NEW YORK -- Osama bin Laden, for more than a decade the world's most notorious terrorist, was killed in a targeted assault in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, U.S. President Barack Obama announced late Sunday night.
A series of presidents had hunted the al Qaeda leader, a pursuit that gathered momentum following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which killed more than 3,000. Bin Laden had already been on the FBI's most wanted list for years by that point in connection with several other attacks, but thereafter his name became synonymous with terrorism.
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His strike on Sept. 11 sent the United States hurtling into a global "war on terror" that has included a wide range of operations on six continents, most prominently wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and extensive covert campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen.
Afghanistan had served as a staging ground for bin Laden and his forces under the sympathetic Taliban-led state, which the al Qaeda leader had helped bankroll. Following the December 2001 collapse of the Taliban government under the assault by U.S. troops, bin Laden escaped capture in the eastern mountains of Tora Bora. He then remained largely in hiding, only appearing publicly via some 30 written, audio and video statements delivered periodically throughout the past decade.
The extent of bin Laden's role in al Qaeda operations since he went into hiding is unclear, but he remained the most well-known international symbol of the organization that he founded and financed. News of his death prompted widespread celebration in the United States late Sunday night into Monday morning, including at Ground Zero in New York City. But it remains to be seen whether his network, more diffuse than it was 10 years ago, will be significantly weakened or destabilized without him.
Osama bin Laden was born in 1957 in Jiddah, a Saudi Arabian city by the Red Sea. He was one of roughly 50 children fathered by an impoverished Yemeni farmer, Mohammed bin Laden, who later developed a construction company and became one the wealthiest men in Saudi Arabia. When the elder bin Laden died in 1968 with a fortune reportedly in excess of $1 billion, Osama inherited an estimated $300 million.
After graduating from King Abdul Aziz University in Jiddah in 1979, bin Laden traveled to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border during the first weeks of the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. The war drew Muslims from across the world to fight what became known as a jihad against the invaders. Throughout the 1980s bin Laden helped fund training camps to resist the Soviets -- an aim shared by the United States, which also funded ground-level resistance groups in-country.
From his base in Peshawar, Pakistan, bin Laden established a fighting army numbering more than 2,000, according to some accounts.
As the Soviets lost ground in Afghanistan toward the end of the 1980s, bin Laden formed al Qaeda (Arabic for "the base"), at first principally as an information network that informed family members when a jihadist had died fighting in Afghanistan.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the United States stationed troops in Saudi Arabia, a neighboring ally, in order to protect that nation's oil-rich lands from possible encroachment by Saddam Hussein. Bin Laden later said this stationing of U.S. troops on traditionally Muslim land was a primary cause of his jihad against America.
That conflict over U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia led to bin Laden falling out of favor with the Saudi monarchy, and he soon relocated to Sudan, where he spent much of the 1990s.
That decade also saw a rise in international terrorist attacks for which militant Islamic groups were blamed or claimed responsibility.
In 1993, Ramzi Yousef, a terrorist with alleged ties to al Qaeda, bombed the World Trade Center. Two years later, a car bomb exploded outside the U.S.-operated Saudi National Guard Training Center in Riyadh, killing five Americans. Evidence later recovered from a CD-ROM linked Bin Laden to that attack. Al Qaeda members were also blamed for the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa that killed 224 people, as well as for the 2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen, which killed 17 American sailors.
In the summer of 1996, Bin Laden moved to Afghanistan, where he partnered with Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar. On Aug. 23 of that year, bin Laden officially declared jihad against the Americans whom he considered to be occupying Muslim holy lands.
"Muslims burn with anger at America," he said in his declaration of war, linking the statement to the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia. "For its own good, America should leave [Saudi Arabia.] ... There is no more important duty than pushing the American enemy out of the holy land. ... The presence of the USA Crusader military forces on land, sea and air of the states of the Islamic Gulf is the greatest danger threatening the largest oil reserve in the world."
The following year, in an interview with CNN, bin Laden declared war against the U.S. at large, saying, "We declared jihad against the U.S. government, because the U.S. government is unjust, criminal and tyrannical."
In a videotape found weeks after the Sept. 11 2001, attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, bin Laden took responsibility for the strikes:
"We calculated in advance the number of casualties from the enemy, who would be killed based on the position of the tower," he said on the tape. "We calculated that the floors that would be hit would be three or four floors. I was the most optimistic of them all."
After the attacks, U.S. President George W. Bush committed U.S. troops to a "war on terror" and began a renewed hunt for bin Laden that would last nearly 10 years.
Bin Laden eluded capture, but continued to act as the leader of al Qaeda. In a speech made public on Jan. 26, 2006, he reaffirmed the organization's war against the United States, saying, "Days and nights will not go by until we take revenge as we did on 11 September, God willing, and until your minds are exhausted and your lives become miserable."
Despite the threat, bin Laden did not live to see another successful attack on U.S. soil. More than five years later, President Obama announced that American soldiers had killed the al Qaeda leader after a firefight in the Pakistani compound where he had been hiding. "Justice has been done," Obama said in a televised address, calling bin Laden's death an "achievement" that was "a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people."
But his death may further galvanize the U.S. public's growing majority opposition to continued war in Afghanistan. The death also may prompt attempts retribution from bin Laden's like-minded comrades; in a video statement made public months after the Sept. 11 attacks, he urged his supporters to redouble their efforts to eradicate the United States should he be killed.
Yet while once viewed as an "agile chief executive officer issuing orders and soliciting ideas from subordinates," as a February 2010 Congressional Research Service study described him, bin Laden's power has been on the wane. Al Qaeda currently has affiliates in more than 70 countries, but with a dispersed command structure and no clear center of gravity, according to the CRS study.
But, the report cautioned, "While a degraded corporate Al Qaeda may be welcome news to many, a trend has emerged over the past few years that some view as more difficult to detect, if not potentially more lethal."
"Al Qaeda is already diffuse, but it is likely to splinter even more, which creates potential dangers for us and vulnerabilities for them," Philip J. Crowley, a former assistant secretary of State for public affairs, similarly warned in a Twitter message Sunday night, shortly after the announcement of bin Laden's death.
While bin Laden's power may have ebbed in recent years, some say he leaves behind an indelible historical legacy. So reckons Lawrence Wright, whose book on al Qaeda and the events leading up to Sept. 11, "The Looming Tower," is one of the definitive accounts of the organization and the man who led it.
Bin Laden's goal, Wright argued, was to die in pursuit of his dream.
"If you catch him, don't kill him -- that's his goal," Wright told a roomful of former top counterterrorism officials and investigative journalists at an April 9 conference in Berkeley, Calif. "He wants to be a martyr," Wright said of bin Laden. "That way, his legend will last for who knows how long."
Wright cautioned that killing bin Laden would simply play into his fantasies. Instead, Wright suggested, authorities pursuing the world's most famous fugitive should capture him and take him to the sites where his followers had killed innocent civilians -- many of them practicing Muslims -- in pursuit of al Qaeda's dream. There, bin Laden should hear from survivors and the families of the dead, and be forced to explain himself.
"You have to deal with not just the man," Wright said. "You have to deal with the legacy."
For his part, bin Laden said he hoped that the arc of his life would inspire like-minded jihadists to emulate him. "America can't get me alive," he reportedly said in an interview with a Pakistani journalist in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. "I can be eliminated, but not my mission."
Laura Gottesdiener contributed to this report.