Notes From the Margins…

(Don’t) Bring Me the Head of Osama bin Laden

  • May 02, 2011
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So Osama bin Laden has exited the world in which he wrought so much mayhem. Initial versions suggested that bin Laden was killed ‘resisting’ a Special Forces team, but Reuters has since claimed that the operation was intended to be a ‘kill operation’.

Whatever the truth, the Stars and Stripes are waving outside the White House, the markets are roaring and the dollar is experiencing a patriotic surge.

Bin Laden’s death is unlikely to have any significant impact on the ‘war on terror’, though it may well generate a new cycle of revenge attacks.   For the last decade the Saudi billionaire-turned-jihadist has been largely a symbol of al Qaeda’s global jihad rather than an active protagonist, whose role has been largely limited to his periodic pop-up video appearances.

Al Qaeda itself has long since morphed into a franchise rather than the centralised terrorist version of Spectre depicted by media glove puppets,  self-interested politicians and ‘terrorism experts’ intent on magnifying its scope and capabilities, and its future is unlikely to be affected one way or another by Bin Laden’s presence or his absence.

Barack Obama has described bin Laden’s death as a form of justice for the 9/11 victims.  The New York Post was more accurate and certainly more honest when it triumphantly proclaimed “Vengeance at Last”.

Justice does not spring from a bullet in the head administered by some counter-terrorist version of Magnum Force, even when the victim happens to be the terrorist Public Enemy number 1.

Justice depends on those quaint and old-fashioned concepts and procedures such as courts, juries, evidence, public examination and cross-examination in order to produce as  wide and as truthful an account possible of a particular crime and the motives, intentions and methods of its perpetrators.

This principle applies to ‘political’ crimes and crimes of state as well as ‘ordinary’ criminality.    This is why, for example, the Nuremberg prosecutors put Nazi war criminals on trial when they could just easily have hanged them without one.

Through these procedures, the Nuremberg courts were able to establish a new concept of criminality which went beyond simply punishing the men who actually carried out some of the worst crimes in human history,  but also the bureaucrats and officials who gave them the orders to do so.

With Bin Laden’s death – and with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed due to be tried by a military tribunal – there is now virtually no possibility of a similar outcome in the atrocious crime that took place on September 11.

To this day no one knows exactly what Bin Laden’s role was in the 9/11 attacks – though he clearly had one.  Bin Laden  has often been described as the ‘mastermind’ of the 9/11 attacks, but it was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed who first came up with the idea of flying planes into buildings and suggested this scheme to Bin Laden.

Bin Laden appears to have had little if any hands on involvement in the attacks.  It is not known with certainty what his motives and intentions were,  beyond the propaganda messages contained in his fatwas and videos, or what he hoped to achieve.

Crucially, the nature of his relationships with the state intelligence agencies involved with the Afghan anti-Soviet jihad will also die with him.

So far the media has touched rather gingerly on the astounding revelation that the world’s most wanted terrorist had been living in a ‘luxury compound’ less than a mile from the ‘Pakistani Sandhurst’.   Some commentators have suggested that ‘elements within the ISI’  were protecting bin Laden and giving him sanctuary – something that has been rumoured for many years.

But this collusion also raises wider questions.  If the ISI helped bin Laden escape from Tora Bora and protected him in Pakistan, why was it doing it?   How was it able to get away with it for so long?

If the ISI were willing to protect bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks then it must have had some kind of relationship with him beforehand.   What was the nature of this relationship?  To what extent were his protectors aware of the planned attacks?    Why did the US take so long to discover this?  Why was the US fighting a war in Afghanistan, supposedly to prevent al Qaeda from slipping back into the country and establishing new ‘command and control’ centres there, when the organization’s leader was in Pakistan – a supposed US ally in the ‘war on terror’?

The implications of these questions are not limited to Pakistan.   In September 2004 twenty-five FBI and counter-terrorist officials wrote an open letter to Congress which accused the Bush-sponsored ‘9/11 Commission’ of having deliberately ignored “officials and civil servants who were, and still are, clearly negligent and/or derelict in their duties to the nation”.

The authors also referred to “intentional actions or inaction by individuals responsible for our national security…dictated by motives other than the security of the United States”.

These accusations have never been addressed, like so many of the ‘unanswered questions’ surrounding 9/11.  Had he been arrested, bin Laden might have shed some light on them – before the death penalty that he would almost certainly have received.

But a trial might also subjected powerful institutions and individuals to unwelcome scrutiny – not to mention the alliances, premises and strategic calculations underlying US foreign policy and the ‘war on terror’.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that there were too many people who did not want to risk that possibility, and saw an early bullet in the head as the most cost-effective way to shut him down and shut him up.

But whatever the reasons for this decision, justice has nothing to do with it.


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1 Comment

  1. Mike Speirs

    7th May 2011 - 7:05 pm

    It’s a relief to find that there are clear heads in this outburst of enthusiam for mafiosi operations. It seems as if Obama’s team is a 21st century version of the godfather, struggling for respectability, but unable to confront the “Washington Rules” (check out Bacevich’s book for some illuminating further insights into why the US seems unable to cease military adventures around the world). But it’s sad to see how the idea of justice is lost in the desire for vengeance. Presumeably there are more votes to be harvested through using hit squads and hidden cameras than by the laborious and potentially controversial process of putting a madman on trial.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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