First he was a man. Then he became a myth. And then he was only a man.
Osama bin Laden, born in Saudi Arabia in 1957 (likely), the only son of his father's 10th wife, was killed in what U.S. officials called a "human operation" in Pakistan as part of a targeted assassination President Barack Obama said he ordered in August 2010.
That directive brought results on Sunday, with what Obama described as a small team of U.S. forces launching a "targeted assault" on a compound in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad. According to the president, bin Laden was killed after a firefight, and no Americans were harmed.
In the almost 10 years since the 9/11 attacks, the United States has gone to war in Afghanistan against al-Qaeda, fought the Taliban along the Af-Pak border, ousted Saddam Hussein from Iraq, and led beefed-up security around the world. But behind the international effort that has been-sometimes controversially-called the War on Terror, there was always "the man who declared war on America."
Bin Laden founded the al-Qaeda terror network-which has franchised global terror cells to launch attacks not only against Western targets but also against Muslim antagonists-and he claimed responsibility for the September 2001 attacks that took the lives of 2,977 people in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C.
In 1998 bin Laden issued this declaration: "Praise be to God, who revealed the Book, controls the clouds, defeats factionalism, and says in His Book: 'But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the pagans wherever ye find them, seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem. . . .'"
It was Feb. 23, 1998. That day Howard Stern's radio show premiered. The Winter Olympic Games had just ended in Japan. And a tornado in Florida killed 31. Few in the United States noticed that a Saudi engineer and scion of an Arab construction empire, writing in the newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi, had declared war against all Jews and Crusaders, and especially on the United States. It was his second fatwa against the United States but soon earned American attention: In August that year bomb attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania killed 223. Bin Laden took credit, earning his way to the FBI's Most Wanted list, and launching a 13-year-long manhunt.
After the 9/11 attacks and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, bin Laden was widely believed to have taken refuge in Pakistan. In December 2001, U.S. and British Special Forces with air cover launched an attack on the multi-story cave complex known as Tora Bora. It was widely believed to be bin Laden's headquarters. Despite a lengthy siege of the complex, experts believe bin Laden escaped the attack on a mule.
While rumors of his whereabouts persisted, U.S. forces rarely got close again, yet bin Laden continued to issue video and audiotapes against his Western foes. One more recent one, aired on Al Jazeera in 2009, said President Obama was "following in the footsteps of his predecessor," and that "the American people should prepare to continue to reap what the leaders of the White House are sowing."
Obama, in a televised statement from the White House delivered just before midnight on Sunday, told Americans that "shortly after taking office" he directed CIA director Leon Panneta "to make the killing of Osama bin Laden" his top priority. "Last August after years of painstaking work," the president said, "I was briefed on a possible lead."
Bin Laden was hiding within a compound deep inside Pakistan, the president was told by his national security team. The president authorized an operation, he said, "to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice." On Sunday a "targeted operation" against that compound killed the al-Qaeda leader and allowed U.S. forces to recover his body.
Echoing former President George W. Bush, Obama said, "The American people did not choose this fight. It came to our shores," adding, "We as a country will never tolerate our security being threatened or stand by as our countrymen are killed. . . . Justice has been done."
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Within moments of President Obama's speech to the nation announcing the death of Osama bin Laden, reaction started pouring in from across the nation.
The one response many Americans were waiting to hear was from former President George W. Bush. Soon after Obama's televised announcement, Bush released the following statement:
"Earlier this evening, President Obama called to inform me that American forces killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of the al Qaeda network that attacked America on September 11, 2001. I congratulated him and the men and women of our military and intelligence communities who devoted their lives to this mission. They have our everlasting gratitude. 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."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, also issued a statement, saying, "I am overjoyed that we finally got the world's top terrorist. 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. I commend the president and his team, as well as our men and women in uniform and our intelligence professionals, for this superb achievement.
"But while we take heart in the news that Osama bin Laden is dead, we must be mindful that al-Qaeda and its terrorist allies are still lethal and determined enemies, and we must remain vigilant to defeat them."
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, "The death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of American forces is not only a great victory in the War on Terror, but confirmation to freedom's enemies around the world about the inevitable end of a life of terror. Like all Americans, my thoughts and prayers tonight go out to the families of the thousands of people who have been murdered by bin Laden and his al-Qaeda accomplices, both in the terror plots he orchestrated and the ongoing war he started. I offer my heartfelt thanks to everyone responsible for tonight's news: our courageous armed forces, dedicated law enforcement and intelligence communities, and President Obama for pursuing the necessary policies to bring about today's success."
Before Obama even began his speech, jubilant crowds started gathering outside the White House chanting "U.S.A," many of them waving American flags, and some of them waving bright yellow "Don't Tread On Me" flags. In New York City, the New York Fire Department parked a fire truck in Times Square with its red lights blazing. A crowd of several hundred gathered around the truck both to celebrate the death of bin Laden and to show appreciation for the sacrifices firefighters made on 9/11. Among the 2,752 victims who died in the attacks on the World Trade Center were 343 firefighters.
On the negative side, the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning to U.S. citizens worldwide.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.