The joke Donald Trump is demanding to see Osama’s death certificate will wear thin very quickly if the US doesn’t scuttle rumours he is still alive. According to the president, America finally got its man. The body of Osama Bin Laden was taken into “US custody” after a firefight in Pakistan on the weekend. After facial identification and DNA matching was confirmed, he was buried within 24 hours of his death which was according to Muslim tradition but the burial took place at sea, which wasn’t. Osama was responsible for thousands of deaths, but so were the people who killed him. The least the Americans could to do was to bury him with dignity.
I don’t jump for joy Bin Laden is dead but I don’t mourn him either. His 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania showed no respect for neutrals in his war. His actions killed over 200 people mostly Kenyans and Tanzanians and were designed to do one thing: goad the US into retaliation by waging an unwinnable win in Afghanistan. Backed by Pakistan he succeeded handsomely, surviving ten years as the world hide-and-seek champion before intelligence possibly produced under torture finally gave the US enough clues to his whereabouts.
Born in Riyadh in 1957 of a Yemeni father and Syrian mother, Osama was the inauspicious forty-third of fifty-three siblings. His father Muhammad Bin Laden was a wealthy builder and the family was adopted by the Saudi Royal Family after Muhammad died in a plane crash. Osama was educated at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah where he studied Islamic trends under Muhammad Qutb (brother of the Egyptian Father of Islamism Sayyid Qutb) and Abdullah Azzam. Azzam encouraged Osama to join the Afghan mujahideen in 1982 and fight against the Soviets. Osama set up a database of Arab fighters he called al qaeda – meaning the base or foundation.
Osama spoke out against the US invasion of Iraq in 1990 because it put troops on Saudi soil. It was a sacrilege to have the infidel so close to Mecca. He emigrated to Pakistan, Afghanistan and then Sudan to organise a new jihad against the foreign invader. From Sudan, Osama launched his first attack – on Yemen - and also fought against the Americans in Mogadishu in 1993. Under increasing international pressure in 1996, Sudan president Bashir told him he could no longer protect him from assassination. After meeting Mullah Omah, he moved to Afghanistan and threw his weight behind the Taliban. That year he also sent his declaration of war against Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holiest Sites to British based Palestinian journalist Abdel Bari Atwan.
Atwan was one of the last to interview Bin Laden at the Tora Bora Caves in the winter of 1996. He was struck by how modestly Bin Laden lived. His austerity contributed to an air of a champion of revolution and rebellion to many Muslims. After the Taliban overran the Northern Alliance, they refused Americans demands to hand him over. These requests continued "until just days before” 9/11.
The Taliban wanted proof of his involvement in criminal offences; the US demurred. They would never offer the Taliban a face-saving way out of the impasse and continued to insist bin Laden face trial in the US justice system. Even after 9/11, the Taliban offered to handover Bin Laden. Spokesman Amir Khan Muttaqi said in late October 2001, "we do not want to fight. We will negotiate. But talk to us like a sovereign country. We are not a province of the United States, to be issued orders to. We have asked for proof of Osama’s involvement, but they have refused. Why?"
The answer was that Osama had nothing to do with the American demand, nor was there any convincing evidence linking him to 9/11. The PNAC had their sights set on war in Afghanistan and Iraq and capturing Osama would not aid that outcome. But the Americans seriously underestimated him. As Guy Rundle said, for Osama surviving the war by three months was an achievement, but 10 years was a major victory. “Bin Laden won this one, every year since 2001, a shelf of premierships, the phantom West versus the phantom al-Qaeda,” Rundle said. “If he lost in the Arab heartland, where it matters, it's because, as a conspiracy rather than a movement, it was always going to, as a real historical process took over there.”
Though many in the Arab world supported Bin Laden as a hero after 9/11, his reputation has been nosediving in recent years. Al Qaeda's indiscriminate attacks on civilians in Jordan and Iraq gradually alienated many Muslims as did his links to hardline Wahhabi extremism. The recent wave of Arab pro-democracy revolutions have also left the terror groups feeling irrelevant. Paul Mason at the BBC said Osama died politically on 25 January due to the events in Tahrir Square in Cairo.
His real death was not long in coming. The CIA found him through a Libyan named Abu al-Libi, who was with Bin Laden in Afghanistan. Al-Libi later fled to Peshawar. A courier named Maulawi Abd al-Khaliq Jan contacted al-Libi and asked him to work for Bin Laden. Jan wanted al-Libi to collect donations, organise travel and distribute funds for families in Pakistan. In 2003 al-Libi moved to Abbottabad and worked the link back to Peshawar. The US captured Al-Libi two years later and he was among a network of couriers the CIA interrogated to pin down Bin Laden’s whereabouts.
He was found in the flash suburb of Bilal in the city of Abbottabad named for British army officer General Sir James Abbott. Abbottabad is a military-cantonment city in the hills north of Islamabad, where much of the land is controlled or owned by the Pakistani Army and retired Army officers. Here Osama was housed under state control safe from international action, protected by the human shield of a sympathetic Pakistani military and ISI, or so he thought.
On Sunday, US helicopters stormed the area. One eye witness stood on his roof and saw people attacking a house where women and children could be heard screaming and crying. The women and children were loaded onto a chopper with “some other stuff” and flown away. “Geronimo EKIA,” the mission team reported back to the White House and Obama went on air at 11.55pm Eastern Time to tell Americans the news.
Obama said his troops had killed Osama. The justification was 9/11, “carried out by al Qaeda - an organization headed by Osama bin Laden, which had openly declared war on the United States and was committed to killing innocents in our country and around the globe." Death was the simplest solution, as Robert Fisk said a court would have worried more people than Bin Laden. America never wanted more than his body “in custody”.
Obama would never admit this but did say an intelligence lead in August led them to Osama in Abbottabad. “Last week, I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action, and authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice.” Leon Panetta, the head of the CIA who ran the mission, was rewarded with the Defence Secretary job to replace the retiring Republican appointee Robert Gates.
Now other Republicans want some of the credit for this “justice”. It was the strict laws and waterboarding Bush put in place, they argued, that laid the groundwork for the capture. As left-leaning Talking Points Memo acidly put it, the credit had to extend to two presidents: one who didn't find bin Laden, and one who did.
It is well Obama soak it up while he can. This was the night he probably won the 2012 election he was probably going to win any way. Or perhaps not. For everyone saying this was a massive boost for Obama there were others who said it was not. Of more importance is what does Osama’s death do Obama’s attitude to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Salman Rushdie has called on the world to declare Pakistan a terrorist state. The narrative propelling the $1.3 trillion war on terror and the Western presence in Afghanistan will almost definitely prove harder to sustain. The truth of Bin Laden’s death will also struggle against the weight of conspiracy theories with Pakistan Taliban among those saying he is still alive.
It is not just the theorists having loopy moments, the media are too. There were fake pictures and a fake quote but Twitter bignoted itself best by breaking the news in “a CNN moment”. The firefight was live tweeted by someone who had no idea what he was seeing and then broken by Keith Urbahn, Rumsfeld’s chief of staff who heard rumours of the operation.
This is not the first time the activity has been conflated with the tool, but it was easily the biggest. Within hours, the Internet was awash with speculation and memes. If social media really is the future of news it is a serious worry. As Twin Laden pointed out (and I was guilty of several of these sins in the last 24 hours) we “only deal with news through a prism of pop culture references, manic hysteria and unfettered ego”. Osama’s death will end up adding to the myth of his life.