WASHINGTON/ABBOTTABAD, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistan faced embarrassing questions from the United States on Monday over how al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was able to hide there in plain view before he was killed by a secret U.S. assault team.
The revelation that bin Laden had been holed up in a compound near Islamabad threatened to exacerbate U.S. tensions with nuclear-armed Pakistan, which had not been told of the raid in advance.
The shrouded body of the world’s most powerful symbol of Islamist militancy was buried at sea after he was shot in the head and chest by U.S. special forces who were dropped inside his luxury compound by helicopters without the knowledge of Pakistani authorities.
Irate U.S. lawmakers wondered how it was possible for bin Laden to live in a populated area without anyone of authority knowing about it or sanctioning his presence, possibly for years.
“The United States provides billions of dollars in aid to Pakistan. Before we send another dime, we need to know whether Pakistan truly stands with us in the fight against terrorism,” said Senator Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee that apportions government spending.
The White House acknowledged there was good reason for U.S. lawmakers, already doubtful of Pakistan’s cooperation against al Qaeda, to demand to know whether bin Laden had been “hiding in plain sight” and to raise questions about continued U.S. aid to Islamabad.
Bin Laden’s hideaway, built in 2005, was about eight times larger than other homes nearby. With its 12- to 18-foot walls topped with barbed wire, internal walls for extra privacy, and access controlled through two security gates, it looked like a strongman’s compound.
White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan said it was “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.”
President Barack Obama declared the world was a safer and “better place” with bin Laden dead. But the euphoria that drew flag-waving crowds to “Ground Zero” of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack in New York was tempered by calls for vigilance against retaliation by his followers.
Obama planned to travel to New York on Thursday to visit Ground Zero and meet families of Sept. 11 victims.
Bin Laden was given a sea burial after Muslim funeral rites on a U.S. aircraft carrier, the Carl Vinson. His shrouded body was placed in a weighted bag and eased into the north Arabian Sea, the U.S. military said.
The Obama administration was weighing whether to release a photo of bin Laden’s body as proof that he had been killed.
Americans clamored for details about the secret U.S. military mission.
A small U.S. strike team, dropped by helicopter to bin Laden’s hide-out near the Pakistani capital Islamabad under the cover of night, shot the al Qaeda leader to death with a bullet to the head. He did not return fire.
Bin Laden’s wife, originally thought killed, was only wounded. Another woman was killed in the raid, along with one of bin Laden’s sons, in the tense 40 minutes of fighting. She had not been used as a human shield as first thought.
Television pictures from inside the house showed bloodstains smeared across a floor next to a large bed.
Obama and his staff followed the raid minute-by-minute via a live video feed in the White House situation room, and there was relief when the commandos, including members of the Navy’s elite Seals unit, stormed the compound.
“We got him,” the president said, according to Brennan, after the mission was accomplished.
National Journal said U.S. authorities used intelligence about the compound to build a replica of it and use it for trial runs in early April.
Mindful of possible suspicion in the Muslim world, a U.S. official said DNA testing showed a “virtually 100 percent” match with the al Qaeda leader.
“Yesterday is a defining moment in the war against al Qaeda, the war on terrorism, by decapitating the head of the snake known as al Qaeda,” Brennan said.
Under bin Laden’s leadership, al Qaeda militants struck targets from Indonesia to the European capitals of Madrid and London.
But it was the September 11 attacks, in which al Qaeda militants used hijacked planes to strike at economic and military symbols of American might and killed nearly 3,000 people, that helped bin Laden achieve global infamy.
Obama, whose popularity has suffered from continuing U.S. economic woes, will likely see a short-term bounce in his approval ratings. At the same time, he is likely to face mounting pressure from Americans to speed up the planned withdrawal this July of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.
However, bin Laden’s death is unlikely to have any impact on the nearly decade-long war in Afghanistan, where U.S. forces are facing record violence by a resurgent Taliban.
Many analysts see bin Laden’s death as largely symbolic since he was no longer believed to have been issuing operational orders to the many autonomous al Qaeda affiliates.
“There are a lot of al Qaeda look-alike cells,” said Steve Clemons, a Middle East analyst at the New America Foundation. “Bin Laden was an animating force but there are other ways these groups get oxygen and can remain a threat.”
U.S. stocks and oil prices closed modestly lower on Monday as investors concluded Osama bin Laden’s death will do little to ease global economic and political risks.
The U.S. dollar erased early gains and the euro hit a 17-month high against the greenback on bets euro-zone interest rates will keep rising to fend off inflation.
Analysts warned that objections from some Muslim clerics to the sea burial could stoke anti-American sentiment. The clerics questioned whether the United States followed proper Islamic tradition, saying Muslims should not be buried at sea unless they died during a voyage.
The United States issued security warnings to Americans worldwide. CIA Director Leon Panetta said al Qaeda would “almost certainly” try to avenge bin Laden’s death.
France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy hailed the killing as a coup in the fight against terrorism, but he, too, warned it did not spell al Qaeda’s demise. British Prime Minister David Cameron said the West should be “particularly vigilant.”
Vows to avenge bin Laden’s death appeared quickly in Islamist militant forums, a key means by which al Qaeda leaders have passed on information. “God’s revenge on you, you Roman dog, God’s revenge on you crusaders,” one forum member wrote.
It was the biggest national security victory for the president since he took office in early 2009 and will make it difficult for Republicans to portray Democrats as weak on security as he seeks re-election in 2012.
Republicans were eager to express appreciation for the role Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, played from the beginning to search for bin Laden, but Obama supporters saw it another way:
“It took Obama to get Osama,” said a tee shirt vendor in Washington selling shirts with that slogan emblazoned on them.
In Saudi Arabia, bin Laden’s native land, there was a mood of disbelief and sorrow among many. The Palestinian Islamist group Hamas mourned bin Laden as an “Arab holy warrior.”
But many in the Arab world felt his death was long overdue. For many Arabs, inspired by the popular upheavals in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere over the past few months, the news of bin Laden’s death had less significance than it once might have.
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart, Jeff Mason, Patricia Zengerle, Arshad Mohammed, Alister Bull, Missy Ryan, Mark Hosenball, Richard Cowan, Andrew Quinn, Tabassum Zakaria, Joanne Allen and David Morgan in Washington and Chris Allbritton in Islamabad; Writing by Steve Holland and Matt Spetalnick; editing by Philip Barbara)