The “graphic” photographs would be used as a “propaganda tool” by terrorist organisations if they were published, he said.
But the president risked a row with the head of the CIA, who had promised the pictures would be released to silence doubters, and with families of 9/11 victims who want them to provide “closure”.
In an interview on US television, Mr Obama said: “Given the graphic nature of these photos, it would create a national security risk. We don’t want this floating around as incitement to additional violence or a propaganda tool. That is not who we are. We don’t trot out this stuff as trophies.”
He told CBS: “There is no doubt we have killed Osama bin Laden. The fact of the matter is you will not see bin Laden walking on this Earth again.”
However, a photograph of the al-Qaeda leader with a gaping bullet wound in his face has already circulated among United States congressmen, leading to speculation that it could be leaked in days to come.
In Pakistan, in contrast, grisly photographs of the three other men killed in the raid, including one of bin Laden’s sons, were made public. In other developments:
• US officials disclosed that commandos had been told to assume bin Laden was wearing a suicide vest and should therefore be killed on sight unless he was found naked.
• The al-Qaeda leader had €500 and two telephone numbers sewn into his clothing, suggesting he was ready to flee at a moment’s notice.
• Pakistan refused to allow the US to interrogate a wife of bin Laden captured in the raid, further straining diplomatic relations.
• The US said it expected to add names to the terrorist watch list as a result of material found in mobile phones and hard drives at bin Laden’s compound.
• The US attorney general described his killing as “an act of national self-defence”.
A row broke out over whether to release pictures of bin Laden’s body almost as soon as his death was announced on Monday. Many US politicians argued that it was essential to prevent conspiracy theories, especially in the Arab world.
Yesterday morning, Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, said there was “no question” that the pictures would be released, adding: “We have to reveal to the rest of the world the fact that we were able to get him and kill him.”
But Mr Obama took to the air waves to issue an impassioned defence of his decision to keep the pictures under wraps, and to assure the world that bin Laden was dead.
He said that when first shown the pictures, his immediate reaction had been “it was him” and since then “we have done DNA testing and sampling so there is no doubt that bin Laden is dead.
“Certainly there is no doubt among al-Qaeda members that he is dead. And so we don’t think that a photograph in and of itself is going to make any difference.”
Mr Obama risks being criticised over the decision when he meets families of 9/11 victims today atGround Zero in New York, the site of the World Trade Center towers demolished in the terrorist attacks of 2001.
One of the photographs was taken shortly after bin Laden was shot twice in the head and once in the chest by US special forces. It reportedly shows a gaping head wound and “brain matter”.
Others, in which he is less identifiable, were taken on board the USS Carl Vinson shortly before he was buried at sea.
A US official said: “The only sceptics are extremists and they wouldn’t be convinced by one photograph anyway, so the president has to weigh the potential negatives and they’re huge.”
Kelly Ayotte, a US senator who has seen a picture, said: “I saw a photo of him deceased, the head area. Obviously he had been wounded… I can’t give any better description than that. When you see the picture, it clearly has his features.”
The dispute over whether to release the images comes after the White House was forced to admit that its original account of his death was riddled with errors.
It withdrew claims that the al-Qaeda leader died while firing an automatic weapon at commandos, while suggestions that he forced his wife to sacrifice her life as a “human shield” also proved false. The woman was shot in the leg and survived.
Last night, further doubt was cast on the official version when Mr Obama’s press secretary, Jay Carney, repeatedly refused to confirm that there had been a firefight in the compound at all. He refused to release any new details of the operation.
Despite officials claiming that DNA and facial recognition technology had proved without a doubt that the man killed was bin Laden, no official documents or pictures have been released.
According to US diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks and passed to The Daily Telegraph, the publication of photographs of dead terrorists has been debated at the highest level in the past.
In 2009, Gen Ashfaq Kayani, head of the Pakistan army, told the US general David Petraeus that he thought such images served to “glorify terror”.
Eric Holder, the US attorney general, said that killing bin Laden had been “lawful and consistent with our values”. He added: “It was justified as an act of national self-defence. If he had surrendered, attempted to surrender, I think we should obviously have accepted that, but there was no indication that he wanted to do that and therefore his killing was appropriate.”
The official account of bin Laden’s death has been challenged by his 12-year-old daughter, who is in custody in Pakistan. She claimed he had been captured alive before being executed with a bullet in the head.