AMERICA and its allies were tonight braced for violent reprisals from al Qaida after Osama bin Laden was killed in a dramatic raid by US special forces.
The world’s most notorious terrorist, who inspired numerous atrocities from the 9/11 attacks in America to the July 7 bombings in London, was shot dead in a brief firefight outside the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.
His body was swiftly buried at sea, with US officials acknowledging it would have been difficult to find a country prepared to accept the remains of such an infamous figure.
Officials said that his identity was confirmed with “99.9% confidence” by DNA testing after he was killed by a shot to the head.
It marked the end of an international manhunt lasting more than a decade for the elusive figurehead behind a campaign of Islamist violence which has sparked wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and claimed thousands of lives around the world.
While it had long been suspected that he had been hiding in Pakistan, there was surprise that he was finally tracked down to a comfortable mansion complex close to a leading military academy.
The discovery he had been living in the garrison town of Abbottabad, rather than the lawless tribal areas of the North West frontier, prompted fresh suspicions that he was being protected by Pakistan’s intelligence services.
The announcement of his death sparked jubilant celebrations in America, with crowds gathering outside the White House and at Ground Zero where the Twin Towers had stood in New York.
In a late night statement broadcast from the White House, US president Barack Obama said the operation had been carried out by a “small team of Americans” acting with “extraordinary courage and capability”.
“On nights like this one, we can say to those families who have lost loved ones to al Qaida’s terror: justice has been done,” he said.
“The cause of securing our country is not complete. But tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to.”
David Cameron, who was telephoned by Mr Obama in the early hours to be told the news, said it was “a massive step forward” which would be welcomed throughout the UK.
“Of course, nothing will bring back those loved ones that families have lost to terror. But at least they know the man who was responsible for these appalling acts is no more,” he said.
The euphoria that greeted bin Laden’s death was accompanied by warnings that his followers would almost certainly attempt to extract revenge in bloody terrorist reprisals.
“Though bin Laden is dead, al Qaida is not,” said CIA director Leon Panetta. “The terrorists almost certainly will attempt to avenge him, and we must - and will - remain vigilant and resolute.”
Britain followed the US in placing its embassies, diplomatic missions and military bases around the world on a heightened state of alert.
Foreign Secretary William Hague said that elements within al Qaida and its affiliates would want to show that they were still “in business”.
“This is a very serious blow to al Qaida but, like any organisation that has suffered a serious blow, they will want to show in some way that they are still able to operate,” he said.
“We will still have to be vigilant - even more vigilant - in the coming days about the international terrorist threat.”
Pakistan’s High Commissioner in London, Wajid Shamsul Hasan, insisted that his country’s authorities had not known of bin Laden’s whereabouts prior to the attack.
“Nobody knew that Osama bin Laden was there - no security agency, no Pakistani authorities knew about it. Had we known it we would have done it ourselves.”
However the discovery he had apparently been living in a large, purpose-built complex in a busy urban area raised fresh questions about the role played by the Pakistani ISI intelligence agency - elements of which have long been seen as sympathetic to al Qaida.
Nigel Inkster, a former assistant chief of MI6, said they may have judged it “better to keep Osama bin Laden safe rather than risk the opprobrium that might attach to being in some way responsible for his death or capture”.
US officials said that as well as bin Laden, three other men, including his adult son and two suspected al Qaida couriers, and a woman who was being used as a human shield died during the raid.
Around two dozen troops from the US Navy’s Seal Team Six counter-terrorism unit, were flown by Blackhawk helicopters into the compound in an operation lasting less than 40 minutes.
The mission, which was formally given the go-ahead by Mr Obama on Friday, marked the culmination of years of patient intelligence work.
Officials said they had known from statements made by detainees that bin Laden had a trusted al Qaida courier who, they believed, may have been living with him in hiding.
Four years ago, they learned the man’s identity, and then about two years later, they identified the areas in Pakistan where he and his brother operated. Last August, they tracked down their residence to an affluent part of Abbottabad.
Despite being said to be worth one million dollars, the property had no internet or telephone connections, fuelling suspicions about its true purpose.
By mid-February, the intelligence coming from multiple sources was said to be clear enough for Mr Obama to seek to pursue “an aggressive course of action” to get bin Laden.
Over the next two and a half months, he led five meetings of the National Security Council focusing on whether bin Laden was in the compound and, if he was, how to deal with him.
Following the confirmation of his death, Norman Thompson from Sheffield, whose 33-year-old son Nigel died in the Twin Towers, said: “I’m pleased, definitely. It doesn’t bring our son back - we’ve lost him.
“It would bring justice, definitely, but certainly no closure. It’s an everyday trial for us.”