WASHINGTON — Osama bin Laden, the Saudi extremist whose al-Qaida terrorist organization killed more than 3,000 people in coordinated attacks on the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, is dead following a military operation in Pakistan and the U.S. has recovered his body, U.S. President Barack Obama announced Sunday night.
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“Justice has been done,” the president declared as crowds formed outside the White House to celebrate, singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “We Are the Champions,” NBC News reported.
Obama said bin Laden, whom he called a terrorist “responsible for the murder of thousands of American men, women and children,” was killed in Pakistan earlier in the day after a firefight in an operation that was based on U.S. intelligence.
Charles Wolf of New York, whose wife, Katherine, died on Sept, 11, 2001, rejoiced at the news, which he called “wonderful.”
“I am really glad that man’s evil is off this earth forever,” Wolf said. “I am just very glad that they got him.”
Former President George W. Bush said in a statement that he had personally been informed by Obama of the death of the terrorist leader whose attacks forever defined his eight years in office.
“This momentous achievement marks a victory for America, for people who seek peace around the world, and for all those who lost loved ones on September 11, 2001,” the former president said.
“The fight against terror goes on, but tonight America has sent an unmistakable message: No matter how long it takes, justice will be done.”
Obama echoed his predecessor, declaring that “the death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s struggle to defeat al-Qaida.”
But he stressed that the effort against the organization continues.
“We must and we will remain vigilant at home and abroad,” he said, while emphasizing that “the United States is not and never will be at war with Islam.”
Bin Laden shot in the head, U.S. says
Officials had long believed that bin Laden was hiding a mountainous region along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. In August, U.S. intelligence officials got a tip on his whereabouts, which led to the operation that culminated Sunday, Obama said.
U.S. officials told NBC News that U.S. Special Operations forces carried out the attack on the al-Qaida compound, killing bin Laden when they shot him in the head during a firefight.
The special operations forces returned with the body to Afghanistan, the sources said.
Reaction to the news was swift.
Bonnie McEneaney, 57, whose husband, Eamon, died in the 9/11 attacks, said the death of bin Laden was “long overdue.”
“It doesn’t bring back all the wonderful people who were killed 10 years ago,” McEneaney told msnbc.com by phone from her home in New Canaan, Conn.
“I’m completely numb. I’m stunned,” she said.
“The first thought I had in my mind was that it didn’t bring my son back,” Jack Lynch, who lost his son, New York City firefighter Michael Francis Lynch, on Sept. 11, 2001, told msnbc.com.
“You cut the head off a snake, you’d think it would kill the snake. But someone will take his place,” Lynch said. “But people like him still exist. The fact that he’s gone is not going to stop terrorism.”
Lynch, 75, is a retired transit worker. His family’s charity, the Michael Lynch Memorial Foundation, has made grants to send dozens of students to college. He said he would not celebrate bin Laden’s death.
“I understand that bin Laden was an evil person. He may have believed in what he was doing. I’m not going to judge him,” Lynch said. “I’m sure some people will look at this and they’ll be gratified that he’s dead, but me personally, I’m going to leave his fate in God’s hands.”
Reaction from U.S. officials who have been entrenched in the battle against al-Qaida for years were more jubilant.
‘The world is a better place’
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Obama’s opponent in the 2008 election, said he was “overjoyed that we finally got the world’s top terrorist.”
“The world is a better and more just place now that Osama bin Laden is no longer in it,” McCain said in a statement. “I hope the families of the victims of the September 11th attacks will sleep easier tonight and every night hence knowing that justice has been done.
“I commend the President and his team, as well as our men and women in uniform and our intelligence professionals, for this superb achievement,” McCain continued. “But while we take heart in the news that Osama bin Laden is dead, we must be mindful that al-Qaeda and its terrorist allies are still lethal and determined enemies, and we must remain vigilant to defeat them.”
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said that “today, the American people have seen justice.”
“In 2001, President Bush said ‘we will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail.’ President Bush deserves great credit for putting action behind those words,” King said in a statement. “President Obama deserves equal credit for his resolve in this long war against al-Qaeda.”
But the development also raised concerns that reprisal attacks from al-Qaida and other Islamist extremist groups could follow soon.A U.S. official said there were no immediate plans to urge state and local officials to change their security posture in response, but police in New York, site of the deadliest attack on Sept. 11, said they had already begun “ramp up” their security on their own, strictly as a precaution.Check back for updates on this developing story.
By Alex Johnson of msnbc.com with Bill Dedman and JoNel Aleccia of msnbc.com and Jim Miklaszewski, Luke Russert, Kelly O’Donnell, Mike Viqueira and Athena Jones of NBC News.