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Bin Laden's death ushers in whirlwind week as clues emerge

From Craig Johnson, Special to CNN
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Bin Laden raid saturates the week's news
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Osama bin Laden's death was personal for many across the world
  • Will al Qaeda, the global terrorist network, be able to survive?
  • Expect more revelations as U.S. officials continue to pore over materials taken from compound

Tune in to "Piers Morgan Tonight " at 9 ET Monday night for more on what the new bin Laden videos tell us and what could be next for the terror network he leaves behind.

(CNN) -- The curtain is just beginning to rise on the scope and power of the world's most-wanted terrorist one week after U.S. Navy SEALs killed him during a daring nighttime raid.

New details have been released almost daily since a team of American commandos stormed bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of Islamabad, killing him and four others.

For Americans, and much of the world, news of the killings brought a sense of relief, even satisfaction.

The pain, the frustration, the sadness elicited by the 9/11 attacks have never really left. How could they? For much of the past decade, Americans processed the world through the lens of the worst terrorist attacks ever committed on U.S. soil.

Since that attack, citizens of the United States, Britain, Spain and other countries had grown startlingly accustomed to terror strikes and near-misses. Adding to the pain was the ever-growing laundry list of indignities, the "fog of war," and the clarity to know that personal freedoms were eroding in agonizingly public ways.

Then it happened. Bin Laden was killed.

In announcing bin Laden's death, Obama called it "the most significant achievement to date in our nation's effort to defeat al Qaeda."

"A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties," he said.

Nearly 10 years and 7,000 miles from New York City, Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and the Pentagon, a team of U.S. Navy SEALs raided a complex in Abbottabad, shooting bin Laden and depositing his body into the sea.

The iconic image of the event? A White House photo of Obama and his aides monitoring via live video the capture of bin Laden.

It was personal

For Johnny Spann, father of the first U.S. victim in the Afghan war, the news was sweet.

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"If you ask me if I am proud that he's dead, yes," Spann told CNN, in Winfield, a town in northwestern Alabama. "Am I glad he's dead? Yes. The guy was a monster. He was a killer."

Spann's son, Johnny Michael Spann, was a paramilitary officer for the CIA when he was killed during a riot among Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners on November 25, 2001.

For the nation's youth -- many of whom grew up with color-coded terror alerts and long lines at airport metal detectors -- bin Laden, their bogeyman, was finally gone.

How it happened was breathtaking -- redemption for a CIA dogged for years over real or perceived intelligence failures, some shine for the armed forces whose daily bravery rarely makes headlines and the signature moment of Barack Obama's presidency so far.

Yes, it was personal. Finally there was a solitary act that could boost our collective morale, even restore some sense of redemption. You can even call it revenge. Whatever. The swagger, just for a single, solitary moment, was back.

"We are ultimately going to defeat al Qaeda," the president told more than 2,300 troops who recently returned from Afghanistan. "We have cut off their head."

Head of the hydra has been cut off, what about the body?

A statement from al Qaeda on Friday acknowledging the death of bin Laden included renewed warnings of attacks against U.S. interests and suggested that a process to choose a successor was under way.

"Sheikh Osama didn't build an organization to die when he dies," the message said. It was posted on several jihadist forums known for carrying al Qaeda statements.

The Taliban quickly followed with a statement of its own on bin Laden's death, promising a fight for the U.S.

"Will the Americans be able -- through their media outlets, their agents, their instruments, soldiers, intelligence services and their might -- be able to kill what Sheikh Osama lived for and was killed for? How far! How impossible!" the statement said.

But support for radical Islam, after 10 years of infighting since 9/11, may have reached a tipping point.

The Muslim world was initially suspicious of U.S. intentions immediately following 9/11, with some even seeing bin Laden as a scapegoat.

"When 9/11 first happened, people in the Muslim world weren't entirely sure it was bin Laden who was behind it," said Juan Cole, a professor of modern Middle East history at the University of Michigan.

But as al Qaeda established affiliates throughout the Muslim world -- leading to deadly attacks that claimed Muslim lives in countries such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Morocco -- Muslim support waned.

"Terrorism went from being seen as something that happened 'over there' to something that affected Muslims themselves," said Cole.

Who will be the new public enemy?

The man to lead al Qaeda most likely will be Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian who was bin Laden's No. 2 in command. But Adam Gadahn, a U.S.-born spokesman for al Qaeda, may also have his hat in the ring. Like al-Zawahiri, Gadahn is on the FBI's most-wanted list.

The bylaws of al Qaeda, recovered by the U.S. military in Afghanistan after 9/11, set out clear guidelines on the replacement of bin Laden, requiring the Command, or Shura, Council of al Qaeda to "pledge allegiance to the deputy emir and elect him as emir in the event that the emir dies or is captured and there is no hope for his liberation."

The United States figures to have an edge on al-Zawahiri's whereabouts after the seizure by Navy SEALs of multiple thumb drives, storage devices and hard drives full of data from bin Laden's Abbottabad compound.

But al-Zawahiri is no bin Laden.

Whereas bin Laden's charisma inspired a generation of recruits, al-Zawahiri is a self-styled intellectual whose long-winded video and audio tapes must be tedious to even the most committed of al Qaeda members and whose arrogance has alienated many in al Qaeda ranks over the years. How bad must you be to irritate your fellow terrorists?

Also of concern to U.S. officials is al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, an arm of the umbrella terrorist organization that emerged in the years after 9/11.

From its bases in Yemen, AQAP has carried out some of the most audacious attempted terrorist attacks against the West, most notably Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day in 2009.

Although attacks by the Yemeni branch have failed, the group has come closer than other affiliates such as those in Iraq or in North Africa.

U.S. officials are working swiftly to dissect and act upon key information gleaned from the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan.

Intelligence officials on Saturday unveiled five videos of bin Laden that were confiscated from the Pakistan raid.

The videos, including one which shows the terrorist leader channel-surfing in front of a television, reveal a graying figure that effectively ran the world's terror organization like a home-based business.

With bin Laden gone, should Americans sleep more soundly?

The collective American psyche breathed a sigh of relief with the news of bin Laden's death. It made sense that the moment be one of celebration, said Columbia University psychiatrist Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman.

The country has been experiencing emotional malaise, with a slow-moving economy and a decade of angst about the threat of terrorism.

Then in an instant, a late Sunday night announcement lifted that burden of pain and helplessness.

"In the blink of an eye, the gloom and doom and pessimism has dissipated," Lieberman said.

As with every free society, there was healthy debate about the way one should respond to the news of bin Laden's death. While many shouted in jubilation at the demise of a terrorist mastermind, others were appalled by what they perceived as a simplistic, even primal, reaction to mortality.

Josh Pesavento, 22, a journalism student in New York who photographed the cheering crowds in Times Square, said he felt conflicted about the celebrations he witnessed.

"I don't believe that any person has the right to kill anyone, and I don't think that we should be cheering for yet more loss of life. However, I tell myself that in this situation, these people may be cheering for the end of an icon who led to the death of far, far too many," Pesavento said.

Danielle Tumminio, an Episcopal priest, said she fought back tears as she digested the news that bin Laden had been killed.

"My first reaction was, 'I wish I was with them,' " Tumminio said of the scenes of revelers she saw on the news. "My second reaction was, 'This is disgusting. We shouldn't be celebrating the death of anybody.' It felt gross."

For others, those closer to the events of 9/11, there was a sense of personal gratification.

Michael Tuohey, an airport worker who checked in one of the 9/11 hijackers, said when he turned on his television and saw Obama announcing that bin Laden's death, "I got a little choked up, because just knowing, you can't help but reflect back," he told CNN.

More debate centered on whether the White House should release photos of bin Laden's body. Many thought death photos of bin Laden were the only way to confirm the most die-hard skeptics. Critics countered that the Obama administration would lose its moral ground.

In the days and weeks ahead, there will be more revelations -- and the release of intermittent details -- as U.S. officials continue to pore over materials taken from bin Laden's compound.

While there is no evidence Pakistani authorities knew bin Laden was living in the same town as one of its top military academies, U.S. officials are keenly aware that the terrorist leader must have had help remaining undetected in in a mansion complex for six years.

National security adviser Tom Donilon told CNN in comments aired Sunday, "We'll clearly be working with (Pakistani authorities) to understand how we got to this point," he said.

The world will want to know.

 
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