Sue Mladenik had just gotten ready for bed and flipped on her television when a news crawl across the bottom of her screen told her Osama bin Laden was dead. "I was numb, shocked, and confused," the mother of six told me. Mladenik's husband Jeff died aboard American Airlines Flight 11 when hijackers trained by bin Laden flew the plane into the north tower of the World Trade Center. Mladenik said she quit watching most television after 9/11, but a weekend that included her 13-year-old Grace's spring musical, and recitals for two younger daughters, left her too exhausted for anything else.
When the terrorists killed Jeff Mladenik, he and his wife had adopted Grace from China and had paperwork underway for another Chinese daughter, Hannah. Jeff was a Wheaton College graduate who headed a web development company and also served as pastor of workplace ministry at Christ Church, a large evangelical congregation in Oak Brook, Ill.
After 9/11 the widowed Mladenik went ahead with the second adoption and then a third, Bethany. With three grown children as well, a daughter and two sons, her life is full, she said, but there's plenty of room to feel the family's loss: "Unexpected news brings it all up again."
Mladenik, now 53, has thought about bin Laden often over the years-"and probably I've wished him dead a million times"-but news of his actual death early this month left her sobbing yet unable to explain her emotions. "Am I happy he is dead? I am happy he will never do again to others what he did to my family," she said, pausing. "Still, there is nobody who will walk my girls down the aisle."
The 24 members of SEAL Team Six who fought their way into the fortified compound holding the founder of al-Qaeda had-to some degree, like most Americans-long planned, even dreamed, of this day. Bin Laden had been a fixture on the FBI's Most Wanted list since 1998 with a reward set at $50 million since 2007, his bearded visage common to almost everyone everywhere.
After the attacks in 2001 President George W. Bush declared, "The most important thing is for us to find Osama bin Laden. It is our No. 1 priority and we will not rest until we find him." Seven years later candidate Barack Obama said bluntly, "We will kill bin Laden."
But as wars in Afghanistan and Iraq dragged on and increasingly focused on other players like Saddam Hussein or the Taliban, bin Laden often seemed more myth than man. Rumors ran that he was dead after a December 2001 U.S. assault on Tora Bora, his Afghan mountain hideout. Later rumors said he escaped on a mule, or that he suffered from kidney failure and required-also not true-dialysis. Years passed and public interest waned. Did it matter that bin Laden was in remotest Pakistan or Afghanistan or Iran, that he was dead or alive?
It turned out that he was holed up with family members in a three-story house surrounded by 12-foot concrete walls and barbed wire just 31 miles northeast of Islamabad, Pakistan's capital. "I was surprised he was hiding in plain sight. We always thought he was somewhere up in the Tribal Areas [of Pakistan]," former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told ABCNews.
News that bin Laden had been killed began spreading on Sunday evening, May 1. At a Mets-Phillies game in Philadelphia, chants of "USA, USA" erupted spontaneously from the stands as fans began flashing headlines from their cellphones. Shortly before midnight President Obama announced, "The United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden." For Obama, who phoned former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton before his speech, the success of the 40-minute raid on the compound in Abbottabad, a high-elevation tourist town dominated by one of Pakistan's largest military academies, culminated months of secretive planning for a high-risk operation.
Soon after, over a thousand mostly young people converged at the White House wrapped in flags, beating drums, blowing vuvuzelas, and carrying hastily scribbled signs like "Osama bin Gotten." Some soldiers joined the crowd: Celebrants shook their hands. A few climbed trees around the White House, sang the national anthem, and started cheers that lasted into the morning.
Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., just back from Congress' two-week recess, drove to the White House from Reagan National airport when he heard the news. The next morning, he wrote an essay about the experience: "My father's generation experienced V-E Day with the wild, celebrating mob in New York. But my generation drifted quietly into town from Vietnam. Our nation was embarrassed by the war and its soldiers. Tonight, though, our nation was filled with renewed pride. The celebration was the appropriate response of a grateful nation to so many who have given so much."
In Dallas well-wishers decorated the gate to Bush's neighborhood with flags, bunting and balloons. One sign read, "President Obama forgot to say . . . THANK YOU PRESIDENT BUSH!"
Successfully removing Osama bin Laden, though, does not remove past losses. The 3,000 families of 9/11 victims like the Mladeniks have been joined in mourning by more than 7,000 families of U.S. and coalition forces killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Add to their number thousands of victims of al-Qaeda terror before and after 9/11 in Kenya, Tanzania, Somalia, Yemen, Morocco, Pakistan, and elsewhere. Nor does bin Laden's death remove worries of future attacks-but it does create a pivotal moment to reflect on U.S. counterterrorism strategy.
Sebastian Gorka likes to cite the number of CIA intelligence officers on Sept. 11, 2001, who spoke Pashto, one of two dominant languages of Afghanistan: "Two, and one of them was on contract."
Gorka was born in Great Britain to parents who escaped the Hungarian Revolution of 1956-a street uprising leading to a Soviet invasion that killed more than 3,000. A fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, Gorka has lectured at West Point, the National Counterterrorism Center, and the School of Advanced Military Studies. Currently his expertise on al-Qaeda has meant no let-up in conducting seminars for Pentagon, CIA, and other officials (now with dozens fluent in Pashto).
Recently he took five intelligence analysts through a course on al-Qaeda in Yemen and told me, "It was unbelievable. The idea that 10 years into this war we are starting from zero, and an eight-hour seminar will make you understand an enemy." The scholar, an imposing presenter, believes that for too long U.S. national security operatives have focused on the "kinetic" or violent aspects of jihad-ignoring its theological and sociological roots: "We still refuse to understand the fact that this is a religiously motivated enemy."
In large part, Gorka blames that on Americans' revision of history and what's meant by separation of church and state. "The Founding Fathers intended it to mean that no one religion could enjoy preference from the state, and no one religion could be disadvantaged by the state. No preference and no persecution. But it has been willfully distorted into meaning that religion can have nothing to do with government or national security." That feeds mistakes about the Muslim world and its threats ("and leads to ridiculous things like officers having to switch off surveillance when a suspect goes into a mosque").
So U.S. officials too often sanitize what Gorka calls the "martial" nature of the Quran and Muhammad's life. The Muslim prophet was both a religious leader and a successful warrior who conquered and converted the entire Arabian Peninsula in 22 years. Without grasping both those aspects, Washington misses the seriousness with which bin Laden and his followers have declared war on the "Jews and Crusaders" of America.
Gorka points out that al-Qaeda "has trained and written seriously about how to make fighters deadly. They take seriously building the capacity to do large amounts of damage to Americans."
Osama bin Laden was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 1957. His father Muhammad had more than 50 children, but Osama was the only son of Muhammad's 10th wife. The 1970s oil boom lifted the bin Laden family fortune, made Muhammad the building contractor to the king, and allowed him to erect one of the largest companies in the Middle East. He sent his children to the best schools in Saudi Arabia, where Osama earned an advanced degree in engineering, traveled frequently to Beirut for the nightlife, and became a drinker and womanizer often caught in bar fights.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was his turning point. Bin Laden said the plight of Muslims "in a medieval society besieged by a 20th-century superpower" inspired him that there is "a special place in the hereafter" for Muslims who participate in violent jihad. He organized and fought alongside the Afghan mujahideen and throughout his life carried a Kalashnikov he claimed to have snared from a dead Russian general.
Gorka says bin Laden "was immensely charismatic, and earned sympathy because of his life story. Despite being born into a family of great wealth, he takes up the simple life of a holy warrior, and fights the Soviet Union. He led by example."
Bin Laden set up camps to train fighters from all over the Arab world where tens of thousands of foreign volunteers eventually arrived to receive military training but also indoctrination forbidden as subversive elsewhere in the Arab world. According to Yossef Bodansky, former director of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and bin Laden's first biographer, bin Laden developed "branches and recruitment centers in 50 countries," including the United States and Europe by the end of the 1980s-a network that by 2001 allowed him to execute massive jihad against the United States.
Ironically, during the 1980s the United States pushed Arab countries to assist the Afghan fighters in the battle against Soviet domination, so Egypt sent former army officers, some of them Islamists, to train and aid the mujahideen. One of the Egyptians, Ayman al-Zawahiri , worked with bin Laden to meld Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood followers and Saudi Wahhabi terrorists. Soon, both Sunnis and Shiites from all over the Muslim world were training together as al-Qaeda terrorists.
In 1996 al-Qaeda issued its first fatwa against the United States: "There is no more important duty than pushing the American enemy out of the holy land"-a reference to Saudi Arabia and Israel. (Jerusalem has been a holy city for Islam since its earliest days, but only recently have some Muslims referred to the entire land of Israel as holy.) The United States largely ignored the threat and another in 1998. Then came simultaneous attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed more than 220.
Zawahiri throughout remained in bin Laden's shadow. A surgeon by training who speaks English and French in addition to Arabic, he came from a prominent family in Egypt. His father was ambassador to Pakistan and Yemen. Gorka maintains that Zawahiri isn't charismatic like bin Laden yet through a forceful intellect "has become the center of gravity for al-Qaeda." Most experts believe he will assume the mantle of leadership for al-Qaeda and of a different, ideological sort.
"Al-Qaeda has become less relevant operationally in the last 10 years," said Gorka. "But the brand of al-Qaeda has increased. There are more people, including Americans like Maj. Nidal Hassan [who went on a shooting spree at Fort Hood in 2009] who have aligned themselves with its ideology." Gorka believes a resurgence of al-Qaeda is possible under Zawahiri: No longer needed to fill an operational role, "al-Qaeda will be the ideological center, where jihadists go to get spiritual centering."
Few feel that threat as clearly as Pakistani Christians. If anything, bin Laden's death has for now heightened the tension. At the government's recommendation, churches, Christian schools, and other institutions closed in major cities after bin Laden's death. The "unhappy and angry reaction of Pakistan" says a lot about the spread of bin Laden's ideology, said a pastor in Pakistan who is not named for security reasons: "We know whenever Western governments take any steps that Muslims think is against Islam or Muslims, the Christians always suffer the loss of life or property." In the war on terror each important success-and bin Laden's death chief among them-carries a renewed pledge of jihadist punishment.
-with reporting by Emily Belz in Washington, D.C., and Kristin Chapman
The death of bin Laden is an important blow to the leadership of al-Qaeda and to its base of operations. Pakistan, a sanctuary since the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, is a guaranteed sanctuary no more. At the same time, al-Qaeda in the last decade has become less of an operational structure and more of a brand, according to expert Sebastian Gorka at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Here's how it works:
Al-Qaeda central: Founded in Afghanistan by Osama bin Laden, it was exiled to Sudan before finding sanctuary again in Afghanistan and along the Pakistani border under the Taliban. From its base of training camps there (al-Qaeda means "the base"), bin Laden trained fighters from 50 countries and planned numerous attacks-most significantly, the attacks of 9/11 on the United States.
Al-Qaeda franchises: Deprived of its base after the U.S. took control of Afghanistan, al-Qaeda increasingly relied on diverse terror cells linked by ideology and training but often disconnected from one another. Al-Qaeda in Iraq, founded in 2003 by Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was among the first with other prominent organizations in Yemen, North Africa, and Indonesia.
Leaderless jihadists: In some ways these are the most dangerous jihadists, individual sympathizers who with bombmaking skills and al-Qaeda training manuals can blow up a city. Doubt their reach? Watch the FBI video (available on YouTube) of what would have happened if a police officer hadn't discovered the Times Square bomb set by Faisal Shahzad last year.
Soft jihadists: Those who will not use violence but seek the same goals as al-Qaeda can be just as dangerous, and more difficult to combat. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Organization of the Islamic Conference are two rising examples of potent groups that use economic savvy and what Gorka calls "lawfare"-law as a weapon-to impose Islamic law and push toward a global caliphate. Given the protections they are entitled to under the U.S. Constitution, they may be a domestic force to be reckoned with.
August 1998: Bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania • 223 killed, 4,100 injured
October 2000: U.S.S. Cole bombing in Yemen • 17 killed, 39 injured
Sept. 11, 2001: Hijacking of four U.S. planes; two crashed into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon, and the fourth-meant to crash into the U.S. Capitol-instead was forced aground in Pennsylvania by passengers • 3,000 killed, 6,000+ injured
January 2002: Kidnapping of U.S. reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan; he was later beheaded • April 2002. Explosion of a fuel tanker outside a synagogue in Tunisia • 21 killed, 30+ injured
March-June 2002: Attacks and bombings in Pakistan, including at the Protestant International Church in Islamabad • 29+ killed, 95+ injured
October 2002: Attack on a French tanker off the coast of Yemen • 1 killed, 12 injured
November 2002: Car bomb attack and a failed attempt to shoot down an Israeli jetliner in Kenya • 13 killed, 80 injured
May 2003: Car bomb attacks on three residential compounds in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia • 26 killed, 160+ injured
March 2004: Bomb attacks on Madrid commuter trains • 200 killed, 1,800+ injured
July 2005: Bombings of the London public transportation system • 52 killed, 700+ injured
February 2006: Attack on the Abqaiq petroleum processing facility, the largest such facility in the world, in Saudi Arabia • no casualties
October 2007: Suicide bombing narrowly missed killing former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto • 136 killed, 400+ injured
December 2007: Another bomber succeeds in killing Bhutto while campaigning in Pakistan • 23 additional killed, numerous injured
November 2009: Fort Hood shooting • 13 killed, 29 injured
December 2009: Attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight • no casualties
October 2010: Attempted bombing of FedEx planes bound for the United States • no casualties
NOTE: Casualty numbers do not include terrorist casualties.
SOURCE: Council on Foreign Relations