Time Magazine cover, via artist Tim O’Brien (Screengrab)

The preparation started on 9/11, when the U.S. vowed to track down the mastermind behind the attacks, the new national enemy, Osama bin Laden.

It continued in 2002, when bin Laden reportedly had kidney failure. The Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, the U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, FBI Counterterrorism experts, and doctors all speculated that he’d died.

Time Magazine even prepared a bin Laden cover that could rival the remarkable “God Is Dead” cover, featuring an illustration of the terrorist with a giant red X across his face.

But the death was not confirmed. Time had to shelve the cover, using the red X cover idea later, for the death of terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006. 

Time wasn’t the only one prepared. The Kansas City Star had held a prepared obituary for the al-Qaeda leader for 10 years. The New York Times must have done the same, releasing a 5,000+ word obit for bin Laden on the Web within an hour of Obama’s announcement Sunday. Even T-shirts and other merchandise had long been prepared to capi­tal­ize on bin Laden’s death.

There was good reason for all the speculation.

Reports of his death had been continuous since his supposed lung complications in 2001 and 2002. In 2005, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), thought he died in an earthquake. The CIA disbanded their bin Laden tracking unit. In 2006, French newspapers reported him dead. In 2007, Pakistan Peoples Party leader Benazir Bhutto told BBC he had been murdered.

By 2008 and 2009, he was simply assumed gone, leading a Boston University professor to remark, “All the evidence suggests Elvis Presley is more alive today than Osama bin Laden.”

Meanwhile, Time Magazine, who had long ago given up on their X cover, wrote a story wondering when Obama would stop the futile bin Laden ghost hunt.

What Time didn’t know is that the White House knew then precisely where bin Laden was hiding, having come across Kuwaiti courier that was bin Laden’s own. It was now the White House’s turn to get ready.

A year’s worth of patience and careful preparation later, the White House Situation room would get a message from Navy SEALs outside Islamabad: the enemy had been killed in action Bin Laden was dead.

This Thursday, Time will publish their bin Laden X cover, at long last.