WASHINGTON — Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the Sept. 11 terror attacks and the world's most wanted man, was killed in a targeted raid in Pakistan, President Obama said late Sunday.
The top terrorist leader was killed by a small U.S. team that swooped in on a massive compound where Osama was holed up, only 35 miles from Pakistan's capital.
"The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation's effort to defeat al Qaeda," the president said in a dramatic White House announcement made shortly before midnight.
The news of bin Laden's death touched off spontaneous outpourings in New York and Washington.
A jubilant crowd gathered outside the White House, waving American flags. At the Mets-Phillies game fans began chanting "USA, USA" when word began showing up on cell phones.
Sunday's raid was the culmination of years of painstaking intelligence work. Intelligence officials secured a major intelligence breakthrough about four years ago when they learned the name of a trusted courier believed to be living with Osama, according to senior administration officials who asked not to be named.
Two years ago intelligence officials learned the courier was living in an elaborate compound. In August they pinpointed its location outside Pakistan's capital.
It was a massive compound that overshadowed other homes in the community, an affluent neighborhood popular among retired military officers.
The compound was ringed by walls between 12' and 18' feet high and topped with concertina wire. Access was tightly controlled by security gates.
The secret operation was conducted by U.S. forces without the knowledge of any other country. The U.S. government has always maintained the right to unilaterally go after bin Laden if he was located.
The United States has put embassies around the world on alert in the event terrorists attempt retaliation.
Former president George W. Bush, who was in office on the day of the attacks, hailed the news. "The fight against terror goes on, but tonight America has sent an unmistakable message: No matter how long it takes, justice will be done."
Obama said the killing or capture of bin Laden was the top priority of the war on terrorism, and thanked the "tireless" work of the U.S. military and counterterrorist professionals in getting him.
Obama said the U.S. government believed it had located bin Laden in a compound in Pakistan months ago. A team of U.S. forces engaged in a firefight at the compound, killing bin Laden and taking custody of his body.
Officials have long believed bin Laden, the most wanted man in the world, was hiding a mountainous region along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. He was killed in a mansion outside Islamabad in an operation based on actionable US intelligence, CNN reported.
Bin Laden, 54, was a member of a wealthy Saudi family who rose to prominence in the worldwide Islamist movement after helping to create al-Qaeda, the Muslim terror group devoted to a worldwide Islamic theocracy. He fought in Afghanistan with Muslim Mujahideen against the former Soviet Union before turning his sites on his former home of Saudi Arabia and the west.
On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists under al-Qaeda hijacked three airliners in the United States and flew them into the Pentagon and the World Trade Towers in New York. A fourth jet crashed in Shanksville, Pa., when passengers attacked the cockpit before it reached its destination. Nearly 3,000 people were killed. All nineteen hijackers were killed.
Bin Laden took credit for the attack three years later.
He escaped the invasion of Afghanistan by a U.S. coalition in 2001 and thereafter would surface periodically to issue statements against the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Al-Qaeda has remained one of the most resilient terror organizations in the world. Smaller al-Qaeda affiliated organizations have emerged in Yemen, North Africa and elsewhere. These organizations are believed to be only loosely tied to al-Qaeda.