The Obama administration presented new details Monday about the death of Osama bin Laden, portraying the spiritual leader of al-Qaeda as a reclusive figure who had lived in relative luxury and whose final moments had finally exposed his cowardice.
As Americans solemnly remembered those killed at bin Laden’s command, senior administration officials sought to turn their tactical military victory into a moral one by undermining the heroic image he had long cultivated among his followers. They stressed that he had been discovered not in a remote cave, but in a mansion in a wealthy Pakistani city. They also sought to suggest that, as he tried to escape U.S. Special Operations forces, he may have used one of his wives as a shield.
“Here is bin Laden, who has been calling for these attacks, living in this million-dollar-plus compound, living in an area that is far removed from the front, hiding behind women who were put in front of him as a shield,” John O. Brennan, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser for counterterrorism, told reporters at the White House. “I think it really just speaks to just how false his narrative has been over the years.”
Administration officials continued releasing select details of the raid that killed bin Laden — conducted in the pre-dawn hours Monday in Abbottabad, deep inside Pakistan — as part of their argument that U.S. forces had acted appropriately in violating an ally’s sovereignty in pursuit of the al-Qaeda leader, something Obama had warned he would do even before taking office.
The operation drew praise from across the political spectrum, as Republicans and Democrats hailed bin Laden’s killing as a fitting coda to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Even the administration’s harshest critics, including former vice president Richard B. Cheney, offered their congratulations.
After flying bin Laden’s body to the USS Carl Vinson, U.S. officials performed the rituals of Islamic burial, including wrapping it in a white shroud, before tipping it into the Arabian Sea. Officials said the decision was made to comply with the Islamic mandate to bury a body within 24 hours after death. A burial at sea also ensured that bin Laden would have no grave site for his followers to use as a shrine.
U.S. officials said DNA tests performed Monday confirmed with 99.9 percent certainty that the body removed from the one-acre compound in Abbottabad was bin Laden’s, although the administration has yet to release evidence that he is dead.
“We are going to continue to look at the information that we have and make sure that we’re able to share what we can, because we want to make sure that not only the American people but the world understand exactly what happened and the confidence that we have that it was conducted in accordance with the mission design,” Brennan said. “At the same time, we don’t want to do anything that’s going to compromise our ability to be as successful the next time we get one of these guys and take them off the battlefield.”
The administration’s effort to gain a public relations advantage from bin Laden’s death is consistent with Obama’s larger effort to mend U.S. relations with the Muslim world, which is undergoing historic political change in the Arab Middle East and North Africa.
Obama has said that largely peaceful demonstrations — which have toppled governments in Tunisia and Egypt while shaking several others — have had little to do with bin Laden’s darker calls for violent revolt against pro-Western governments.
The message reiterated Monday was directed largely at an audience of young Muslims overseas, disseminated through State Department Twitter feeds in at least six languages and in mainstream media interviews in the Muslim world. For his audience at home, Obama, in a White House appearance with combat veterans, celebrated the raid on the compound where bin Laden spent the final years of his life.
“I think we can all agree this is a good day for America,” the president said. “Our country has kept its commitment to see that justice is done. The world is safer. It is a better place because of the death of Osama bin Laden.”
White House officials said Obama will visit the Ground Zero site in New York on Thursday to mark bin Laden’s death.
Around the world, many leaders expressed a sober satisfaction with the raid, carried out by a team of Navy SEALs who had been practicing the assault for months. In addition to bin Laden, the firefight killed his son Khalid, a woman and two men who were harboring the 54-year-old Saudi national within the high walls of the compound north of Islamabad.
There were conflicting reports about whether bin Laden used one of his wives as a shield. While Brennan suggested at one point that he had, he later allowed that it was not clear “whether or not bin Laden or the son or whatever put her there or she put herself there.”
A senior defense official said that one of the men “was firing behind” the woman who was killed. “Two women, including one with Osama bin Laden, were wounded,” the official said.
In a televised statement, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called bin Laden’s killing a “watershed moment in our common global fight against terrorism.” The U.N. Security Council also passed a resolution welcoming the news that bin Laden will “never again be able to perpetrate such acts of terrorism.”
“I was in New York on that dark day,” Ban said. “Personally, I am very much relieved by the news that justice has been done to such a mastermind of international terrorism.”
In more conservative redoubts, from Pakistan’s tribal regions to the Gaza Strip, Islamist leaders criticized the raid as an example of the American military campaign in Muslim nations that they say has no regard for national sovereignty.
“Despite the difference in opinions and agenda between us and them, we condemn the assassination of a Muslim and Arab warrior and we pray to God that his soul rests in peace,” said Ismail Haniyeh, a leader of the armed Palestinian movement Hamas in the Gaza Strip, where he serves as prime minister.
The operation also revived the politically charged subject of harsh interrogation techniques practiced by the George W. Bush administration.
Critical information used in the raid came from detainees subjected to what Bush administration officials called “enhanced interrogation” measures, which Obama prohibited soon after taking office. Abu Faraj al-Libbi, a senior al-Qaeda operative held at a CIA “black site” after his arrest in 2005, helped lead Obama officials to the courier who connected bin Laden to the outside world.
White House officials showed no signs of rethinking their decision to reverse the ban on enhanced interrogation techniques. But conservatives suggested that Obama had their policies to thank for perhaps the clearest national security success of his tenure.
Keep America Safe, a national security organization run by Liz Cheney, a daughter of the the former vice president, expressed gratitude “to the men and women of America’s intelligence services who, through their interrogation of high-value detainees, developed the information that apparently led us to bin Laden.”
On Monday, administration officials emphasized what they said was bin Laden’s lavish lifestyle and suggested that, when faced with death, he hid behind his wife to avoid capture. The accusation of cowardice is a serious one in the male-dominated Muslim culture.
“He had nothing to offer to young people across the Middle East and Asia,” said Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. “This is a clear choice being presented to the region. Do you go the way of cynical violence that has been shown to be a dead end? Or do you follow a path of peaceful protest to secure universal rights and freedoms?”
To further amplify their message, Obama administration officials briefed Bush administration terrorism officials about the raid, knowing they would be called by the media to comment.
“In many ways, what the U.S. says and does may not matter to the die-hards — those are hard audiences to reach,” said Juan Zarate, who served as deputy national security adviser for terrorism issues during Bush’s second term. “What they’re trying to reach are the Muslim communities writ large, where there may have been some sympathies with al-Qaeda in the past, in the hopes they can now wash their hands of them once and for all.”
In Lower Manhattan, the former site of the twin towers buzzed with activity following the news about bin Laden.
Construction cranes operated, a sign that the long-awaited building of the Freedom Tower is underway. Two gleaming towers have risen on the edge of Ground Zero, while a third has begun to rise.
“Ten terrible years ago, a terrible evil visited this place,” Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) said Monday during a visit to the site. “The construction you see here is a rebuke to those who seek to destroy our freedoms and liberties. Osama bin Laden is dead and the World Trade Center site is teeming with new life.”
Kelly Colasanti, whose husband, Chris, died in attack on the World Trade Center, was asleep Sunday night when her daughters, Cara, 14, and Lauren, 11, told her that bin Laden was dead.
She learned what there was to know when her morning newspaper arrived at her Greenwich Village apartment, the mailing label still reading “Christopher Colasanti” nearly 10 years after his death.
By midday, Kelly said she felt a sense of sadness and anxiety. She is pleased that a threat to the country’s security is gone, but she said the crowds rejoicing in Times Square and in front of the White House seemed odd.
“I just don’t understand the celebratory nature of it,” she said by telephone. “Am I not feeling this anymore because something happened to me?”
Staff writers Colum Lynch in New York and Paul Schwartzman in Washington and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.