Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the most devastating attack on American soil in modern times and the most hunted man in the world, was killed in a firefight with United States forces in Pakistan, President Obama announced on Sunday night.
"Justice has been done," declared President Obama in a dramatic late-night appearance at the White House.
American military and C.I.A. operatives finally cornered bin Laden, the Al Qaeda leader who had eluded them for nearly a decade, in the early hours of Monday local time. American officials say bin Laden resisted and was shot in the head. He was later buried at sea.
The news touched off an extraordinary outpouring of emotion. Crowds gathered outside the White House, in New York at Times Square and at the Ground Zero site, waving American flags, cheering, shouting, laughing and chanting, "U.S.A., U.S.A.!"
"For over two decades, bin Laden has been Al Qaeda's leader and symbol," the president said in a statement televised around the world. "The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation's effort to defeat Al Qaeda. But his death does not mark the end of our effort. There's no doubt that Al Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must and we will remain vigilant at home and abroad."
Bin Laden's demise is a defining moment in the American-led fight against terrorism, a symbolic stroke affirming the relentlessness of the pursuit of those who attacked New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001. What remains to be seen, however, is whether it galvanizes bin Laden's followers by turning him into a martyr or serves as a turning of the page in the war in Afghanistan and gives further impetus to President Obama to bring U.S. troops home.
How much his death will affect Al Qaeda itself remains unclear. For years, as they failed to find him, American leaders have said that he was more symbolically important than operationally significant because he was on the run and hindered in any meaningful leadership role. And yet, he remained the most potent face of terrorism around the world and some of those who played down his role in recent years nonetheless celebrated his death.
The strike could exacerbate deep tensions with Pakistan, a volatile, nuclear-armed country that has periodically bristled at U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
When the end came for bin Laden, he was found not in the remote tribal areas along the Pakistani-Afghan border where he has long been presumed to be sheltered, but in a massive compound about an hour's drive north from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. He was hiding in the medium-sized city of Abbottabad, home to a large Pakistani military base and a military academy of the Pakistani Army.
The house at the end of a narrow dirt road was roughly eight times larger than other homes in the area, but had no telephone or Internet connections. When American operatives converged on the house on Sunday, bin Laden "resisted the assault force" and was killed in the middle of an intense gun battle, a senior administration official said.
The official added that military and intelligence officials first learned last summer that a "high-value target" was being protected in the compound and began working on a plan for going in to get him. Beginning in March, Obama presided over five national security meetings at the White House to go over plans for the operation. On Friday morning, just before leaving Washington to tour tornado damage in Alabama, he gave the final order for special forces and C.I.A. operatives to strike.
In addition to bin Laden, three men were killed during the 40-minute raid, one believed to be his son and the other two his couriers, according to an American official. A woman was killed when she was used as a shield by a male combatant, the official said, and two others were wounded.
"No Americans were harmed," President Obama said. "They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body." Muslim tradition requires burial within 24 hours, but by doing it at sea, American authorities presumably were trying to avoid creating a shrine for his followers.
Bin Laden's death came nearly 10 years after Al Qaeda terrorists hijacked four American passenger jets, crashing two of them into the World Trade Center in New York and one into the Pentagon outside Washington. The fourth hijacked jet, United Flight 93, crashed into the Pennsylvania countryside after passengers fought the militants.
The mostly young people who celebrated in the streets of New York and Washington saw it as a historic moment, one that for many of them culminated a worldwide manhunt that started when they were children.
Some climbed trees and lampposts directly in front of the White House to cheer and wave flags. Cigars and noisemakers were common.
Maureen Hasson, 22, a recent college graduate working for the Justice Department, came down to Washington's Lafayette Square after hearing the news. "This is full circle for our generation," she said. "Just look around at the average age here. We were all in middle school when the terrorists struck. We all vividly remember 9/11 and this is the close of that chapter."
Sam Sherman, 18, a freshman at George Washington University originally from New York, also rushed down to the White House. "The feeling you can't even imagine, the feeling in the air. It's crazy," he said. "I have friends with parents dead because of Osama bin Laden's plan, O.K.? So when I heard this news, I was coming down to celebrate."
Analysts say bin Laden's death amounted to a double blow for Al Qaeda, after its sermons of anti-Western violence seemed to be rendered irrelevant by the wave of political upheaval rolling through the Arab world.
"It comes at a time when Al Qaeda's narrative is already very much in doubt in the Arab world," says Martin S. Indyk, vice president and director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. "Its narrative was that violence was the way to redeem Arab honor and dignity. But Osama bin Laden and his violence didn't succeed in unseating anybody."
Al Qaeda sympathizers reacted with disbelief, anger, and in some cases talk of retribution. On a Web site considered an outlet for Al Qaeda messages, forum administrators deleted posts by users announcing bin Laden's death and demanded that members wait until the news was confirmed by Al Qaeda sources, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, an organization that monitors radicals.
Even so, SITE said, sympathizers on the forum posted messages calling Bin Laden a martyr and suggesting retaliation. "America will reap the same if the news is true [or] false," said one message.
President Obama was careful to note that the United States is not at war with Islam. "Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims," Obama said. "Indeed, Al Qaeda has slaughtered scores of Muslims in many countries, including our own. So his demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity."