WASHINGTON - The killing of Osama bin Laden has rocked international relations, provided closure for Sept. 11 victims and cast an unusually bright light on the secretive U.S. intelligence community.
The overnight raid by the U.S. military -- very early Monday in Pakistan, at a compound in Abbottabad -- bookends a decade of work to take down the leader of al-Qaida, the terrorist group responsible for the deadly attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Bin Laden's killing does not mean an end to al-Qaida. In fact, many are concerned that his death may trigger fresh attacks, perhaps on the railways or in the skies.
Many details about the U.S. commando mission remain unclear, and some questions may never be publicly answered. But here's a recap of this major milestone in America's fight against terror -- and what it means for the United States and for Americans' safety.
Q: Why did the manhunt take so long?
A: There were many factors, from hostile terrain to the terrorist leader's evasiveness and a protective network of supporters.
American intelligence officials tracked down bin Laden through his favorite courier. The trail may have begun years ago when CIA interrogators in secret "black site" prisons in Eastern Europe learned the courier's name. Or it could have emerged from CIA interrogations of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.
According to the White House, intelligence agents in August connected the courier to the Abbottabad compound where bin Laden was living. After American spies spent months staking out the compound, President Obama made the call to send in the Navy SEALs.
Q: Was torture necessary to find bin Laden?
A: It depends on whom you ask.
Some people, including many Democrats, have downplayed its role, while also questioning the ethics of applying force and the reliability of information it might yield. White House spokesman Jay Carney rejected the idea that torture was necessary, saying "no single piece of information" was essential to the search. Instead, Carney said, the mission's success grew from intelligence analysts gathering "tiny bits of information, putting it together and creating a body of work."
Republicans generally have said "enhanced" interrogation techniques, including water boarding, were crucial. Rep. Peter King, the New York Republican who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, said "the key information -- what started this entire process of looking for the couriers -- came from enhanced interrogations."
Q: How could bin Laden have been hiding so close to a Pakistani military academy?
A: Washington has been rife with speculation that Pakistani military or intelligence officers helped shelter bin Laden. John Brennan, the president's top counterterrorism official, said it was "inconceivable" that bin Laden didn't have a support system. Pakistan's foreign minister, Salman Bashir, denied that his nation's military or spy agency were in "cahoots" with al-Qaida, as he put it.
Q: Who conducted the raid? What weapons did they use?
A: The White House and Pentagon have declined to publicly provide many details, including exactly who conducted it. It's widely believed the elite Navy SEAL Team 6 unit did the job. The White House said U.S. forces used guns, helmet-mounted cameras, DNA testing gear and multiple helicopters, likely modified MH-60 Black Hawk choppers. The weapons probably were light, short-barreled machine guns and rifles. The commandos probably also had a grab bag of other tools, including grenades, "flash bang" explosives to meant to stun but not kill, night-vision goggles and state-of-the art communication equipment.
Q: What intelligence was obtained from bin Laden's compound?
A: A ton. Soldiers reportedly took five computers, 10 hard drives and more than 100 storage devices. Intelligence agents -- perhaps in the CIA -- are sifting through the records to glean information about al-Qaida, bin Laden's associates and possible planned attacks. On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security warned that al-Qaida has been considering a plot against U.S. railways.
Q: How can we be sure bin Laden is dead?
A: White House officials said U.S. forces took several measures to identify bin Laden: photographing the body, performing DNA tests and applying facial-recognition software. To quell speculation, the Obama administration considered releasing a photo of his bin Laden's body. But the president decided not to, arguing that a photo of bin Laden's bloody corpse might inflame terrorists.
On Friday, al-Qaida acknowledged bin Laden's death in a video posted online.
Q: So is al-Qaida still a threat?
A: Yes. The terrorist group, in its video, vowed revenge.
The White House remains "highly vigilant" against future attacks. Homeland Security has
deployed extra officers and has been reviewing terror targets. It has not issued a warning of an imminent threat.
Q: What's happening to the $25 million reward the State Department offered as incentive to find bin Laden?
A: The reward, announced after the Sept. 11 attacks, was for information leading to the terrorist's capture or conviction. Advertised heavily in Pakistan, it generated hundreds -- maybe even thousands -- of tips. However, it's unclear whether any of those ultimately led to bin Laden.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton deflected questions about whether anyone might receive a payout. Even if a tipster gets paid, the public may never know: Many State Department payouts are kept confidential, though Congress receives classified reports.
Q: Will bin Laden's death accelerate the U.S. departure from Afghanistan?
A: Maybe. President Obama has had long-standing plans to begin removing troops from Afghanistan starting this July. Now, some -- including lawmakers from both parties -- are calling on Obama to quicken the pace of those reductions.
In 2001, the U.S. went to war in Afghanistan to dismantle al-Qaida, which had been given safe haven by the Taliban.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking Friday morning at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., said bin Laden's death might jeopardize al-Qaida and Taliban relations.
"Bin Laden and (Taliban leader) Mullah Omar had a very close personal relationship, and there are others in the Taliban who have felt betrayed by al-Qaida -- (they feel) it was because of al-Qaida's attack on the United States that the Taliban got thrown out of Afghanistan," the secretary said. "We'll have to see what that relationship looks like."
Q: What effect might bin Laden's death have on the Middle East, especially in light of pro-democracy revolutions?
A: Not much, many experts say. The region has already moved beyond al-Qaida's embrace of terrorism, as reflected by mass protests this spring.
"His ideology of hatred and violence is thankfully being rejected in what we see going on in the Middle East and North Africa as people are protesting, largely peacefully, for a better future for themselves and their children," Clinton said.
(Contact reporter Isaac Wolf at wolfi(at)shns.com)