The death of Osama bin Laden

Pakistani police cordon off a street beside Osama Bin Laden's final hideout after US special forces killed the Al Qaeda leader in May 02, 2011. (AFP/ File photo)
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Updated 25 May 2020

The death of Osama bin Laden

Long before US special forces caught the world’s most-wanted man, our Southeast Asia  bureau chief interviewed him


On May 2, 2011, a US special forces team stormed a walled compound in the northeastern Pakistani city of Abbottabad and shot dead Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al-Qaeda.

The operation, carried out in the early hours of the morning, brought an end to a 10-year hunt for the world’s most-wanted terrorist, responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks on the US in 2001 and numerous other terrorist outrages.

The following day, an Arab News editorial celebrated the “lifting of a curse” on the Muslim world. Bin Laden and his “twisted version of Islam,” declared the paper, had made the religion “feared and despised among millions upon millions of people” and had been responsible for much of “the spreading tide of international Islamophobia.”

DUBAI: The tall, thin man wore a smoke-colored, ankle-length thobe and bright white turban, and held an AK-74 assault rifle close to his chest. As I stepped into the room and he moved forward and embraced me, the gravity of the moment finally dawned: I was face to face with Osama bin Laden, the most-wanted man in the world.

I had spent a good part of my career over the decades thinking and writing about Bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda militant group that he had turned into a multinational enterprise for the export of militancy.

Key Dates

  • 1

    Osama bin Laden, son of a wealthy Saudi businessman, forms Al-Qaeda to support Afghan resistance to the Soviet invasion.

    Timeline Image 1988

  • 2

    Saudi Arabia revokes bin Laden’s citizenship for his support of Islamic extremism.

  • 3

    Bin Laden issues a declaration of jihad, pledging to drive US forces from the Arabian Peninsula and overthrow the Saudi government.

  • 4

    Twin Al-Qaeda truck-bomb attacks on US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya leave 200 dead; the FBI places bin Laden on its most-wanted list.

    Timeline Image Aug. 7, 1998

  • 5

    Coordinated attacks on the US, masterminded by bin Laden, leave almost 3,000 dead.

    Timeline Image Sept. 11, 2001

  • 6

    Bin Laden escapes US attack on Al-Qaeda caves and tunnels in the Tora Bora mountains of eastern Afghanistan.

  • 7

    US Navy SEALs storm bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, shortly after 1 a.m. local time.

    Timeline Image May 2, 2011

Now here I was at his heavily guarded, mud-walled hideaway in southern Afghanistan on June 21, 2001 — less than three months before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001 would spread the names Al-Qaeda and its founder to every corner of the globe.

I was Asia correspondent with the London-based Middle East Broadcasting Center at the time and had received a phone call three months before inviting me to Afghanistan to meet Bin Laden. So, as we settled down on a mattress on the floor that summer afternoon, my first question was why he had granted me the interview and what message he wanted to send to the world through me.

Moments earlier, Bin Laden had said he would be giving only “limited comments” as he was restrained from talking to the media by his hosts in Afghanistan, the Taliban, who rose to power in the war-ravaged nation largely on the strength of Bin Laden’s aid and, in turn, provided him refuge.

Instead, his aides in the room did much of the talking during the three-hour-long meeting. Notable among them were Mohammed Atif (alias Abu Hafs), Al-Qaeda’s military leader; Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who now heads what remains of the transnational militant group; and Othman, a man assigned to handle logistics for my interview and who identified himself only with a first name.

“President Obama said the remains had been handled in accordance with Islamic custom, which requires speedy burial, and the Pentagon later said the body was placed into the waters of the northern Arabian Sea after adhering to Islamic procedures — including washing the corpse — aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson.”

From a front-page Arab News story by Azhar Masood

“In the coming weeks, there will be a big surprise; we are going to hit American and Israeli installations,” Abu Hafs said. “The coffin business will increase in the United States.”

I looked at Bin Laden and asked if this was true; he smiled and nodded.

In an interview with Pamela Constable for The Washington Post the following month, I would reiterate this: “They said there would be attacks against American and Israeli facilities within the next several weeks. I am 100 percent sure of this, and it was absolutely clear they had brought me there to hear this message.”

Two months later, the 9/11 attacks would prove that Bin Laden’s chilling message to me had, indeed, been true. 
When the interview ended, Bin Laden’s personal photographer snapped photos of us and filmed me with Al-Zawahiri and the Al-Qaeda founder, who said he would invite me to interview him again.

A page from the Arab News archive from May. 3, 2011.

“If something big happens, I will be hiding in the tribal areas of Pakistan,” Bin Laden said as he shook my hand and walked out of the room. “That’s where you can come again to interview me.”

A decade later, at 4 a.m. on May 2, 2011, I was at Islamabad airport ready to board a flight to Dubai when a journalist in Kabul texted, asking if I had heard rumors that Bin Laden had been killed in a US raid in Pakistan. A few hours earlier, a Pakistani journalist had sent me a text about a helicopter crash in the garrison city of Abbottabad.

The compound where Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Photograph. (Reuters / File)

Suspecting that the two events might be connected and following my reporter’s instinct, I walked up to an airline representative and told him that I was a journalist and needed his help getting my luggage off the flight. The man got excited at the news that Bin Laden may be dead and led me by the hand back through immigration, telling other colleagues to help me because I had to cover one of the biggest stories in modern history.

From the airport, I left directly for Abbottabad, 50 km north of the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, arriving there at 9 a.m. By then, a large group of excited journalists had gathered near the compound where Bin Laden had hidden for years, kept from entering by Pakistani soldiers standing guard.

“Now here I was at his heavily guarded, mud-walled hideaway in southern Afghanistan on June 21, 2001 — less than three months before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.”

Baker Atyani

Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama confirmed that Bin Laden had been killed in a night raid by US forces in Abbottabad city, not far from the tribal regions where the militant leader had told me he would flee from Afghanistan. It was the end of a decade-long hunt for the man who had redefined the threat of terrorism for the 21st century.

To date, the US has disclosed few details of the raid. Only a small number of people — a handful of senior administration and military officials and the Navy SEALs who carried out the operation — were privy to the events of May 2, and the US government classified most of the documents relating to the raid. Questions also remain about the

Pakistani government’s role, if any, in allowing Bin Laden to hide in a compound within sight of an elite military academy.

As the years go by, I often think of that meeting at Bin Laden’s desert hideout and whether he could have predicted that after him, Al-Qaeda’s ranks would be hollowed out by relentless American attacks and the rise of Daesh. I also wonder what more he would have had to say if we had met again.

Indeed, in November 2001, barely two months after the 9/11 attacks, Othman, Bin Laden’s logistics aide, called to say “the person” was ready to meet me again.
“Will you come?” he asked.

I never got back to Othman and so my meeting with Bin Laden remains the last time before 9/11 that the Al-Qaeda founder is known to have met and given an interview to a journalist.

  • Baker Al-Atyani, head of Arab News’ Southeast Asia bureau, interviewed Osama bin Laden three months before the 9/11 attacks

Trump threatens to pull tax exemption for schools, colleges

Updated 14 min 48 sec ago

Trump threatens to pull tax exemption for schools, colleges

  • The Republican president did not explain what prompted the remark or which schools would be reviewed
  • It’s unclear on what grounds Trump could have a school’s tax-exempt status terminated

In his push to get schools and colleges to reopen this fall, President Donald Trump is again taking aim at their finances, this time threatening their tax-exempt status.
Trump said on Twitter on Friday he was ordering the Treasury Department to re-examine the tax-exempt status of schools that he says provide “radical indoctrination” instead of education.
“Too many Universities and School Systems are about Radical Left Indoctrination, not Education,” he tweeted. “Therefore, I am telling the Treasury Department to re-examine their Tax-Exempt Status and/or Funding, which will be taken away if this Propaganda or Act Against Public Policy continues. Our children must be Educated, not Indoctrinated!”
The Republican president did not explain what prompted the remark or which schools would be reviewed. But the threat is just one more that Trump has issued against schools as he ratchets up pressure to get them to open this fall. Twice this week Trump threatened to cut federal funding for schools that don’t reopen, including in an earlier tweet on Friday.
It’s unclear, however, on what grounds Trump could have a school’s tax-exempt status terminated. It was also not clear what Trump meant by “radical indoctrination” or who would decide what type of activity that includes. The White House and Treasury Department did not immediately comment on the president’s message.
Previous guidance from the Internal Revenue Service lays out six types of activities that can jeopardize a nonprofit organization’s tax-exempt status, including political activity, lobbying and straying from the organization’s stated purpose.
But ideology is not on the IRS’s list, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, which represents university presidents. Any review of a school’s status would have to follow previously established guidelines, he said.
“It’s always deeply troubling to have the president single out schools, colleges or universities in a tweet,” Hartle said. “Having said that, I don’t think anything will come of this quickly.”
In his latest threat, Trump revived his oft-repeated claim that universities are bastions of liberalism that stifle conservative ideas. He used the same argument last year when he issued an executive order telling colleges to ensure free speech on campuses or lose federal research funding.
His interest in colleges’ finances appears to have been renewed as several schools sue the Trump administration over new restrictions on international students. Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sued to block the policy earlier this week, followed by Johns Hopkins University on Friday. The University of California system has said it also plans to sue.
The universities are challenging new guidance issued by Immigration and Customs Enforcement saying international students cannot stay in the US if they take all their classes online this fall. The policy has been viewed as an attempt to force the nation’s universities to resume classroom instruction this fall.
Under the rules, international students must transfer schools or leave the country if their colleges plan to hold instruction entirely online. Even if their schools offer a mix of online and in-person classes, foreign students would be forbidden from taking all their courses remotely.
The lawsuit from Harvard and MIT argue that the policy breaks from a promise ICE made in March to suspend limits around online education “for the duration of the emergency.”
Until Friday, Trump had mostly focused his efforts on reopening elementary and secondary schools as millions of parents wait to find out if their children will be in school this fall. He has insisted that they can open safely, and in a Friday tweet argued that virtual learning has been “terrible” compared with in-person instruction.
“Not even close! Schools must be open in the Fall. If not open, why would the Federal Government give Funding? It won’t!!!” he wrote. Trump issued a similar warning on Twitter on Wednesday, saying other nations had successfully opened schools and that a fall reopening is “important for the children and families. May cut off funding if not open!”
Trump has not said what funding he would withhold or under what authority. But White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany has said the president wants to use future coronavirus relief funding as leverage. McEnany said Trump wants to “substantially bump up money for education” in the next relief package, but only for schools that reopen.
“He is looking at potentially redirecting that to make sure it goes to the student,” McEnany said at a Wednesday press briefing. She added that the funding would be “tied to the student and not to a district where schools are closed.”
But Trump’s control over school funding is limited. The vast majority of funding for public elementary and secondary schools comes from state and local sources, and nonprofit colleges are more likely to rely on tuition or state aid than federal money.
His threats to withhold funding have been denounced by a growing array of education and health groups, including a medical association that the White House has repeatedly cited in its press to reopen schools.
In a joint statement with national education unions and a superintendents group, the American Academy of Pediatrics on Friday said decisions should be made by health experts and local leaders. The groups argued that schools will need more money to reopen safely during the coronavirus pandemic and that cuts could ultimately harm students.
“Public health agencies must make recommendations based on evidence, not politics,” the groups wrote. “Withholding funding from schools that do not open in person full-time would be a misguided approach, putting already financially strapped schools in an impossible position that would threaten the health of students and teachers.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics has supported a fall reopening, saying in June guidelines that schools should strive to start the academic year with their students “physically present in school.” Vice President Mike Pence, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and McEnany have repeatedly, and as recently as Wednesday, cited the group in defense of Trump’s approach.
But Friday’s statement acknowledged that it may be best for some schools to stay online. School leaders, health experts, teachers and parents should be at the center of reopening decisions, the groups said, “taking into account the spread of COVID-19 in their communities and the capacities of school districts to adapt safety protocols to make in-person learning safe and feasible.”
Some districts have already announced plans for only a partial reopening, with a mix of in-person and online instruction. New York City’s public school district, the nation’s largest, said students will be in classrooms two or three times a week and learn remotely between. DeVos has opposed that kind of approach, saying it fails students and taxpayers.