UPDATED 2 a.m. EDT Monday
Osama bin Laden, the highly sought-after al-Qaeda leader who has eluded U.S. authorities for nearly a decade after orchestrating the September 11 terrorist attacks, was killed in an operation launched by U.S. forces, President Barack Obama announced at the White House just before midnight on Sunday.
“I can report to the American people and to the world, that the U.S. has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden,” Obama said in an address that was preceded with multiple news reports of bin Laden’s death. “Justice has been done,” said the president.
Earlier Sunday, Obama green-lighted a “targeted operation against [an al-Qaeda] compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan” that killed bin Laden.
Obama did not elaborate further on the operation that led to bin Laden’s death, but a senior defense official has confirmed to CNN that Navy SEALs were involved. Bin Laden was shot in the head at an al-Qaeda compound, NBC News reported.
The fall of Bin Laden ends a saga that saw the al-Qaeda head elevated to Public Enemy No. 1 after he ordered the hijacking of airliners that killed 3,000 Americans in 2001.
According to Obama, shortly after he took office, he directed the CIA to “make the killing or capture of bin Laden the top priority,” echoing a sentiment by his predecessor George W. Bush that the apprehension or death of bin Laden was to be of the highest national concern.
Bush quickly launched the Afghan war a month following the 9/11 attacks, then the Iraq war a year and a half later. Despite that a major objective of both wars was to find bin Laden, the terrorist chief had eluded the United States’ grasp.
In recent years, bin Laden has been rumored to be hiding in caves in Waziristan, in northwest Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan, and public attention and media coverage had waned.
Bin Laden’s location was finally pinned down by U.S. forces last August. After determining U.S. intelligence had received sufficient information on the location of bin Laden, Obama said he issued an order last week to launch the “targeted operation.” It was carried out by a small team, there was a firefight, and bin Laden was killed. His body was captured as evidence.
In his televised speech that was also streamed online, Obama evoked the tragedy of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and claimed a significant victory over terrorism and al-Qaeda.
On 9/11 “no matter where we came from, what God we prayed to, or what race or ethnicity we were we were united as one American family,” said the president.
“The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al-Qaeda,” Obama said.
But Obama stopped shorting of proclaiming an outright triumph.
“There’s no doubt that al-Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us,” he warned. “We must—and we will—remain vigilant at home and abroad.”
George W. Bush, who spearheaded the hunt for bin Laden during his two presidential terms, called bin Laden’s death a “momentous achievement.”
On a statement posted to this official Facebook page, Bush said he congratulated President Barack Obama and noted that the U.S. military and intelligence groups have his “everlasting gratitude.”
“No matter how long it takes, justice will be done,” Bush said.
Other prominent Republicans also joined Democrats in celebrating bin Laden’s death.
“I am overjoyed that we finally got the world’s top terrorist,” Senator John McCain (R—Ariz.) said in a statement.
“The world is a better and more just place now that Osama bin Laden is no longer in it. I hope the families of the victims of the September 11th attacks will sleep easier tonight and every night hence knowing that justice has been done,” he said.
In New York’s Ground Zero and in Washington D.C., celebrations erupted as news trickled out, leading up to the president’s speech that confirmed bin Laden’s death.
Crowds donned American colors and apparel as they sang the national anthem and “We Are the Champions.”President Obama, in his address, appealed to unity and patriotism.
“Let us think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11. I know that it has, at times, frayed,” he said. “Yet today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people.”