Why the nature of bin Laden’s death matters

by Robert Henderson

For the purposes of this piece I am going to assume that Osama bin Laden was killed during the American raid, although by disposing of the body at sea , the refusal to release photographs or video of bin Laden’s body, the absence of any first hand testimony from the survivors of the raid (all we have is what the Pakistani authorities say the wives and children have said) and the continual changing of the story by the US government, just about everything has been done that could be done to feed conspiracy theories. (On the facts delivered so far, it is simple to construct a coherent scenario in which bin Laden was not killed and the whole episode was a Wag the Dog construction.)

It is easy to persuade the general public that the killing is cause for a Thatcherite cry of Rejoice! Rejoice! After all this is the man who has been presented for a decade by the Western media and politicians as the personification of terrorist evil, the organiser of 911 and other enormities and an implacable enemy of Western society. Does he not deserve summary execution? Why offer him justice when he has been responsible for thousands of deaths? Many, probably most people in the USA feel that way. A large number in Britain and Europe do as well. So what is the case against?

To make the case as clear-cut as possible, let us take him at that valuation assigned to him by Western politicians and media. The first and strongest argument is that of precedent. If it is accepted that this raid was (a) legitimate despite the fact that the US ostensibly operated in a foreign country without that country’s knowledge or permission and (b) the shooting of bin Laden was lawful, no place or person on Earth would in principle be safe from foreign powers crossing borders to kidnap, kill, maim or destroy property as they as they choose.

As for the raid itself, what is the position with regard to international law? It is indubitably illegal under international law to carry armed action into a foreign country without the permission of that country unless it is in what is known as “hot pursuit”. This would cover a situation where a country has been invaded by a foreign force, whether that be large or small, and in the pursuit of the invaders the chase crosses national boundaries. That clearly is not the case here.

The other legal circumstances for an attack would be where a serious and immediate threat was offered by a potential enemy, for example, in Napoleonic times if a great fleet was massed in Northern France with large numbers of troop carrying ships, it would be reasonable to imagine that an invasion of England was to take place and consequently to take
pre-emptive action. Again, this class of situation patently did not apply in the bin Laden attack, not least because al Qaeda has not be able to mount a serious terrorist attack in the West since 2005.

If Pakistan knew about the attack in advance and agreed to it, it would have been legal in as much as the raid took place. It would not automatically make what happened in the raid legal. The fact that no Pakistani military or police response to the fighting in the compound occurred , even though the Naval Seals who conducted the raid were there for
around 40 minutes, is a strong pointer to Pakistani government covert knowledge and permission. That the raid took place in a garrison town crawling with Pakistani troops makes the failure to respond even more telling. There were also reports that residents near to the bin Laden compound were warned an hour before the raid to put their lights out.

That leaves the killing of bin Laden. Was it murder or self-defence? If the raid was illegal the killing was culpable; if the raid was legal the killing may have been legal. However, the ever shifting US descriptions of what happened at the compound are indicative of something being not quite right. First we were told there was a “ fierce firefight” , then it was admitted that only one person – bin Laden’s courier Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti – who was not in the main building but a security post outbuilding, had fired a shot at the Navy Seals who carried out the attack. First we were told bin Laden had been armed and fired on the Seals; this changed to bin Laden being unarmed. First were told that bin Laden had used one of his wives as a human shield and she had been shot dead as a consequence; then the story became that the wife had been only wounded (in the leg) as she charged at a Seal after he daughter was hurt. Eventually the story of bin Laden’s shooting became that a Seal had fired at him outside a door on the third floor of the building and missed after which bin Laden went through the door to the room in which he supposedly had spent the past few years where he was shot twice, once in the chest and once in the head. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/al-qaeda/8491113/Osama-Bin-Laden-dead-White-House-backtracks-on-how-bin-Laden-died.html)

At any time such variations in a story would be highly suspicious. In this case they are simply incredible because not only must the Navy Seals conducting the attack have known the
truth, but the audio and video coverage of the attack from cameras operated by the Seals was being fed back to Washington as the attack was taking place. Even here the official story changed. At first it appeared from the official version – which included a photograph showing Obama et al raptly watching real-time coverage of the raid – that Obama, other senior members of his cabinet such as Hilary Clinton and Obama’s staff had viewed the entire attack. (http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20110503/ap_on_go_pr_wh/us_bin_laden_obama_s_suspense) . After a day or so the story changed and the official line was that Obama and co had ceased to have any video or audio fed to them after the Seals entered the compound (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/al-qaeda/8493391/Osama-bin-Laden-dead-Blackout-during-raid-on-bin-Laden-compound.html).

This probably was done to give them deniability … “No, I did not see Osama shot or anyone else shot or harmed…” after it transpired that no one in the main building had fired a gun and bin Laden had been shot whilst unarmed. Nonetheless, it is reasonable to believe that the cameras did continue to roll throughout the operation and that a live feed of the entire attack was fed to the head of the CIA as was originally reported . Consequently the truth must have been known when the initial false information was released. This episode has elements of Wag the Dog about it. Obama and co probably got so carried away with the PR aspects that they made a fatal error: filming the raid. Worse thing they could have done. I bet they are all now wetting themselves in case the video of the attack leaks.

The shooting of an unarmed bin Laden of itself makes a good case for this being a pre-determined killing. On the one hand we have the Navy Seals, who are represented as the nearest thing to Superman in human flesh by the US authorities, and on the other a sick, prematurely aged unarmed man in his fifties. Are we to believe that they could not have overpowered him with little risk to themselves? It has been claimed by the US Government at various times that he was shot because he was firing an automatic weapon, that the Seals were afraid bin Laden might have a suicide belt strapped to him, and most absurdly that by dodging back into the room after the Seals had shot at him and missed, bin Laden had shown resistance which justified his killing. That there was very little chance of bin Laden being taken alive even if that was an intention is shown by the instructions given to the Seals that he could only be taken alive if he was found naked (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/al-qaeda/8491768/Osama-bin-laden-would-have-to-be-naked-for-surrender.html).
That extreme rule of engagement suggests there was never an intention to take him alive.

Exactly what killed him is uncertain, with reports from the White House claiming variously that it was one shot in the head and one in the chest, two shots in the head or one shot in the chest and two shots to the head. ( http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/al-qaeda/8499216/Osama-bin-Laden-death-al-Qaedaleader-killed-after-he-retreated-into-his-room.html) . As the body was disposed of in the sea and no photographic evidence of his death has been released it is impossible to know what wounds were inflicted. However, if he was hit with two shots wide apart, one to the body and one to the head, that could suggest he was first wounded in the chest then finished off with a shot to the head. It is also possible that bin Laden may not have been shot in the chest but in the back. If so he would have been unlikely to have presented a n immediate threat to highly trained special forces troops. Alternatively it may have been a deliberate execution. Second-hand reports of what bin Laden’s 12-year-old daughter has supposedly told the Pakistani authorities lend credence t o the idea. She reputedly witnessed the killing and is reported as saying that bin Laden was in the hands of the Seals when he was killed. http://news.sky.com/skynews/Home/World-News/Osama-Was-Not-Armed-During-Raid-Daughter-Says-He-Was-Captured-And-The-Killed/Article/201105115984701).

If this happened it might provide the explanation for why the story about Obama and co watching the entire raid on a live feed was changed so that they could not be questioned about how bin Laden was killed.

Where does this all leave us? Certainly not in the realm of justice. There are prima facie grounds for believing the raid and the killing and woundings that took place were illegal under international law. Ostensibly there was a gross breach of Pakistan’s sovereignty and the circumstances of the killings, especially that of bin Laden suggest manslaughter at best and murder at worst. But the truth is that International law is no law at all, because there is no proper jurisdiction. By that I mean the law cannot be enforced generally and without
fear or favour, There is no equality before the law, merely the exercise of power by those with it. Weak states get invaded by the strong if the strong choose to invade. Sometimes
the breaches of national sovereignty are given the legal fig leaf of a UN resolution as there was in the invasion of Afghanistan and more recently in the case of Libya with resolution 1973, sometimes there is not as was the case with the intervention in the Balkans after Yugoslavia broke up. What this means is that the Americans involved in the raid, both those who planned and those who executed it will never be investigated or brought to trial. It was not even a quasi-legal act, but simply a massively powerful country acting unilaterally
to suit its own purposes.

The legal flimsiness of a UN resolution can be seen from the fact that action is taken without them if they are not forthcoming. This fragility can be seen further from the way that where resolutions are passed, once action is begun the terms of the resolutions are frequently grossly exceeded , as is happening with the war in Libya where the UN sanctioned forces are acting as the rebels’ airforce and navy and patently trying to kill Gaddafi despite the resolution only empowering those enforcing it to protect the civilian population. Sometimes, as was the case with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, this expansion of action takes place before an attack has begun by the actors in the attack claiming that UN resolutions passed before an attack was mooted are sufficient to legalise the attack, even if it is clear that they gave no such mandate.

There are two further problem with the UN granting legal sanction. The first is obvious, namely, the five permanent members of the Security Council – USA, UK, France, Russia,
China – have the power of veto over any UN resolution. That means they can stop any legalising of action by the UN, including action against themselves, without regard to any legal principles or process. No legal system can be called legitimate which allows some of the actors within the territory it encompasses to stand outside its jurisdiction.

The second concerns the source of the legal authority of the UN. It is an organisation of 192 states, the vast majority of which are dictatorships of varying degrees of brutality , most are deeply corrupt, a fair number are in a state of perpetual civil war and few have a meaningful justice system by which I mean one which attempts to provide equality before the law
and observes such things as rational rules of evidence and due process. It is a strange crowd to be acting as a dispenser of justice. In reality, it is simply a group comprised mainly of the vicious and the corrupt which has arrogated to itself power and called power legal authority.

Bad state habits abroad also have a knack of washing back into the country from which they came. Let a country have its will through violence abroad and the government of that country will be tempted often enough to transport such behaviour to the domestic arena to suppress political dissent . Even if naked violence is not used, commonly the freedom of a society will often be reduced, vide the Patriot Act in the USA (http://www.fincen.gov/statutes_regs/patriot/index.html) and the Terrorism Act of 2006 in the UK (http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2006/11/contents).

Those who value the nation state should be alarmed by this raid, not least because the attack was simply one in a growing series of actions supported by the West where national sovereignty has been over-ridden in the most flagrant and brutal fashion and entangled Western nations, most notably the USA and Britain, in a seemingly interminable series of wars in which they have no natural interest, beginning with the intervention in the Balkans after the breakup of Yugoslavia through to the present gratuitous involvement in the Libyan civil war.

This warfare is horribly reminiscent of the perpetual conflict in that great political novel 1984, not only in its continuous nature but in the way allies become foes and foes allies at the drop of a hat. In this scenario bin Laden has been allotted by Western politicians and the mass media the role Goldstein occupied in 1984, the font not only of all evil but of all danger. It is telling that only days after bin Laden’s death the Barack Obama’s National Security Adviser Tom Donilon declared al-Qaeda’s second in command Ayman al-Zawahiri to be the world’s “number one terrorist” thus providing a replacement demon to epitomise the Islamic terrorist threat (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/al-qaeda/8501294/Osama-bin-Laden-dead-Ayman-al-Zawahiri-the-worlds-number-one-terrorist.html)

The preservation of the integrity of national sovereignty is reason enough to be disturbed the nature of bin Laden’s death, but there also the fact that action such as this transgresses
precisely the values which countries such as Britain and the USA purport to embody ; the rule of law, no sentence without trial, the presumption of innocence , freedom from arbitrary state action. By behaving in such a violent and arbitrary way the USA and by extension the West hands a propaganda weapon of great potency to Islamic terrorists in particular and terrorists in general and makes outrage against any future Islamic terrorist attacks on the West morally problematic to say the least. As the Israelis have found with the Palestinians,
state violence from reducing dissent and terrorism, feeds it.

Nothing I have written is intended to justify the views of bin Laden or excuse any act of terrorism. What I am concerned with is the bigger geo-political picture, both in terms of preserving national sovereignty (which ironically was principle upon which the UN was founded) and in ending Western interference in foreign conflicts which resolve nothing and leave a deep enmity towards the West in the states who suffer the gratuitous interference. In terms of the death, maiming, destruction and social dislocation they bring, the most dangerous people in the world are not the likes of al Qaeda but the liberal internationalists such as Blair and the NeoCons such as George W Bush . We need to find a way of stopping their insatiable appetite for war from being constantly sated.

7 responses to “Why the nature of bin Laden’s death matters

  1. C H Ingoldby

    It’s a matter of war, not a matter of law.

    In war you shoot your enemies, not arrest them.

  2. Before I say anything let me admit to not having read the entire article I only skimmed it. If your article addresses one or more of the points I make then I apologise.

    Firstly, the notion that bin Laden is not dead does not seem credible. The absolute worst thing that could happen to Obama now is for Osama bin Laden to pop up holding a newspaper saying “I’m not actually dead, your President and all his administration lied to the entire world”. Given the huge risk and the very little reward, it beggars belief that it could be a lie.

    Second, on the question of legality we have two issues. 1) The fact that the attack was in another country and 2) that bin Laden was apparently killed not brought to trial first.

    With regards to the first point we can safely assume that permission would have been granted. The Pakistani authorities are falling over themselves to declare how much they would have supported the attack had they been told about it in advance. We have no reason to doubt (and every reason to agree with) the claim by the US that they didn’t tell Pakistan for fear of a tip-off. Whatever “invasion” the attack represented was therefore entirely for the benefit of the “invaded”. (Bad analogy time) It hardly seems a breach of the law for me to enter your house uninvited to chase a thief out.

    The second point is far more tricky. Yes an arrest and trial would seemingly have been fairer. But given the evidence and confession we can be reasonably sure that the sentence would have been one of death (whether that is morally right or not is a different discussion). We are therefore discussing whether the benefits of the process to death outweigh the inevitable costs of that process. We can be sure that Islamists would have used any trial and imprisonment as a continuous source of murder.

    Perhaps the second point comes down to whether the “war on terror” should be a war or a sustained police action.

  3. “In war you shoot your enemies, not arrest them.”

    Well not necessarily. In a war, there are conventions, in particular the Geneva convention. You shoot at people to achieve military objectives, rather than as an execution. It really is a quite different thing. But then if somebody says, “Al Quaeda is not a regular army, so Geneva does not apply”, then that also means you can’t apply other rules of war and must consider it a matter of policing and justice. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

    So the point is anyway, this was an assassination. That is the best term for it out of a selection of terms which are all not quite right. It is quite clear that, since the chances of Bin Laden dancing around his compound in the altogether were basically zero, the orders were to kill him, full stop. They may as well have said, “shoot him, unless he is wearing a bowler hat”.

    (The bomb belt idea is risible. Did they really believe he kept one primed and to hand, to slip on like a handy bathrobe? Or that he spent his whole life wearing one? Ludicrous.)

    Some say that it was to avoid a martyrdom-type-trial. It is not unreasonable to think that they did not want anyone to know what he might testify in such a trial; for instance that rather than the Head Of SMERSH he was just a man who could provide some money and logistics to largely independent Islamist “franchises”. If he were really Blofeld, the troops would have been told to risk their lives to catch him alive, for interrogation and debriefing.

    Instead, he was assassinated and disposed of with ridiculous haste. The whole thing stinks to high heaven.

  4. I agree. Once it becomes accepted that states can assassinate their enemies abroad, it is only one more step to domestic assassinations. Oh, hang on – what about Waco and Ruby Ridge?

  5. All right: so what do we do then, here in the emattled West? Yes, our governments are, without exception, almost as totally shite-ridden, venal, wicked and oppressive as the other ones elsewhere. But liberalism is fighting right now at the bottom of a stinking cess-pit. Everyone seems to have forgotten that. While we are climbing out of the rotting stinking shit carrying a chained Bin-Laden to put him on trial with a team of defence lawyers (he’ll query most of them and it’ll have to be a team so it’ll take months) we’ll be being shot up the arse and we’ll get sepicaemia – the disease-equivalent of leftoid commentators whingeing on for months more, while more skyscrapers are demolished or more dissidents (who have no doubts, unlike us, about who is right) are persecuted to death in more failed-states.

    There is a dangerous tendency developing, among Western libertarians now that the immediate threat of extinction has passed with the removal of Gordon Brown, to want to be seen to be doing everything by the book. Look, yes: I know that because the Enemy is bad, that puts even more importance on us being truly, madly, deeply, actually, strictly good while stood under the Bright Spotlight Of Universal Judgement, but that impresses nobody, and this is a war to the death. Sorry for breaking ranks here.

  6. I don’t see any “war to the death”, David. Not with the Islamists, anyway. They are certainly capable of creating the occasional bloody outrage, like any terrorists. But the possibility of them defeating “us” in warfare is approximately zero.

    The threat of our own governments destroying us; that is somewhere between “likely” and “certain”, IMHO.

    I’ve said before in many places; in my opinion our greatest “weapon” is liberalism, ideally of a libertine character. It is a cultural steamroller against which the Islamo-puritans cannot stand. This is why I argue that the essential thing we must do is de-puritanise our own societies. These people have been ruining us since the Reformation. It’s time they were done away with.

    I know this isn’t a libertarian thing to say; but if Charles II had executed the lot of them instead of just barring them from Parliament, the clergy and the Universities, we would not now be in this mess.

    The war is a culture war, and it’s very much a civil war.

  7. David,

    The Moslems are not our enemy. Some of them are a fanatical nuisance. More of them are just useful idiots for a ruling class that wants clients to use against us or convenient bogymen to scare us with. The real enemy is our own ruling class.

    Let’s accept that ObL was an evil man. Let’s even accept that he planned those bombings in America back in 2001. But terrorist bombings are at worst a nuisance that need a stiff upper lip and a vigorous policing action. What we got instead was even more of a police state than we had and a blank cheque for every special interest group that profits from war.

    I wanted ObL in the dock. I wanted him there because that’s how you deal with armed criminals – and because it would have been interesting to know what he had to say about his prior dealings with the American and British Governments.

    I’d not say the Moslems were a more colourful version of the Rotary Club. At the same time, they are not The Enemy. That is our own ruling class. These people haven’t given us a police state as a misguided strategy in the “war on terror.” They want the WoT as an excuse for a police state. We can’t afford to let them evade the requirements of due process, even to kill probably evil men.