The May 20, 2011, cover of TIME
Cover Credit: ILLUSTRATION BY TIM O'BRIEN FOR TIME
By Lily Rothman
Updated: September 8, 2017 3:01 PM ET | Originally published: May 2, 2016

When Osama bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011, it was the culmination of a decade of hunting for the man behind the horrific terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

To many, bin Laden’s death offered “a relief to find that America can still fix a bull’s-eye on a difficult goal, stick with it year after frustrating year and succeed when almost no one expects it,” as David Von Drehle put it in a special issue of TIME published shortly afterward.

For the cover of that issue TIME went with a concept that had only been used three other times in the magazine’s history: the red X. The first was in 1945, for Adolf Hitler; (another X’ed-out cover that year marked the end of World War II with the crossing out of Japan’s rising sun, but in that case the X was black); the second in 2003, for Saddam Hussein, and the third in 2006, for Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi.

Each time, the X symbolized the end of a long struggle against a formidable enemy.

MORE: How TIME Secured Its First Interview with Osama bin Laden

In the special note in the issue, TIME’s then-editor Richard Stengel explained the thinking that had gone into the choice:

Bin Laden’s death is the bookend to an extraordinary decade that began with the 9/11 attacks. He lived in our imagination, in our fears and, as it turns out, in a quiet suburb of Islamabad. His death comes at a time when his influence was at a low ebb. In all the conflicts and victories of this riotous Arab Spring, no one has been chanting his name or carrying his image. But in a curious way, his death brings him back front and center, if only for a moment. It is the end of an era in some ways, but not the end of our struggle against terrorism.

Read the cover story, here on TIME.com: How the U.S. Finally Got Its Man

Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com.

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