The May 20, 2011, cover of 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 How the U.S. Finally Got Its Man

Write to Lily Rothman at


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