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A Look Back at Reaction to Bin Laden's Death
Gallup Blog

A Look Back at Reaction to Bin Laden's Death

It has been 10 years since U.S. special operations forces killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. The covert military operation, ordered by then-President Barack Obama, was executed on May 2, 2011 -- four months shy of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, one of many acts of terrorism orchestrated by bin Laden. In the wake of the surprising announcement of bin Laden's death, Gallup polling captured how it affected public attitudes.

Support for Mission to Kill Bin Laden and Credit for It

The U.S. public was largely supportive of the military action, across party lines. More than nine in 10 approved of it, and 79% thought it was important to the U.S. that bin Laden was killed. Sixty percent of Americans thought it was better that he was killed than captured alive, but 33% would have preferred the alternative. Majorities of U.S. adults gave the U.S. military (89%) and the Central Intelligence Agency (62%) "a great deal" of credit for the mission, while then-President Obama (35%) and former President George W. Bush (22%) received less.

Rally Effect in Obama's Job Approval, Other Indicators

Although he did not receive the most credit for bin Laden's demise, Obama's job approval rating rose six percentage points, to 52%, in the immediate aftermath of the killing, with the initial increases in support coming among independents and Republicans.

Barack Obama's Job Approval Rating Before and After Bin Laden's Death
Apr 29-May 1, 2011 May 2-4, 2011 Change
% % pct. pts.
U.S. adults 46 52 +6
Republicans 9 21 +12
Independents 40 49 +9
Democrats 81 81 0

The rally in support of Obama persisted for five weeks. This bump in approval is similar to other rally effects Gallup has seen after domestic and international crises. The largest such uptick, 35 points, came after 9/11.

Bin Laden's death had a similar effect on Americans' approval of Congress and overall satisfaction with the way things were going, as well as economic confidence.

Effect on Americans' Views of National Security, Terrorism

Shortly after he was killed, Americans were about twice as likely to say bin Laden's death would make the U.S. safer from terrorism (54%) rather than less safe (28%). Still, retaliation may have been on their minds, as 62% believed acts of terrorism in the U.S. were imminent, higher than at any time since the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003. More recently, the 2011 level was surpassed in 2015, when 67% said acts of terrorism were likely to occur -- but that fear subsequently fell to 60% in 2017, the last time the question was asked.

Line graph. Americans' view of how likely it is that there will be acts of terrorism in the U.S. over the next several weeks. After Osama bin Laden's death, 62% Americans' belief that it was likely there would be a terrorist attack in the next few weeks. This is among the highest readings for the measure but much higher after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Yet, a majority said they were "a lot" (39%) or "a little" (34%) more confident that the U.S. could succeed in the war against Islamic terrorism as a result of the killing. Given this, a slim 52% majority thought the U.S. still had important work to do in Afghanistan and favored keeping troops there, while 45% said the U.S. had accomplished its mission.

Pakistanis' Reaction to Bin Laden Killing Sharply Different From Americans'

A Gallup poll conducted in Pakistan shortly after the killing of bin Laden found 64% of Pakistanis disapproved of it. About one in four Pakistanis hadn't heard about the U.S. action yet, but among those who had, 81% disapproved. Just 10% of Pakistanis who knew about the U.S. action believed that bin Laden should have been killed; 52% thought he should have been captured but not killed, and 29% said neither should have happened.

Eighty-five percent of those who were aware of the U.S. raid in their country disapproved of the fact that it was conducted without the knowledge of the Pakistani government. Three in five said that it would make Pakistan less safe from terrorism.

Bottom Line

Al Qaeda leader bin Laden was the mastermind behind many acts of international terrorism -- including 9/11, which claimed the lives of nearly 3,000. Obama made finding bin Laden his top priority in the war against al Qaeda, and although some would have preferred that he was captured alive, the American public largely favored the killing. Now, nearly 20 years after 9/11 and almost 10 years after bin Laden's death, the U.S. is preparing to withdraw all of its troops from Afghanistan.

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