Thursday, May 05, 2011

Osama death: conspiracies and repercussions

The dispatching of America's most wanted has only brought further questions over his death and rekindled debate over the future of the War on Terror.

Conspiracy theories are already circulating concerning the operation to kill Osama bin Laden and controversy over Pakistan's role, and even the naming of the operation.

While there is some optimism as to the future of the Afghanistan, and the Arab world in general, there is caution too. The killing of al-Qaeda's leader may be a blow to the terror organisation, but many commentators are warning against complacency.

The operation, while successful in itself, has created a rift between America and Pakistan and fueled questions over how committed the Zardari government is in helping combat terrorism.

There are also worries how the death will affect the war on terror and if the support for radical groups will diminish across the Arab world.

Conspiracy theories

Jubilation, shock and disbelief followed the announcement that Osama bin Laden had been killed. But while most people accepted the official story that the al-Qaeda leader had been shot twice in the head during a midnight raid on a compound in Pakistan by an elite American military unit, very soon the Internet was awash with conspiracy theories.

Some asserted that bin Laden had been dead for years, perhaps already killed by US troops and "kept on ice" until such point that it was deemed suitable to announce his death.

The quick disposal of bin Laden's body has brought criticism from some religious leaders and been cited as "evidence" by conspiracy theorists that the al-Qaeda leader may not even be dead.

Osama bin Laden's body is said to have been buried at sea, dropped from a US aircraft carrier stationed in the Arabian Sea within 24 hours of his death. Some religious leaders have said that even a criminal should be buried in the earth and questioned whether the funeral was carried out in accordance to Islamic law.

Those questioning whether the most wanted terrorist was even dead suggest that such disposal conveniently covers up the lies.

The US say that two of bin Laden's wives identified him and that both facial recognition and DNA evidence also established bin Laden's identity.

This has not satisfied everyone who want to see photographs or video as proof. But President Barack Obama has refused to give in to such requests.

No photo release

Speaking to NBC he was adamant in his decision not to release graphic photographs of the dead terrorist. "We have done DNA sampling and testing," Obama said, "So there is no doubt we killed Osama bin Laden."

The publication of the pictures would be an "incitement to additional violence as a propaganda tool" the president insisted. There was no reason to gloat Obama said, "That's not who we are." [MSNBCChannel Four News]

The graphic photos could certainly be used as propaganda, but the reasoning behind not releasing them seems contrary to previous policy.

Following the death of Saddam Hussein's sons in 2003 the US released graphic photographs of both Uday and Qusay Hussein to the media.

At the time the US defended the release of the pictures. US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he was "glad" concerning the decision to release the photographs. They would help convince frightened Iraqis that Saddam's rule was over, a consideration that far outweighed any sensitivities over showing the corpses, he said. "I feel it was the right decision and I'm glad I made it," Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference.

President George W Bush did not make a direct comment on the release of pictures but said the brothers had been "brought to justice".

"These two sons of Saddam Hussein were responsible for hundreds and hundreds of people being tortured and maimed and murdered," Bush said. "And now the Iraqi people have seen clearly the intent of the United States to make sure that they are free and to make sure that the Saddam regime never returns again to Iraq." [The Age]

Three years later the policy had not changed. When Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the so-called head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, was killed during an operation in June 2006 photos were soon released. The US government distributed an image of Zarqawi's corpse as part of the press pack associated with a press conference. The release of the image was criticised for being in questionable taste, and for inadvertently creating an iconic image of Zarqawi that would be used to rally his supporters. There was debate too in some news media that the US could be accused of double standards. CBS drew comparisons of the dragging of bodies of US troops through Mogadishu streets following a failed operation in 1993 and of US POWs being paraded on television after being captured by Saddam Hussein's forces during the first Gulf war.

Such questions would have played on the mind of Obama and his administration. But Obama's decision has prompted a mixed reaction from US politicians, some of whom were shown the photos.

Steny Hoyer, the number two Democrat in the House of Representatives, said he shared the president's view. "In my opinion there's no end served by releasing a picture of someone who has been killed," CNN quoted him as saying.

But senior Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said the decision was a mistake. "I know Bin Laden is dead," he said. "But the best way to protect and defend our interests overseas is to prove that fact to the rest of the world. I'm afraid the decision made today by President Obama will unnecessarily prolong this debate."

Faked photographs have already circulated on the Internet, and the release of real photographs may also be questioned as regards their authenticity [Guardian / LiveLeak]. "It's certainly a hallmark of conspiracy theorists that whatever evidence is presented, they always find problems with it," said Brooks Jackson, director of, a nonpartisan organization that monitors the factual accuracy of politicians. "There are still some people who say the moon landing was faked."

Some pictures of the other victims have emerged however, though they are believed to have been taken by local security officials after the Americans left [Mirror / Infowars].

Burial at sea

Osama bin Laden's body was laid to rest in the Arabian Sea, wrapped in a white sheet before being placed in a weighted bag and lowered from the US aircraft carrier Carl Vinson.

Conspiracy theorists on both the left and right were quick to insist that bin Laden was either still alive or had been dead for years, pouncing on the government's decision to slide the body of the world's most wanted man off a board into the Arabian Sea.

"I am sorry, but if you believe the newest death of OBL, you're stupid," antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan posted on her Facebook page. "Just think to yourself — they paraded Saddam's dead sons around to prove they were dead — why do you suppose they hastily buried this version of OBL at sea?"

Infowars, the website of Libertarian radio host Alex Jones, was crammed with stories suggesting the US government had concocted the killing to justify a security crackdown and called the whole affair a hoax. Speaking on his show Tuesday, Jones suggested the rising tide of anger towards Pakistan was being encouraged deliberately and could precipitate military action against a country with strong ties to China. Such action could start a new world war, Jones inferred. The Tea Party Nation website brimmed with indignant posts questioning the timing of Obama's announcement.

Even a relative of one of the victims of the September 11th attacks voiced skepticism, citing the burial at sea. "Is it true or false? I don't know," said Stella Olender of Chicago, whose daughter Christine died at the World Trade Center. "To me that seems strange, that they disposed of it and no one [besides] whoever was right there knows what happened."

Administration officials say a sea burial was necessary because arrangements could not be made with any country to bury bin Laden within 24 hours, as dictated by Muslim practice. A senior military officer said the US also wanted to avoid creating a shrine somewhere on land that would attract his followers [LA Times / Daily Telegraph].

Such concerns did not seem to be an issue following the deaths of other high profile terrorists such as al-Zarqawi, nor of the much reviled dictator Saddam Hussein or his two sons.

The burial has also been called un-Islamic. Muslim clerics and scholars appeared divided Monday on the issue of burial at sea. Some declared the burial un-Islamic while others said it is permissible under some circumstances. The head of Cairo's prestigious al-Azhar University, one of the top Sunni clerics in the Islamic world, said that the burial was "un-Islamic" and an insult to his religion. The body of Osama bin Laden must be buried in the ground, and throwing it into the sea would be a 'sin', said Mahmoud Ashour.

There have also been criticisms from Native Americans who said the naming of the operation after Geronimo, the legendary Apache, was painful and offensive [BBC].

Treasure trove of technology

Aside the controversy surrounding Osama bin Laden's death, the US say that the raid did result in more than just the death of the al-Qaeda leader. A "treasure trove of technology" was secured at bin Laden's hide out.

Cell phones, computers and memory sticks were recovered which investigators will attempt to glean information about al-Qaeda operatives and planned operations [CBS].

Strained relationships

The location of what has been described as a mansion has been the focus of much discussion. The safe house was close to a Pakistani military base and there are questions how the al-Qaeda leader could remain hidden for so long without local authorities noticing.

In fact some have already pointed to possible collusion or a cover-up and suggested this as a reason why the US did not share intelligence about the investigation or the raid with its Pakistani counterparts [BBC]. In unusually frank remarks, CIA director Leon Panetta told Time magazine, "It was decided that any effort to work with the Pakistanis could jeopardise the mission. They might alert the targets."

But Lt Gen Asad Durrani, former head of the ISI, the Pakistan intelligence agency, dismissed the idea that Pakistan was not brought into the loop.

Speaking to the BBC, Durrani said, "It is possible they did not know, but it is more likely that they did." He suggested the Pakistan administration was wary of stating its ties to the US because of anti-American sentiment in the country. "If you say we were involved, it would get many people upset because of being involved with Americans."

David Wurmser, senior advisor to Dick Cheney under the Bush administration, said that there was probably "a don't ask, don't tell policy amongst some elements of the Pakistani security forces."

But both he and General Sir Michael Jackson were both puzzled at how the al-Qaeda leader had remained undetected for so long. "It does seem to many observers that for Osama bin Laden to remain in Pakistan for so long without their knowledge pushes credibility quite a long way," Jackson said.

All agreed that the war against al-Qaeda and other terror groups was far from over. The "removal of Osama will not make much difference," Durrani said, a sentiment echoed by Jackson who said, "We won't have seen the last of al-Qaeda."

At the same time he dismissed the idea that the revolutions sweeping across the Middle East would give al-Qaeda a breathing space and a fertile breeding ground. "The Arab Spring does not appear to be based on perverted ideology," Jackson said.

Further afield he warned of an early pull-out from the war against insurgents in countries like Afghanistan and the surrounding region. "We must be looking for a stable Afghanistan - and Osama's departure does not immediately effect this," Jackson said. Wurmzer also supported a continuance of the battle. "Our departure could leave a vacuum," he said.

Optimistic voices

There are some voices of optimism following this week's news. Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague said the death of Osama bin Laden and the Arab Spring might greatly advance democracy across the Arab world.

In a speech at the Lord Mayor's Easter banquet at Mansion House in London he talked with cautious optimism about the wave of freedom engulfing north Africa and the Middle East.

"There is a potentially explosive tension between people's expectations of immediate economic benefits from their revolution and the need for these new governments to take painful measures to open their economies and offer more opportunity to their citizens," Hague warned.

"We have to do our utmost to help the Arab world make a success of more open political systems and economies, and it is massively in our own interests to do so." 

Hague praised the US achievement in hunting down the man behind 9/11 but warned of complacency. "There are risks ahead. All change brings the risk of instability and there are some who will seek any opportunity to create chaos," he said.

"If the Arab Spring does lead to more open and democratic societies across the Arab world over a number of years, it will be the greatest advance for human rights and freedom since the end of the Cold War," the British Foreign Secretary said. "If it does not, we could see a collapse back into more authoritarian regimes, conflict and increased terrorism in North Africa on Europe's very doorstep." [FCO]

British Prime Minister David Cameron also called the killing of bin Laden and the recent uprisings across the Arab world, a "unique opportunity" to make a decisive break from the "poisonous ideology" of al-Qaeda.

Whatever the truth behind the contradictions or inconsistencies of the raid accounts, this story is likely to run and run.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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