World on Alert After U.S. Kills Bin Laden

Published May 02, 2011

| Reuters

Pakistan (Reuters) - World leaders warned of revenge attacks after Osama bin Laden was killed in a U.S. assault in Pakistan on Monday that brought to a dramatic end the long manhunt for the al Qaeda leader who had become the most powerful symbol of Islamist militancy.

President Barack Obama hailed bin Laden's death, saying: "The world is safer. It is a better place because of the death of Osama bin Laden." But the euphoria that drew flag-waving crowds to "Ground Zero" of the New York attacks the Saudi-born militant masterminded a decade ago was tempered by calls for vigilance against retaliation by his followers.

Vows to avenge his death appeared quickly in Islamist militant forums, a key means of passing on information from al Qaeda leaders. "God's revenge on you, you Roman dog, God's revenge on you crusaders... this is a tragedy brothers, a tragedy," one forum member wrote.

Bin Laden was quickly buried at sea after Muslim funeral rites, his shrouded body placed in a weighted bag and tipped from the deck of a U.S. aircraft carrier into the North Arabian Sea, U.S. officials said.

The death of bin Laden, who achieved near-mythic status for his ability to elude capture for more than a decade, closes a bitter chapter in the global fight against al Qaeda, but it does not eliminate the threat of further strikes.

Under bin Laden's leadership, al Qaeda militants struck targets from the Indonesian island of Bali to the European capitals of Madrid and London as well as the east African nations of Kenya and Tanzania.

But it was the September 11, 2001, attacks, in which al Qaeda militants used hijacked planes to strike at economic and military symbols of American might and killed nearly 3,000 persons, that helped bin Laden achieve global infamy.

Those attacks spawned two wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, inflicted damage on U.S. ties with the Muslim world that have yet to be repaired, and redefined security for air travelers.

"Even as we mark this milestone, we should not forget that the battle to stop Al Qaeda and its syndicate of terror will not end with the death of bin Laden," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said just hours after bin Laden was killed with a bullet in the head at his Pakistani compound and quickly buried at sea.

NIGHT RAID NEAR ISLAMABAD

A small U.S. strike team, dropped by helicopter to bin Laden's hideout near the Pakistani capital Islamabad under the cover of night, shot dead the al Qaeda leader in a firefight.

"This was a kill operation," one security official told Reuters, but added: "If he had waved a white flag of surrender he would have been taken alive."

The revelation that bin Laden was living in a three-story residence in the military garrison town of Abbottabad, and not as many had speculated, in the country's lawless western border regions, is a huge embarrassment to Pakistan, whose relations with Washington have frayed under the Obama administration.

While U.S. intelligence officials said Pakistani authorities did not know bin Laden was sheltering there, U.S. lawmakers insisted Islamabad had a lot of questions to answer.

Reflecting a lack of trust between the two countries, U.S. officials said they did not tell Pakistan about the operation until it was over.

Obama, whose popularity has suffered from continuing U.S. economic woes, will likely see a short-term bounce in his approval ratings. At the same time, he is likely to face mounting pressure from Americans to speed up the planned withdrawal this July of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

However, Bin Laden's death is unlikely to have any impact on the nearly decade-long war in Afghanistan, where U.S. forces are facing record violence by a resurgent Taliban.

Many analysts see bin Laden's death as largely symbolic since he was no longer believed to have been issuing operational orders to the many autonomous al Qaeda affiliates around the world.

"There are a lot of al Qaeda look-alike cells," said Steve Clemons, a Middle East analyst at the New America Foundation. "Bin Laden was an animating force but there are other ways these groups get oxygen and can remain a threat."

Financial markets were more optimistic. The dollar and stocks rose, while oil and gold fell, on the view bin Laden's death reduced global security risks.

BURIED AT SEA, WARNINGS OF REVENGE

To prevent his gravesite from becoming a rallying point for his followers, Bin Laden's body was buried at a sea. Muslim religious rites were conducted on the deck of a U.S. aircraft carrier in North Arabian Sea, a defense official said.

"You wouldn't want to leave him so that his body could become a shrine," one U.S. official said.

But some Muslim clerics questioned whether the United States followed proper Islamic tradition, saying Muslims should not be buried at sea unless they died during a voyage. Analysts warned this could stoke anti-American sentiment.

Mindful of possible suspicion in the Muslim world that U.S. forces may have gotten the wrong man, a U.S. official said DNA testing showed a "virtually 100 percent" match with the al Qaeda leader. His body was also identified by one of his wives, an intelligence official said.

Fearful of revenge attacks, the United States issued security warnings to Americans worldwide. "We should not forget that the battle to stop Al Qaeda and its syndicate of terror will not end with the death of bin Laden," Clinton said.

CIA Director Leon Panetta said al Qaeda would "almost certainly" try to avenge bin Laden's death.

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy hailed the killing as a coup in the fight against terrorism, but he, too, warned it did not spell al Qaeda's demise. British Prime Minister David Cameron said the West would have to be "particularly vigilant" in the weeks ahead.

U.S. officials said bin Laden was found in a million-dollar compound in Abbottabad, 35 miles north of Islamabad. After 40 minutes of fighting, bin Laden, three other men and a woman, who U.S. officials said was used as a human shield, lay dead.

A source familiar with the operation said bin Laden was shot in the head after the U.S. military team, which included members of the Navy's elite Seals unit, stormed the compound.

Television pictures from inside the house showed bloodstains smeared across a floor next to a large bed.

It was the biggest national security victory for the president since he took office in early 2009 and will make it difficult for Republicans to portray Democrats as weak on security as he seeks re-election in 2012.

In contrast to the celebrations in America, on the streets of Saudi Arabia, bin Laden's native land, there was a mood of disbelief and sorrow among many. The Palestinian Islamist group Hamas mourned bin Laden as an "Arab holy warrior."

But many in the Arab world felt his death was long overdue. For many Arabs, inspired by the popular upheavals in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere over the past few months, the news of bin Laden's death had less significance than it once might have.

The operation could complicate relations with Pakistan, a key U.S. ally in the battle against militancy and the war in Afghanistan. Those ties have already been damaged over U.S. drone strikes in the west of the country and the six-week imprisonment of a CIA contractor earlier this year.

"For some time there will be a lot of tension between Washington and Islamabad because bin Laden seems to have been living here close to Islamabad," said Imtiaz Gul, a Pakistani security analyst.

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