Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Bin Laden's death: the original official story

We have initial versions of the military action that ended the life of Osama bin Laden. It will be interesting to see how those stories are amplified as we get more information.

This is a press conference with President Obama's Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan talking about the killing of Osama bin Laden. Brennan is one of Obama's worst selections for a national security post.

Here is an account from Haaretz by Natasha Mozgovaya, U.S. had no choice but to kill bin Laden, says U.S. defense official 05/02/2011:

The United States has no choice but to kill al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden during the raid on his hideout in Pakistan, President Barack Obama's top counter terrorism adviser said Monday.

"We certainly were preparing to the possibility to capture him. If we had an opportunity to take him alive we would have done it‬," John Brennan said. The minutes passed like days and the president was very concerned about the security of our personnel. It was very intense. And finally we were informed about the results there was a sigh of relief‬." ...

U.S. national security officials said earlier Monday that special forces set out to kill Osama bin Laden and dump his body in the sea to make it harder for the al Qaeda founder to become a martyr.

"This was a kill operation," one of the officials said.

"If he had waved a white flag of surrender, he would have been taken alive," the official added. But the operating assumption among the U.S. raiders was that bin Laden would put up a fight -- which he did.

Bin Laden "participated" in a firefight between the U.S. commandos and residents of the fortified mansion near the Pakistani capital Islamabad where he had been hiding, the official said.

The official would not explicitly say whether bin Laden fired on the Americans, but confirmed that during the course of the 40-minute operation the U.S. team shot bin Laden in the head. ...

A senior Obama administration official said the commandos knew that bin Laden probably would be killed rather than captured.

"U.S. forces are never in a position to kill if there is a way to accept surrender consistent with the ROE (rules of engagement). That said, I think there was broad recognition that it was likely to end in a kill," the administration official said.
Paul Woodward of War in Context, whose work I don't check often enough, notes in The death of Osama bin Laden 05/02/2011 the careful wording in the official version of Osama's demise:

US forces on a mission to kill or capture (not capture or kill) bin Laden, killed him "in a firefight" in Pakistan. At least that’s what the Times reports. Only further into the report does it reiterate what Obama actually said: "After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body."

The White House chooses its words carefully. If bin Laden was killed during the firefight then it's reasonable to assume that this is exactly what Obama would have said. To say that the al Qaeda leader was killed after a firefight seems to suggest he was executed.

The exact manner in which the death occurred may explain why, at least thus far, no photographic evidence has been released. If bin Laden was indeed executed it was most likely for political reasons.

Bin Laden's capture could surely have provided an intelligence bonanza of inestimable value. His subsequent trial would indeed have been a compelling demonstration of what it should mean to deliver justice. But it would also have opened a can of worms.

If bin Laden had been tried in front of a military tribunal then yet again this government would be undermining the strength of the criminal justice system. If on the other hand he was tried in a civilian court, it would be hard for the administration to justify its continued use of military tribunals for any terrorism-related cases.

During a trial, there would be no predicting what kind of strategically damaging information might have been revealed that could have affected US relations with Pakistan, Saudi Arabia or other Gulf nations.

And then there would be the headache of deciding where the trial could take place.

Just over a year ago, it was Attorney General Eric Holder who assured Congress that there was no risk of bin Laden ever being read his Miranda rights.

"The reality is that we will be reading Miranda rights to the corpse of Osama bin Laden. He will never appear in an American courtroom. That’s the reality. ... He will be killed by us, or he will be killed by his own people so he's not captured by us. We know that," Holder said emphatically.
Stephen Walt had an interesting post last week on targeted assassination, Taking Qaddafi out (and not for dinner) Foreign Policy 04/25/2011, occasioned by the obvious decision by NATO to try to kill Muammar Qaddafi as part of the Libya War strategy:

Of course, the United States (and some other countries) have been on this slippery slope for awhile, given our reliance on targeted killings in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. The practice is troubling on at least three grounds. First, due to the imperfect nature of intelligence and the inevitable "fog of war," targeted killings inevitably murder innocents along with the supposedly guilty. Second, and following from the first point, killing innocent bystanders may create more adversaries than it eliminate, thereby undermining the strategic purpose of the program itself.

Third, and perhaps most important of all, going after foreign leaders - no matter how despicable - helps legitimate a tactic that will eventually be visited back upon us. If the world's most powerful countries see fit to kill any foreign leader that they don't like, what's to stop those same (presumably evil) leaders from threatening to pay us back in kind? Targeted assassinations of foreign despots may seem like a cheap and efficient way of solving today's problem, but we won't enjoy living in a world where foreign adversaries think attacking U.S. leaders (including the president and his inner circle) is a perfectly legitimate way of doing business. And notice that making targeted killings more legitimate tends to level the international playing field: you don't have to be a powerful or wealthy state to organize a few hit squads and cause lots of trouble for your enemies.

So even if this attempt at "decapitation" were to succeed in the short-term, the longer-term consequences may not be quite so salutary. [my emphasis]
Walt is specifically addressing the issue of targeting heads of state and government for assassination. But he's raising issues that our policymakers should be taking fully into account.

In another take, Ismail Khan in the Pakistani English-language paper Dawn, Was Osama killed by US troops or his own guard? 05/03/2011 reports on an alternative version given by a source he allows to remain anonymous:

Reports suggest that Bin Laden was shot dead with a single bullet to his head when he resisted capture, but an official indicated that the 54-year-old mastermind of the biggest and most devastating attack on US soil might have been killed by one of his own guards in line with his will to avert his capture.

"From the scene of the gunbattle it doesn't look like he could have been killed at point blank range from such a close angle, while offering resistance," said an official, who visited the scene of the night assault soon after the departure of the US assault team from the sprawling compound in Thanda Choa, now called Bilal Town, at stone’s throw from Pakistan Military Academy, Kakul.
I'm not sure how someone who saw the scene after the US team left carrying Bin Laden's body could have made a judgment about whether Bin Laden had been shot at close range. But that's the report. Khan also reports that one of the American helicopters went down:

One of the two helicopters involved in the assault went down during action and one official who visited the scene said there was no evidence to suggest that it might have been hit by a rocket or shot from the ground.

“There was no evidence of the helicopter having been shot down,” the official said. “From the wreckage it appears to be more a case of a crash,” he said.

But he said the one loud explosion heard during the gunbattle might have been caused by the departing assault team which bombed the chopper into pieces after retrieving their men and completing their mission.
His report also has two Bin Laden wives being left in the compound and another women wounded. But his report doesn't include the dead woman that John Brennan in the video above says had perhaps been used as a human shield to protect Bin Laden.

We'll see how this story develops. I'm skeptical about the Dawn account. But the idea that Bin Laden could have been killed by one of his own men acting under his orders does offer an alternative explanation. One that in international opinion could be more benign for the United States than the notion that it was an intentional assassination. And the dead wife? Well, maybe Dawn's account was more careful than John Brennan's: Osama "human shield" story may be bogus Salon 05/03/2011. He links to stories at Politico and Reuters noting that Brennan's claim may not be that solid.

Steven Thomma reports for McClatchy, which has consistently had some of the best reporting on the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, in U.S. hopes to bury rest of al Qaida with bin Laden 05/03/2011:

Americans reveled Monday in the death of Osama bin Laden, a moment the Obama administration hoped would be a pivot point in the long war against terrorism by showing the world that bin Laden lived and died as a hypocrite and a coward, and that his terror network is headed toward destruction as well. [my emphasis]
Thomma reminds us:

In fact, bin Laden had little support in the Muslim world, according to country-by-country polls by the Pew Research Center. In six Muslim countries polled this year, his support was highest in the Palestinian territories. Even there, only 34 percent of Muslims said they trusted him to do the right thing. That approval dropped to 25 percent in Indonesia, 22 percent in Egypt, 13 percent in Jordan, 3 percent in Turkey and 1 percent in Lebanon. [my emphasis]
Not surprisingly, alternative theories of Bin Laden's death are already circulating in Pakistan, according to another Dawn report from AFP, Theories on bin Laden's death take root in Pakistan 05/03/2011.

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