. Officials have speculated that the fourth plane had been heading for the U.S. Capitol or perhaps even the White House when it crashed in Pennsylvania.
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 terror attacks at home.