WASHINGTON (AFP) – The United States warned it would probe how Osama bin Laden managed to live in undetected luxury in Pakistan, as gripping details emerged about the US commando raid that killed the Al-Qaeda kingpin.
Officials said DNA tests had proven conclusively that the man shot dead by US special forces in Abbottabad was indeed the Islamist terror mastermind who boasted about the deaths of 3,000 people in the September 11 attacks of 2001.
“We got him,” US President Barack Obama told his top lieutenants, who had gathered in the White House Situation Room to watch the dramatic operation unfold late Sunday, according to US press accounts.
The high tension gripping the room had finally been broken by confirmation relayed by CIA chief Leon Panetta that the status of bin Laden — codenamed “Geronimo” — was now “EKIA:” Enemy Killed in Action.
Of five people killed in the raid, Geronimo was identified as the tall, bearded nemesis of successive US administrations who inspired generations of jihadist fighters to take up arms against first the Soviets and then the West.
His death at the hands of helicopter-borne US Navy SEAL commandos was the climax of years of painstaking intelligence work that followed bin Laden from the mountains of Afghanistan to a palatial villa in a Pakistani garrison town.
Obama’s top anti-terror adviser John Brennan said it was “inconceivable” that bin Laden did not enjoy a support network in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation allied uneasily to the US-led war in neighboring Afghanistan.
After Sunday night’s public celebrations in New York and Washington, the mood among some US lawmakers turned angry amid demands to know how bin Laden lived undisturbed in a country that receives billions of dollars of US aid.
Leafy Abbottabad is home to the Pakistani equivalent of the West Point and Sandhurst military academies, is popular with retired military personnel and tourists alike, and lies just two hours’ drive north of Islamabad.
The commando operation, which officials said lasted less than 40 minutes, stormed a heavily fortified $1 million compound that stood out from other properties for its towering perimeter walls and heavy security.
But in a country where anti-US feeling runs strong and where conspiracy theories proliferate, not everyone was buying the US version of events.
“Nobody believes it. We’ve never seen any Arabs around here,” said Bashir Qureshi, 61, who lives a stone’s throw from where bin Laden was shot and whose windows were blown out in the raid.
“They (the US) said they had thrown his body to the sea! This is wrong, he was not here.”
US officials said bin Laden was buried at sea after Islamic rites on the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier, as many world leaders welcomed his demise but warned it did not mean the challenge from terror was over.
Mohammed Asif, who bakes naan bread in his simple Abbottabad shop, said a male resident of the bin Laden compound would buy his bread for the household every day, and believed his naan formed part of the Al-Qaeda chief’s last meal.
“I’m proud of it, because he was a hero who challenged America,” Asif said. “I will tell my grandchildren that it was not our army that launched an offensive against him, it was the Americans.”
The Shumukh al-Islam forum, the online conduit for Al-Qaeda missives, issued a statement on Tuesday decrying the world media for uncritically accepting the US announcement, the SITE Monitoring Service reported.
But the statement did not contradict the reports or say outright that bin Laden may still be alive, according to a SITE translation.
With Pakistan’s main Taliban faction vowing vengeance, the United States said Tuesday it was closing its consulates in Lahore and Peshawar to the public until further notice.
The US State Department warned of the potential for reprisals against Americans, while the CIA’s Panetta said terrorist groups “almost certainly” would try to avenge bin Laden.
Pakistan has beefed up security across major cities, diplomatic installations and around the site of the killing in Abbottabad.
Leaders in both Afghanistan and India said bin Laden’s discovery so close to Islamabad vindicated their claims of double-dealing by Pakistan’s military and intelligence powerbrokers.
Writing in Tuesday’s Washington Post, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari defended his country against accusations it did not do enough to track down bin Laden, but made no direct comment on alleged intelligence failures.
“Although the events of Sunday were not a joint operation, a decade of cooperation and partnership between the United States and Pakistan led up to the elimination of Osama bin Laden as a continuing threat to the civilized world,” Zardari wrote in an opinion piece.
“We in Pakistan take some satisfaction that our early assistance in identifying an Al-Qaeda courier ultimately led to this day,” he said, without explaining how bin Laden came to live undetected in Abbottabad.
“He was not anywhere we had anticipated he would be, but now he is gone.”
The White House released a photograph of Obama and key aides watching the action unfold in the Situation Room.
A casually dressed Obama was sitting to one side, staring intently at the screen. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had a hand over her mouth, while Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Vice President Joe Biden watched grim-faced.
Obama’s gruff anti-terror adviser Brennan, who hunted the Al-Qaeda mastermind for 15 years, described how “minutes passed like days” as the officials monitored the high-stakes operation.
After months of top-secret planning, the operation came down to a simple command delivered by Obama on Friday — “it’s a go.” But at no point was Pakistan entrusted with the explosive information.
Brennan said the United States did not notify Islamabad of the raid until its Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters exited Pakistani airspace with bin Laden’s remains.
Hundreds late Monday took to the streets in Quetta, a city believed to be home to the Afghan Taliban’s ruling council, in Pakistan’s first rally to honor bin Laden, burning a US flag and chanting anti-US slogans.