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Bin Laden's Death Ends Nearly Decade-Long Search

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Osama bin Laden's death, of course, ends a decade-long search for the man behind the 9/11 attacks. We're going to hear now from Dina Temple-Raston, who covers counterterrorism for NPR. Good morning.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Dina, given that Osama bin Laden is the founder of al-Qaida, what does his death mean?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, you know, he's really the symbolic head of the group, the man violent jihadis saw as the leader who was willing to stand up against the United States. But in recent years, he's been much more of a figurehead than an operational person. He used to approve every attack. He used to make suggestions on how to improve attacks. He used to actually approve operatives for particular attacks.

But when the drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan started, a lot of that changed and he went to ground. And one intelligence official told us that nothing with an electron actually passed close to him - which in a way, is one of the ways they actually caught him.

MONTAGNE: What do you mean by that, exactly?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, one of the things that made them take a second look at this compound just outside of Islamabad in Pakistan was that it was this million-dollar house, eight times bigger than anything around it, but it didn't have an Internet or a telephone connection.

MONTAGNE: So that suggested that that there's something unusual going on in there.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. And that's what made them take a second look.

MONTAGNE: Well, you're talking about him not having operational, you know, oversight in recent times. So what - Osama bin Laden's death, will it affect al-Qaida, bring it down, one might think? Or really, it'll proceed apace?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, it might have brought it down five years ago. But when the drone attacks really started up in earnest, al-Qaida basically sent out trainers to other groups and said to them: Do what you can to attack the West. We can't give you logistics or help launching the attacks, so you just do it on your own. So that's why you've been hearing so much about al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula; that's al-Qaida's arm in Yemen. And in this latest WikiLeaks release that we reported on last week, there was a lot of information about these dozens of foreign camps that were set up in Afghanistan before 9/11.

There was, for example, a Filipino camp and an Uzbek camp. And there were two dozen of them. And people in those camps didn't pledge allegiance to Osama bin Laden or al-Qaida, but they did share a philosophy. And what grew out of that is those affiliates that are concerning U.S. officials now. And these are people who the U.S. is worried are going to strike back in retaliation.

MONTAGNE: Well, does the U.S. have any specific information about a terror strike to avenge this death, or a terror strike in the near future?

TEMPLE-RASTON: No, apparently not, but that's what they're expecting. In the WikiLeaks documents, one of the detainees that they talked to actually told authorities that if bin Laden was killed, they had a doomsday plan set up. We don't know if that was just loose talk or bravado, or if it was actually true. But the U.S. has put military bases on high alert. They've also put out a travel advisory for Americans. So they're trying to prepare.

Now, this just happened over a day ago, so things still need to play out. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.