WASHINGTON — Proudly declaring the killing of Osama bin Laden "a good day for America," President Barack Obama said Monday the world was a safer place without the world's most hunted terrorist. DNA testing helped confirm that American forces in Pakistan had in fact killed the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. officials said, seeking to erase any doubt about the news that riveted the globe.
Acting on intelligence that bin Laden was holed up in a compound in the city of Abbottabad, Obama ordered a risky, unilateral mission to capture or kill the al-Qaida leader on foreign soil. His counterterror chief, John Brennan, said Monday that Obama had monitored the raid from the White House Situation Room and expressed relief that elite forces had finally gotten bin Laden without losing any more American lives.
"It was probably one of the most anxiety-filled periods of time in the lives of the people who were assembled here," Brennan said from the White House. "The minutes passed like days."
The dramatic developments came just months ahead of the 10-year anniversary of the hijacked-airliner assaults on the United States. Those attacks took nearly 3,000 lives, led the U.S. into war in Afghanistan and Iraq and forever pierced the notion that the most powerful country on earth could not be hit on such a ferocious scale.
U.S. officials grimly warned of potential retaliation for bin Laden's killing. Indeed, a top al-Qaida ideologue vowed revenge and said the Islamic holy war against the West was far from over.
The administration was investigating who within Pakistan provided support to bin Laden to allow him to live, remarkably, in a fortified compound in a town, not tucked away in a cave as often rumored. Critics have long accused elements of Pakistan's security establishment of protecting bin Laden, though Islamabad has always denied it, and did so again.
Bin Laden went down firing at the Navy SEALs who stormed his compound, a U.S. official said. Brennan said one of bin Laden's wives was used as a human shield to try to protect him and she was killed, too, as a result. Brennan, speaking of bin Laden, said that revealed "the nature of the individual he was."
The American forces killed bin Laden during a daring raid early Monday, Pakistan time, capping a search that spanned nearly a decade. Bin Laden was shot in the head during a firefight and then quickly buried at sea. White House officials were mulling the merits, consequences and appropriateness of releasing a photo of the slain bin Laden but said that no one should have any doubts regardless.
Senior administration officials said the DNA testing alone offered near 100 percent certainty. Photo analysis by the CIA, confirmation by a woman believed to be one of bin Laden's wives on site, and matching physical features like bin Laden's height all helped confirmed the identification.
"We are reminded that as a nation there is nothing we can't do," Obama said of the news, which was bound to lift his political standing and help define his presidency.
He hailed the pride of those who broke into overnight celebrations as word spread around the U.S. and the globe. Those spontaneous expressions have given way to questions about precisely what happened and what comes next for al-Qaida, for the U.S. war in Afghanistan, for America's strained relations with its Pakistani ally and for the direction of U.S. politics.
U.S. officials warned that the campaign against terrorism was not nearly over — and that the threat of deadly retaliation against the United States and its allies was real. However, the government said it had no specific or credible threat to share with the American public.
Senior U.S. officials said bin Laden was killed toward the end of the firefight, which took place in a building at a compound north of Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. His body was put aboard the USS Carl Vinson and then placed into the North Arabian Sea. An official familiar with the operation said bin Laden fired on U.S. forces and was hit by return fire.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because aspects of the operation remain classified.
The official said two dozen SEALs in night-vision goggles dropped into the high-walled compound in Pakistan by sliding down ropes from Chinook helicopters in the overnight raid.
The SEALs retrieved bin Laden's body and turned the remaining detainees over to Pakistani authorities.
Traditional Islamic procedures for handling the remains were followed, the officials said, including washing the corpse, placing it in a white sheet.
"The fight continues and we will never waver," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said at the State Department. Her comments had echoes of President George W. Bush's declaration nearly a decade ago, when al-Qaida attacks against America led to war in Afghanistan and changed the way Americans viewed their own safety.
Turning to deliver a direct message to bin Laden's followers, she vowed: "You cannot wait us out."
U.S. Capitol Police put on a conspicuous show of force Monday morning with 10 vehicles amassed near Constitution Avenue with their lights flashing and doors and trunks open. Officers armed with automatic weapons kept watch on every vehicle that passed.
Obama himself had delivered the news of bin Laden's killing in a dramatic White House statement late Sunday. "Justice has been done," he declared.
Officials say CIA interrogators in secret overseas prisons developed the first strands of information that ultimately led to the killing of bin Laden.
The military operation that ended his life took mere minutes.
U.S. Black Hawk helicopters ferried about two dozen troops from Navy SEAL Team Six, a top military counter-terrorism unit, into the compound identified by the CIA as bin Laden's hideout — and back out again in less than 40 minutes. Bin Laden was shot after he and his bodyguards resisted the assault, officials said.
The compound is about a half-mile from a Pakistani military academy, in a city that is home to three army regiments and thousands of military personnel. Abbottabad is surrounded by hills with mountains in the distance.
Bin Laden's death came 15 years after he declared war on the United States. Al-Qaida was also blamed for the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa that killed 224 people and the 2000 attack on the USS Cole that killed 17 American sailors in Yemen, as well as countless other plots, some successful and some foiled.
"We have rid the world of the most infamous terrorist of our time," CIA Director Leon Panetta declared to employees of the agency in a memo Monday morning.
Retaliatory attacks against the U.S. and Western targets could come from members of al-Qaida's core branch in the tribal areas of Pakistan, al-Qaida franchises in other countries or radicalized individuals in the U.S. with al-Qaida sympathies, according to a Homeland Security Department intelligence alert issued Sunday and obtained by The Associated Press.
In addition to bin Laden, one of his sons, Khalid, was killed in the raid, as was the wife who shielded him, Brennan said. Also killed were two of bin Laden's al-Qaida facilitators, including one who was apparently listed as the owner of the residence, Brennan said.
As news of bin Laden's death spread, hundreds of people cheered and waved American flags at ground zero in New York, the site where al-Qaida hijacked jets blasted the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Thousands celebrated all night outside the White House gates.
Many people said they were surprised that bin Laden had finally been found and killed. John Gocio, a doctor from Arkansas who was gathering what details he could from TV screens at O'Hare Airport in Chicago, marveled: "After such a long time, you kind of give up and say, 'Well, that's never going to happen.'"
The greatest terrorist threat to the U.S. is now considered to be the al-Qaida franchise in Yemen, far from al-Qaida's core in Pakistan. The Yemen branch almost took down a U.S.-bound airliner on Christmas 2009 and nearly detonated explosives aboard two U.S. cargo planes last fall. Those operations were carried out without any direct involvement from bin Laden.
The few fiery minutes in Abbottabad followed years in which U.S. officials struggled to piece together clues that ultimately led to bin Laden, according to an account provided by senior administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the operation.
Based on statements given by U.S. detainees since the 9/11 attacks, they said, intelligence officials have long known that bin Laden trusted one al-Qaida courier in particular, and they believed he might be living with him in hiding.
Four years ago, the United States learned the man's identity, which officials did not disclose, and then about two years later, they identified areas of Pakistan where he operated. Last August, the man's residence was found, officials said.
By mid-February, intelligence from multiple sources was clear enough that Obama wanted to pursue action, a senior administration official said. Over the next two and a half months, the president led five meetings of the National Security Council focused solely on whether bin Laden was in that compound and, if so, how to get him, the official said.
Obama made a decision to launch the operation on Friday, shortly before flying to Alabama to inspect tornado damage, and aides set to work on the details.
Associated Press writers Ben Feller, Matt Apuzzo, Erica Werner, David Espo, Pauline Jelinek, Robert Burns, Matthew Lee, Eileen Sullivan and Kimberly Dozier contributed to this story.