Killing bin Laden: How the U.S. Finally Got Its Man

After more than a decade of hunting, the U.S. eliminates its most hated enemy

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Brooks Kraft for TIME

A jubilant crowd of mostly college students celebrated in front of the White House the night bin Laden's death was announced by the President

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Osama bin Laden, elusive emir of the al-Qaeda terrorist network, the man who said yes to the 9/11 attacks, the taunting voice and daunting catalyst of thousands of political murders on four continents, was dead. The U.S. had finally found the long-sought needle in a huge and dangerous haystack. Through 15 of the most divisive years of modern American politics, the hunt for bin Laden was one of the few steadily shared endeavors. President Bill Clinton sent a shower of Tomahawk missiles down on bin Laden's suspected hiding place in 1998 after al-Qaeda bombed two U.S. embassies in Africa. President George W. Bush dispatched troops to Afghanistan in 2001 after al-Qaeda destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon. Each time, bin Laden escaped, evaporating into the lawless Afghan borderlands where no spy, drone or satellite could find him. Meanwhile, the slender Saudi changed our lives in ways large and small, touched off a moral reckoning over the use of torture and introduced us to the 3-oz. (90 ml) toothpaste tube.

"Dead or alive," Bush declared in 2001, when the smell of smoke was still acrid, and the cowboy rhetoric struck a chord. It took a long time to make good on that vow — an interval in which the very idea of American power and effectiveness took a beating. Thus, to find this one man on a planet of close to 7 billion, to roar out of the night and strike with the coiled wrath of an unforgetting people, was grimly satisfying. The thousands of Americans across the country whose impulse was to celebrate — banging drums outside the White House, waving flags at Ground Zero — were moved perhaps by more than unrefined delight at the villain's comeuppance. It was a relief to find that America can still fix a bull's-eye on a difficult goal, stick with it year after frustrating year and succeed when almost no one expects it.

Living the Good Life
So he wasn't in a cave after all. Osama bin Laden, master marketer of mass murder, loved to traffic in the image of the ascetic warrior-prophet. In one of his most famous videotapes, he chose gray rocks for a backdrop, a rough camo jacket for a costume and a rifle for a prop. He portrayed a hard, pure alternative to the decadent weakness of the modern world. Soft Westerners and their corrupt puppet princes reclined in luxury and sin while he wanted nothing but a gun and a prayer rug. The zealot travels light, his bloodred thoughts so pure that even stones are as cushions for his untroubled sleep.

Now we know otherwise. Bin Laden was not the stoic soldier that he played onscreen. The exiled son of a Saudi construction mogul was living in a million-dollar home in a wealthy town nestled among green hills. He apparently slept in a king-size bed with a much younger wife. He had satellite TV. This, most of all, was fitting, because no matter how many hours he spent talking nostalgically of the 12th century and the glory of the Islamic caliphate, bin Laden was a master of the 21st century image machine.

He understood the power of the underdog to turn an opponent's strength into a fatal weakness. If your enemy spans the globe, blow up his embassies. If he fills the skies with airplanes, hijack some and smash them into his buildings. Bin Laden learned this judo as a mujahid fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and he perfected it against the U.S. In 1996 he laid down a marker, literally declaring war on the world's lone superpower — an incredibly audacious act of twisted imagination. And then, with patience and cunning, he somehow made the war come true. No Hollywood filmmaker ever staged a more terrifying spectacle than 9/11, which bin Laden conjured from a few box cutters and 19 misguided martyrs. When the Twin Towers collapsed, he became the real-life answer to the ruthless, stateless and seemingly unstoppable villains of James Bond fantasy.

It was necessary, then, to find him and render him mortal again, reduce him to mere humanity — not just as a matter of justice but as a matter of self-defense. The raid took him down to size. Obama's chief counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, found himself disgusted by bin Laden in a whole new way: "Here is bin Laden, who has been calling for these attacks, living in this million-dollar-plus compound, living in an area that is far removed from the front. I think it really just speaks to just how false his narrative has been over the years."

Remember that bin Laden once declared, "We love death. The U.S. loves life." Evidently that was a line he peddled to would-be suicide bombers. For himself, he preferred life in tranquil Abbottabad.

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