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Bob Kunst celebrates with others at Miami's Torch of Freedom after hearing of the death of Osama bin Laden, Monday, May 2, 2011. (Roberto Koltun/El Nuevo Herald/MCT)
Tuesday, May 3, 2011

US hopes to bury rest of Al Qaeda with bin Laden

WASHINGTON – Americans reveled Monday in the death of Osama bin Laden, a moment the Obama administration hoped would be a pivot point in the long war against terrorism by showing the world that bin Laden lived and died as a hypocrite and a coward, and that his terror network is headed toward destruction as well.

“This is a good day for America,” President Barack Obama proclaimed at the White House. “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.”

Obama and his administration revealed more details of how bin Laden was found and killed early Monday in Pakistan. They told how bin Laden was shielded by one of his wives before both were shot to death, and how the president and his aides monitored events in real time from an anxiety-filled White House Situation Room.

They also said they hope to parlay the death into a fresh campaign to turn hearts away from terror, and that they will investigate to find out how bin Laden managed to hide for so long in Pakistan, a nominal ally.

With the terror mastermind killed by U.S. forces in a firefight and dispatched to an unmarked watery grave, much of the country felt elation nearly 10 years after bin Laden dispatched terrorists to hijack commercial airliners and use them to attack America on Sept. 11, 2001.

“We’ve seen that spirit, that patriotism, in the crowds that have gathered, here outside the White House, at ground zero in New York, and across the country,” Obama said. “People holding candles, waving the flag, singing the national anthem; people proud to live in the United States of America.”

Praise for the military, and salutes to Obama, were bipartisan and suggested a rare, if likely fleeting, moment of unity seldom seen since the days just after the 2001 attacks.

From Texas, former President George W. Bush called the death a “momentous achievement.”

Bush was president when bin Laden launched the 2001 attacks, and famously said he wanted him “dead or alive.”

Congratulations flowed from around the world.

“A decisive step in the fight against international terrorism,” said Spain’s Socialist government. “An event of great transcendence in the efforts to free the world of the curse of terrorism,” said the Mexican government.

Not all words were kind.

“We condemn the assassination and the killing of an Arab holy warrior,” said the head of the Hamas administration in Gaza. “We ask God to offer him mercy with the true believers and the martyrs.”

In fact, bin Laden had little support in the Muslim world, according to country-by-country polls by the Pew Research Center. In six Muslim countries polled this year, his support was highest in the Palestinian territories. Even there, only 34 percent of Muslims said they trusted him to do the right thing.

That approval dropped to 25 percent in Indonesia, 22 percent in Egypt, 13 percent in Jordan, 3 percent in Turkey and 1 percent in Lebanon.

In Pakistan, a poll found Muslim confidence in him had dropped from 52 percent in 2005 to 18 percent last year.

White House aides said that bin Laden’s life of relative ease inside a walled compound in Pakistan, and the way he died, could turn even more against him and his message of terror.

“What we’re doing now is going to try to take advantage of this opportunity that we have to demonstrate to the Pakistani people, to the people in the area, that Al Qaeda is something in the past, and we’re hoping to bury the rest of Al Qaeda along with bin Laden,” said John Brennan, the president’s top adviser on terrorism.

“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. I think it really just speaks to just how false his narrative has been over the years.”

While the Al Qaeda terror network survives bin Laden, Brennan stressed that he was a charismatic and unique leader, and argued that his absence could allow infighting to threaten the group from within.

“We have a lot better opportunity now that bin Laden is out of there, to destroy that organization; create fractures within it,” Brennan said. “I think you’re going to see them start eating themselves from within more and more.”

The U.S. was prepared to take bin Laden alive or dead, Brennan said, but when bin Laden and those around him resisted with gunfire, they were killed.

Among those killed, he said, was a woman believed to be one of bin Laden’s wives. She was between U.S. forces and bin Laden, apparently acting as a shield.

At the White House, Obama and his top advisers monitored the assault as it occurred.

“It was probably one of the most anxiety-filled periods of time, I think, in the lives of the people who were assembled here yesterday,” Brennan said. “The minutes passed like days ... it was clearly very tense, a lot of people holding their breath, and there was a fair degree of silence as it progressed as we would get the updates.”

Once the death was confirmed, first by facial recognition and then with a DNA sample, the body was flown to the USS Carl Vinson and buried in the waters of the North Arabian Sea.

The reason for the burial at sea was unclear. Officials said it was consistent with Muslim law. Brennan said one Muslim requirement is that burial take place within 24 hours, and that it wasn’t possible to bury him in another country in that time. But the sea burial also meant that there’s no grave to serve as a monument or martyr’s rallying point for bin Laden’s followers.

U.S. forces didn’t notify Pakistan of the assault until all U.S. aircraft had departed Pakistan air space. Brennan said the U.S. is trying to determine who in Pakistan helped bin Laden.

“We are looking right now at how he was able to hold out there for so long and whether or not there was any type of support system within Pakistan that allowed him to stay there,” Brennan said.

“We’re going to pursue all leads to find out exactly what type of support system and benefactors that bin Laden might have had. … It’s inconceivable that bin Laden did not have a support system in the country that allowed him to remain there for an extended period of time.”