“Tonight I can report to the American people and to the world that the U.S. has conducted an operation that has killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women and children,” said President Barack Obama during the May 1, 2011 address. […]
“Tonight I can report to the American people and to the world that the U.S. has conducted an operation that has killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women and children,” said President Barack Obama during the May 1, 2011 address. The announcement ended a 10-year manhunt for the world’s most wanted terrorist, sparking celebration and relief for millions across the United States.
The raid, popularly portrayed as a heroic attack, killed the man responsible for the deaths of 3,000 Americans during the 9/11 attacks and thousands of others over the course of more than 20 years as the leader of the al-Qaeda terrorist organization.
The popular narrative of the elite Navy SEAL Team 6 raid on Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad Pakistan has come under harsh criticism in recent weeks as differing accounts begin to emerge.
It’s “complete B.S.,” said a member of the SEAL team speaking on condition of anonymity last month. Citizens may never know the true story of what happened, but the widely differing accounts offer a portrait of the secretive militarism that informs U.S. anti-terrorism campaigns in the Middle East and South Asia today.
From the beginning of the operation, the Obama administration made a willful decision to kill Osama bin Laden and not bring him to trial, a decision contrary to the rule of rule of law. Even war criminals and those responsible for crimes against humanity are afforded the right to a trial, a military court or international tribunal.
The raid: a plot only Hollywood could write
In February, Esquire magazine published a lengthy profile of “The Man Who Killed Osama bin Laden.” The story did not reveal the identity of the shooter for security reasons, only referring to him as “the Shooter.”
The Shooter told Esquire he encountered bin Laden in a face-to-face standoff in the top-floor bedroom of the compound in Abbottabad, where the CIA suspected the terrorist leader had been hiding for more than five years. The Shooter reported that bin Laden was unarmed, but was “within arm’s reach” of a firearm. He claims to have shot the wanted terrorist twice in the head, killing him instantaneously.
The bin Laden killing was part of a broader raid involving a team of 79 U.S. troops, including the elite SEAL Team flown in on six helicopters during the dead of night.
According to Obama administration officials, the U.S. did not share information about the raid with the Pakistani government until it was over, an act that critics believe violated the national sovereignty of the South Asian state.
This account has become the accepted narrative for what occurred during the raid that killed bin Laden, later portrayed in the popular Hollywood film, “Zero Dark Thirty,” released in December 2012. The film was viewed by millions across the world, grossing more than $138 million in ticket sales worldwide.
SEAL Team 6 operators are now in “serious lockdown” when it comes to “talking to anybody,” but two members of the team have come forth in recent months, claiming that the Shooter’s account as portrayed in Zero Dark Thirty is mostly false.
A different member of the SEAL team now say that his team was charging up a flight of stairs when the point man leading the charge saw bin Laden peek his head out from a doorway at the top of the stairs.
The point man is then alleged to have shot bin Laden, severely wounding him. After entering the bedroom, two more SEALS shot the wounded Bin Laden multiple times at point blank range, killing him as he lay prostrate on the floor. One important detail separating the two accounts is bin Laden’s access to a firearm. In this new account, bin Laden was nowhere near a firearm that he could have used to attack the SEAL team — leaving open the possibility of an arrest.
“Why didn’t they arrest him [bin Laden]? It looks like they could perfectly have arrested him. They went into his compound and they were able to kill him. If it was possible to kill him, it was possible to bring him to trial,” said Irakli Kakabadze, a conflict resolution scholar to Mint Press News.
A third SEAL who spoke to CNN journalist Peter Bergen anonymously last month confirmed that the Shooter’s narrative is false, casting more doubt as to what actually happened. A day before Bergen’s report aired, military blogger and former Navy SEAL Brandon Webb also debunked many of the claims made in Esquire, citing anonymous SEAL sources.
“There seems to be a preponderance of people saying that the Esquire account is not an accurate account,” Bergen said. Bergen was one of the few Western journalists to interview bin Laden before he was killed, later traveling to Pakistan to visit the compound where the operation happened.
No DNA or forensic evidence has been officially released to the public. Bin Laden’s body was cremated and disposed of at an undisclosed location at sea, eliminating the possibility of future examination of the body. The decision was made by the Obama administration, allegedly to stop a burial site from become a point of pilgrimage for terrorists and sympathizers.
Some experts have defended the vastly different accounts, claiming that high-stress life or death raids can lead to lapses in memory.
“I have to say that it is hardly surprising. In the chaos in these events, stuff happens. It’s not surprising in the least that different accounts would emerge. We know from four decades of research, accounts of raids vary widely, said Dr. John Horgan, director of the International Center for the Study of Terrorism at Pennsylvania State University to Mint Press News. “Given a context like this, the pressure is so high — it’s unsurprising.”
Bergen, a skeptic of The Shooter’s initial account did qualify his critique saying, “Of course this all happened at night, they were all wearing night vision goggles, there’s no electricity in the building or the neighborhood. It is a confusing situation.”
Even in the most straightforward of examples, people can forget key details,” Horgan said.
Horgan referenced Elizabeth Loftus, a leading cognitive psychologist and expert on human memory who has found through extensive research that not only is the human memory fallible, it can actually create false memories during chaotic or stressful events.
The public may never know the full details of what happened during the May 2011 raid, but military analysts and terrorism experts have already begun to debate the merits of the bin Laden killing and what it means to the broader U.S. goals in fighting terrorism.
“Invariably things get twisted and distorted where they were never meant about who specifically did what,” Horgan said. “It’s all about context. Killing terrorists is never a long-term effective way of solving this problem,” Horgan said.
Despite being “enemy No. 1” for both the Bush and Obama administrations, experts posit that bin Laden, while still a threat, had already been rendered operationally insignificant due to major U.S. operations against the al-Qaeda organization in Afghanistan.
“I think the bin Laden killing was overstated at the time. Al-Qaeda had been suffering and their reach had been suffering. His importance had been overestimated for many years. I think we still fail to understand just how al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda affiliates operate,” Horgan said.
The Navy SEAL team recovered a trove of intelligence from bin Laden’s compound after the raid, including videos, computer hard drives, photographs and some of bin Laden’s personal writings.
The cache reveals a downtrodden Bin Laden, upset with the unraveling of his once-powerful al-Qaeda organization. Few figures exist about al-Qaeda membership, but it is thought that as few as 500 core members remain scattered across the world, a disorganized shell of the organizations former might.
Terrorism and jihadist activity remain a serious threat to U.S. national security, but the death of bin Laden may have been the final knockout punch against al-Qaeda, already “yesterday’s brand” of terrorism, according to Horgan.
Rethinking covert raids and anti-terror operations
For experts, the confusion surrounding the bin Laden raid is unlikely to spark a new, more transparent chapter in U.S. military operations, but could lead to some limited, internal reforms.
“Honestly, I think it’s [transparency] unlikely. The precedent for my judgement for that would be the recent reactions to the Benghazi affair. I think there will be ramifications for the Navy and Navy Seals in particular, dealing with these issues internally,” Horgan said.
For others, the raid represented a long chapter of failed militarism violating the sovereignty of foreign nations through covert operations, while undermining the democratic functions of the U.S. legal system.
“I think the killing of bin Laden, the way it was conducted, raises lots of questions, absolutely. Why aren’t the Guantanamo detainees not brought to trial? Why are we afraid to hear their opinion? Why are we afraid to hear Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or others? I trust the democracy. People will not make heroes out of villains,” Kakabadze said.
Mohammed helped organize the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but like the majority of the 166 detainees at Guantanamo Bay prison, he has remained incarcerated for years in a penal colony awaiting trial.
“If it was possible to kill him, it was possible to bring him to trial,” Kakabadze said. The whole of humanity could have watched [and asked] why did he do these things? Humanity will benefit from the open, public trials of terrorists because we will see the real ugliness of violence. We can also see more underlying causes, [such as] what causes terrorism.”
“What is Guantanamo Bay if not a calling card, a recruitment tool for terrorism. Almost all counterterrorism is about politics. We don’t think about the long-term implications of drone strikes, Guantanamo, etc.,” Horgan said.