by Stephen Collinson
WASHINGTON (AFP) – President Barack Obama will on Friday meet members of the elite commando team that shot dead America’s top terror target Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, while Islamists are holding protests against the killing.
Obama’s meeting was to take place at the Fort Campbell army base in Kentucky, an official said, and comes a day after he paid homage to the victims of Al-Qaeda’s September 11, 2001, attacks at the site of the World Trade Center in New York.
The president “will have the opportunity to privately thank some of the special operators involved in the operation,” the official said.
Intelligence found in bin Laden’s compound revealed Al-Qaeda was considering a possible train attack at an unspecified location in the United States as a grim marker of this year’s 10th anniversary of 9/11.
But while US officials played down any imminent threat, describing the plot as “aspirational”, it may indicate that bin Laden remained more integral to the everyday running of Al-Qaeda than previously thought.
Amid heightened tensions with Pakistan, a key US ally in the war in Afghanistan, Obama appears to be seeking to mark bin Laden’s killing while avoiding accusations of triumphalism.
In parts of the Muslim world, protests against the raid by Navy SEALs took place after Friday prayers, but were limited in scale in what analysts say is a sign the Al-Qaeda founder has lost popularity, particularly among Arab youth.
Hundreds of people took to the streets in the insurgency-riven Pakistani city of Quetta near the Afghan border to pay homage to the slain extremist and call for holy war against America.
The crowd shouted “Long live Osama” and torched a US flag, while Abdul Qadir Looni — a senior figure in an Islamist party — told the rally: “Osama’s services for Muslims will be remembered forever”.
“He challenged the greatest Satan and usurper like America and awakened Muslims across the globe.”
In Abbottabad, the leafy garrison town where bin Laden was found and killed, about 1,000 men set tyres on fire and blocked a main road, yelling: “Down, down USA!” and “Terrorist, terrorist, USA terrorist”.
Pakistan’s weak and fractured civilian government is widely unpopular among the country’s population of 170 million, and seen as a lackey to the United States.
“If you want to save Pakistan, you will have to break the chains of American slavery,” read one banner in Abbottabad.
But the gatherings were not as large as some people had expected after Pakistan’s largest religious political party Jamaat-e-Islami had called for protests across the country to denounce the US operation.
In the northwestern city of Peshawar some 400 people turned out, and a 300-strong rally was held in the central city of Multan.
A similar number rallied in the Egyptian capital Cairo, an AFP correspondent reported, while in Philippine capital Manila a few score worshippers joined a protest march to the US embassy.
One of those who refused to protest, Abdul Maksood Dalupang, said: “The prophet Mohammed did not preach extremism. In case there is a jihad (holy war), Muslims are not allowed to kill the innocent, the women and children, nor should they destroy infrastructure.”
Obama did not give a major speech in New York but said at a firehouse that lost 15 men in the World Trade Center inferno that bin Laden’s death proved America was committed to bringing terrorists to justice.
“When we say we will never forget, we mean what we say,” he said.
The ceremony at Ground Zero was low-key and sombre: a remembrance of those nearly 3,000 fallen rather than a victory celebration, despite the momentous nature of the Al-Qaeda leader’s death almost a decade after his attacks drove a wedge between the West and the Muslim world.
After days of questions in Washington over how the 9/11 architect found shelter under military noses, Pakistan’s military has hit back with demands that the US cut its troop presence in the country to a “minimum”.
Pakistan’s army chief of staff General Ashfaq Kayani threatened Thursday to “review” cooperation in the event of another US raid.
In a sign of complete US distrust of its key ally, CIA chief Leon Panetta has said Washington had kept Islamabad in the dark about the raid for fear of the Al-Qaeda chief being tipped off.
Pakistan has admitted “shortcomings” in developing intelligence on bin Laden’s whereabouts and ordered an investigation, but is fighting to allay suspicions that bin Laden had support from its military intelligence services.
The Pakistani police and army again barred world media from reaching bin Laden’s house in Abbottabad — two hours’ drive from the capital — on Friday, setting up checkpoints and deploying reinforcements.
Some US lawmakers have questioned billions of dollars in US assistance and accused Pakistan of playing a double game, but key leaders in Congress voiced support Thursday for preserving aid.
“It’s not a time to back away from Pakistan: it’s time for more engagement with them, not less,” House Speaker John Boehner told reporters.
The Obama administration has been forced to defend the raid’s legality after acknowledging bin Laden was unarmed when he was shot dead.
The US Navy SEALs who raided bin Laden’s compound found an AK-47 and a pistol in his room, a US official told AFP Thursday.
“He had weapons in his room, more than one,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “He was not compliant. He did not surrender.”
Giving more details of the raid after conflicting accounts from the White House, the official said the commandos encountered just one armed man at the compound — bin Laden’s courier — who opened fire near the start of the nearly 40-minute operation.
US media reported that the courier was killed along with his wife in a guest house adjacent to the main residence where bin Laden was hiding.
At the larger three-storey building, commandos shot and killed the courier’s brother, who reportedly had one hand behind his back.
Making their way up the stairs, they saw bin Laden’s son, who “lunged” towards them and was killed, the New York Times reported.
On the third floor, bin Laden was shot in the chest and head.
The official insisted the US team faced an array of potential dangers and were prepared for the possibility that the Al-Qaeda mastermind and his comrades might be wearing suicide vests or have explosives planted ready to be triggered.
“It’s important to see the context,” he said.
“If you are going to a house where the people have been hostile, it’s Osama bin Laden’s house, and you see him in a room and he’s not compliant — what would you do?”