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Osama bin Laden: the world's most wanted man killed

His journey to found Al Qaeda and topple the Twin Towers started 18 years ago.

Osama bin Laden dead Al Qaeda 9/11 2011 5 2Enlarge
A Saudi woman watches news of Osama bin Laden's death in Riyadh on May 2, 2011 as the Saudi government welcomed the killing of the Al-Qaeda leader as a boost to international anti-terror efforts. (Fayez Nureldine /AFP/Getty Images)

BOSTON — The dramatic raid on a Pakistani compound that killed Osama bin Laden establishes a profound turning point in the global struggle against terrorism.
It marks the beginning of the post-9/11 world.

Now approaching 10 years since bin Laden authored the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people, terrorism experts believe the U.S.-led effort to confront Islamic militancy around the globe will move away from the blunt instrument of conventional war to sharper-edged intelligence operations that can allow this kind of precise mission to succeed.

It remains to be seen exactly how and when this strategic shift will play out, but for terrorism experts today it is all about the final assessment of the meaning of the life and now death of Osama bin Laden.

For bin Laden, the son of a Saudi billionaire who became the most wanted man in the world before dying at age 53, the journey toward Al Qaeda and its toppling of the World Trade Center twin towers began 18 years ago.

That was February 1993, when he inspired a cell to carry out the first, botched attack on the World Trade Center. It was a relatively crude truck bombing which damaged the parking garage and killed six people, leaving the building shaken but still standing.

That event motivated bin Laden in the mid-1990s to turn his full attention and his financial resources to establishing a theological underpinning, as warped as it was, and a clearly defined mission that was as grandiose — and delusional — as restoring the caliphate of Islam’s golden age by fighting a war against the infidels of the West.

The newly formed Al Qaeda carried out its first big attack on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Then in 2000, it struck the USS Cole in the Port of Aden in Yemen.

But it was the crystal clear morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when America and the world truly recognized the dark depths of the movement.

Year after year, the U.S. military and the intelligence community failed to bring bin Laden to justice. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton tried to take him out in 1998, but he escaped a series of distant cruise missile attacks. Then the U.S. military literally had bin Laden in its sights in December 2001, in the mountains of Tora Bora in Afghanistan, but he slipped away into the rugged terrain of the Hindu Kush and into Pakistan.

The American response to 9/11 has gripped the country in two costly wars, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. After expending blood and treasure — that counts well over 1 million lost lives and well into the hundreds of billions of American tax payers’ dollars — experts believe the killing of bin Laden may allow for an even more rapid drawdown of forces in these two wars. That troop withdrawal is already well underway in Iraq and it is expected to begin in July in Afghanistan. That is, if the U.S.-led military surge of troops can effectively degrade the Taliban and turn over security of the country to Afghan forces, U.S. military officials say.

For now, this much is clear: With the death of bin Laden, Al Qaeda will inevitably be changed.

Through all the years of its existence it has always morphed and metastasized, but now it will be changed more profoundly and more permanently. There is great hope in the national security community that this will prove a fatal blow to Al Qaeda, which has become more of an idea or a movement than it is a formal organization with a hierarchy.

But in the short-term there is an enhanced fear in the national security community that Al Qaeda will need to reassert itself, a dead man kicking and gasping to cling to life. And so there will be stepped up security in the coming months and a vigilance that will continue, these officials say.

“Al Qaeda is fragmented and weakened, but it will likely seek to demonstrate its relevance in the next few months,” said Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation, a public policy institute, and the author of “Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and bin Laden.”

“I would say it is still resilient,” he added.

Michael Scheuer, who was the chief of the CIA’s bin Laden unit from 1996 to 1999 and the author of the new book titled “Osama bin Laden,” agreed that there is grave concern about the short-term.

“I think it’s very likely that over time we will see an Al Qaeda counter-punch, not specifically to avenge bin Laden, but to show that Al Qaeda still is on the ground and still can hurt the United States,” said Scheuer on ABC News.

Scheuer has been a persistent critic of the national security establishment for failing to provide adequate resources in terms of troops on the ground and particularly in terms of intelligence assets to bring bin Laden to justice.

He said that the Obama administration’s surge and shifting of intelligence capabilities from Iraq to Afghanistan was critically important and has now been proven successful.

“We need to have more and better intelligence to continue to succeed,” he said.

William Martel, associate professor of international security studies at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Diplomacy, said: “From a strategic point of view, this is a very important turning point, a game changer in how we look at the war against extremism.”

“We’re at our best when we are focused and on the offensive against Al Qaeda as we have been here. Smart and strong,” said Martel.