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Update 6:05 a.m. | President Barack Obama announced last night that United States forces killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, yesterday, news that sent a jubilant crowd of some 200 students into Harvard Yard, waving American flags and chanting “U.S.A, U.S.A!”
But professors cautioned that bin Laden’s death may be a symbolic victory and could result in retaliation.
The operation, which was a “surgical raid” by a small team designed to minimize collateral damage, killed bin Laden at his hide-out yesterday, according to senior administration officials.
The team was in the compound for less than forty minutes, senior administration officials said, and killed bin Laden in a firefight.
Bin Laden was reportedly buried at sea and in accordance with Islamic practice last night.
“The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda,” Obama said.
‘A HISTORIC EVENT’
Emma Notis-McConarty ’11 sat on the sidewalk on the corner of Grant and DeWolfe Streets, listening as a student blasted the President’s statement through a window in the DeWolfe Street apartments. A few other students paused underneath the window to hear the President’s speech—continuing to walk as soon as the President concluded with a phrase from the pledge of allegiance—“one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Earlier last night, news of bin Laden’s death swept like wildfire across campus.
Dan J. Giles ’13 and Joshua R. McTaggart ’13, a Crimson Arts editor, stood in a Quincy common room in bright costumes as the Alice in Wonderland characters White Rabbit and Mad Hatter, respectively.
They said they were on their way to the themed Adams House formal, but when they heard the news, watching the statement seemed to them to be more important.
“Formals come and go, but this is a historic event,” McTaggart said. “I don’t want to say I went to a formal instead of hearing what the President had to say.”
A Boston resident, Notis-McConarty said members of her community were on the planes that left from Boston Logan Airport and crashed into the World Trade Center. She said that the American public has been “detached” from the war in the 10 years following the attacks and hoped bin Laden’s death would remind people to reflect on September 11.
Many students said they first heard about bin Laden’s over email, text, and Facebook.
“Facebook exploded,” Harry A. Chiel ’14 said.
Chiel was one of more than 200 students—mostly freshmen—who filled Harvard Yard after the President’s speech to celebrate.
Not all students thought the celebration was appropriate, however.
“I don’t think anyone’s death is anything to celebrate,” Dawn J. Mackey ’11 said, explaining that she thought the celebration turned bin Laden’s death into a joke.
“Even though he was the enemy, all deaths are a tragedy. It’s more appropriate to honor and remember the lives of the [soldiers and civilians] whose lives were lost.”
Edward Escalon ’14, who also attended the Yard celebration, said he was surprised with Harvard students’ display of patriotism.
“My stepdad’s done a few tours to Iraq,” Escalaon said. “I hate to say ‘Oh my god it’s over,” but at least part of it is over. It’s very inspiring,” he said. “I didn’t think Harvard students were patriotic.”
Brendan P. Hanrahan ’14, a player on the Rugby team, said he heard the news on the bus ride home from a win against the College of Buffalo that guaranteed them a spot in the national championship for the first time in years.
“The already ecstatic atmosphere turned into bedlam,” Hanrahan said. “Does it get any better than that?”
Since the September 11 attacks, bin Laden has come to represent the face of anti-American extremism.
Kennedy School assistant professor Tarek Masoud, a Middle East expert, said that his death could have both positive and negative repercussions for the U.S.
If bin Laden was still the operational leader of al Qaeda, his death will have significant implications for the future of that organization.
“Obviously, killing bin Laden decapitates al Qaeda and robs it of its operational leader,” he said. But Masoud also cautioned that bin Laden’s position as a fundamentalist leader could lead to a backlash from his supporters.
“It could make a martyr out of Osama bin Laden,” Masoud said. “That’s why I think President Obama was careful not to gloat about this or declare victory. He said the war on terror is ongoing and that we must remain vigilant precisely because this might potentially inspire others to take revenge for what happened.”
Ali Asani ’77, chair of the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department, said bin Laden’s death will do little to mitigate anti-American sentiment.
“Osama was just a symbol of anti-Americanism that is a product of responses to several decades of American foreign policies in the Middle East,” Asani said.
Instead, Asani said he thinks the details of the mission could help determine future U.S.-Pakistani relations. If it turns out that Pakistani intelligence tipped off American forces, he said the relationship may improve.
If not, Pakistan may find itself on the defensive.
“The credibility of the Pakistani government will be questioned because they kept on denying that he was in Pakistan,” Asani said.
Masoud said he does not expect Middle East nations to place a heavy emphasis on bin Laden’s death.
“All of those countries wanted to see him killed or captured as well,” he said. “I’m not sure this will really impact our policy towards the Middle East, especially since that region is undergoing some really dramatic changes,” he said.
Masoud nonetheless praised Obama for distinguishing in his speech between Islamic fundamentalism and the average Muslim.
“I liked the fact that President Obama was saying this because this is not really addressed to American Muslims; this was addressed to Muslims around the world,” Masoud said. “You just want to make sure you’re not framing our killing of Osama bin Laden as a victory against a Muslim freedom fighter or Muslim leader.”
“There will be also a sense of justice among both Muslims and non-Muslims alike,” said Asani, “especially those who have lost family and friends in Al-Qaeda attacks,” Asani said.
Masoud said Americans should reflect on the moment and realize the immediate implications of bin Laden’s death.
“Let’s not lose sight of the fact that this is a very good thing to have happened,” Masoud said. “It’s a very good thing that he was killed and captured and that we never gave up on that ambition and that we were dogged in trying to bring him to justice.”
A PRECISE STRIKE
The firefight that killed bin Laden took place on a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, a city about 40 miles north of Islamabad.
Three other men—two of bin Laden’s couriers and his adult son—and one woman, were killed in the battle, according to senior administration officials, who added that the woman was used as a shield by male combatants.
No American lives were lost, though a helicopter was grounded due to mechanical failure.
During his statement, Obama said that top U.S. intelligence officials received a tip in the fall of 2010 that bin Laden might be hiding in a compound in Pakistan.
The compound, which was built five years ago in all likelihood to safekeep bin Laden, sits on a relatively large piece of land on the outskirts of the center of Abbottabad.
Surrounded by twelve to eighteen foot walls topped with barbed wire, the gated, isolated compound—lacking television and internet connection—attracted the attention of the American intelligence community.
In addition, officials said, the brothers who owned the compound had no explainable source of wealth.
The U.S. identified one of the brothers as a courier with connections the former number three of Al Qaeda and a mastermind of the September 11 attacks who was captured in 2005.
The courier was also considered to be one of the few couriers trusted by bin Laden, officials said.
A third family residing in the complex matched the size and make-up of the family US officials expected would be living with bin Laden, including his youngest wife.
Given the information at hand, Obama ordered the operation Friday morning. No other countries were notified about the operation, the officials said.
—Staff writer Ariane Litalien contributed reporting to this story.
—Staff writer Michelle M. Hu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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—Staff writer Monika L.S. Robbins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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