WASHINGTON — Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the most devastating attack on American soil in modern times and the most hunted man in the world, was killed in a firefight with United States forces in Pakistan on Sunday, President Obama announced.
In a dramatic late-night appearance in the East Room of the White House, Mr. Obama declared that “justice has been done” as he disclosed that American military and C.I.A. operatives had finally cornered Bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda who had eluded them for nearly a decade, and shot him to death at a compound in Pakistan.
“For over two decades, Bin Laden has been Al Qaeda’s leader and symbol,” the president said in a statement carried on television around the world. “The death of Bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat Al Qaeda. But his death does not mark the end of our effort.” He added, “We must and we will remain vigilant at home and abroad.”
The death of Bin Laden is a defining moment in the American-led war on terrorism. What remains to be seen is whether it galvanizes his followers by turning him into a martyr, or whether the death serves as a turning of the page in the war in Afghanistan and gives further impetus to the Obama administration to bring American troops home.
Bin Laden was killed nearly 10 years after Qaeda terrorists hijacked three American passenger jets and crashed them into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon outside Washington. A fourth hijacked jet crashed into countryside of Pennsylvania.
Late Sunday night, as the president was speaking, cheering crowds gathered outside the gates of the White House as word of Bin Laden’s death began trickling out, waving American flags, shouting in happiness and chanting “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” In New York City, crowds sang "The Star-Spangled Banner."
“This is important news for us, and for the world,” said Gordon Felt, president of the Families of Flight 93, the airliner that crashed into the Pennsylvania countryside after passengers fought with hijackers. “It cannot ease our pain, or bring back our loved ones. It does bring a measure of comfort that the mastermind of the Sept. 11 tragedy and the face of global terror can no longer spread his evil.”
Bin Laden escaped from American troops in the mountains of Tora Bora, Afghanistan, in 2001 and, although he was widely believed to be in Pakistan, American intelligence had largely lost his trail for most of the years that followed. They picked up fresh clues last August. Mr. Obama said in his national address Sunday night that it had taken months to firm up that information, and that last week he had determined that there was enough to authorize a secret operation in Pakistan.
The forces killed Bin Laden in what Mr. Obama called a “targeted operation.”
“No Americans were harmed,” the president said. “They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.”
Mr. Obama noted that the operation that had Bin Laden was carried out with the cooperation of Pakistani officials. But a senior American official and a Pakistani intelligence official said that the Pakistanis had not been informed of the operation in advance.
The fact that Bin Laden was killed deep inside Pakistan was bound once again to raise questions about just how much Pakistan is willing to work with the United States, since Pakistani officials denied for years that Mr. bin Laden was in their country. It also raised the question of whether Bin Laden’s whereabouts were known to Pakistan’s spy agency.
It was surprising that Bin Laden was killed not in Pakistan’s remote tribal area, where he had long been rumored to have taken refuge, but rather in the city of Abbottadad, about an hour’s drive drive north of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.
Abbottabad is home to a large Pakistani military base, a military academy of the Pakistani army, and a major hospital and other facilities that would could have served as support for Osama Bin Laden.
A senior Indonesian militant, Umar Patek, was arrested in Abbottabad this year. Mr. Patek was protected by a Qaeda operative, a postal clerk who worked under cover at the main post office, a signal that Al Qaeda may have had others in the area.
In apparent preparation for the American operation, many officials posted at the United States Consulate in Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan's northwest region, were told suddenly to leave on Friday, leaving behind only a core group of essential staff members.
The officials said they had been told to leave because of kidnapping fears. They said they were not told of the impending operation in nearby Abbottabad against Bin Laden.
Bin Laden's death comes as relations between the United States and Pakistan have fallen to their lowest point in memory and as differences over how to fight Al Qaeda-linked militants have become clearer.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, publicly criticized the Pakistani military two weeks ago for failing to act against extremists allied to Al Qaeda who are sheltered in the Pakistani tribal areas of North Waziristan.
The United States has supported the Pakistani military with nearly $20 billion since 9/11 for counterterrorism campaigns, but American officials have complained that the Pakistanis were unable to quell the militancy.
Last week, the head of the Pakistani Army, Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, said that Pakistan had broken the back of terrorism in Pakistan, a statement that was received with much skepticism by American officials.
Mr. Obama made it clear in his remarks at the White House on Sunday that the United States still faces significant national security threats despite Bin Laden's death.
“His death does not mark the end of our effort,” Mr. Obama said. “There’s no doubt that Al Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must and we will remain vigilant at home and abroad.”
Reporting was contributed by Jane Perlez from Australia and Pir Zubair Shah from New York.
A version of this article appeared in print on May 2, 2011, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: BIN LADEN KILLED BY U.S. FORCES IN PAKISTAN, OBAMA SAYS, DECLARING JUSTICE HAS BEEN DONE.