WASHINGTON — Knowing there would be disbelievers, the U.S. says it used convincing means to confirm Osama bin Laden’s identity during and after the firefight that killed him. But the mystique that surrounded the terrorist chieftain in life is persisting in death.
Was it really him? How do we know? Where are the pictures?
Already, those questions are spreading in Pakistan and surely beyond. In the absence of photos and with his body given up to the sea, many people do not want to believe that bin Laden — the Great Emir to some, the fabled escape artist of the Tora Bora mountains to foe and friend alike — is really dead.
U.S. officials are balancing that skepticism with the sensitivities that might be inflamed by showing images they say they have of the dead al-Qaida leader and video of his burial at sea. Still, it appeared likely that photographic evidence would be produced.
“We are going to do everything we can to make sure that nobody has any basis to try to deny that we got Osama bin Laden,” John Brennan, President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, said Monday. He said the U.S. will “share what we can because we want to make sure that not only the American people but the world understand exactly what happened.”
In July 2003, the U.S. took heat but also quieted most conspiracy theorists by releasing graphic photos of the corpses of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s two powerful sons to prove American forces had killed them.
So far, the U.S. has cited evidence that satisfied the Navy SEAL force, and at least most of the world, that they had the right man in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
The helicopter-borne raiding squad that swarmed the luxury compound identified bin Laden by appearance. A woman in the compound who was identified as his wife was said to have called out bin Laden’s name in the melee.
Officials produced a quick DNA match from his remains that they said established bin Laden’s identity, even absent the other techniques, with 99.9 per cent certainty. U.S. officials also said bin Laden was identified through photo comparisons and other methods.
Tellingly, an al-Qaida spokesman, in vowing vengeance against America, called him a martyr, offering no challenge to the U.S. account of his death.
Even so, it is almost inevitable that the bin Laden mythology will not end with the bullet in his head. If it suits extremist ends to spin a fantastical tale of survival or trickery to gullible ears, expect to hear it.
In the immediate aftermath, people in Abbottabad expressed widespread disbelief that bin Laden had died — or ever lived — among them.
“I’m not ready to buy bin Laden was here,” said Haris Rasheed, 22, who works in a fast food restaurant. “How come no one knew he was here and why did they bury him so quickly? This is all fake — a drama, and a crude one.”
Kamal Khan, 25, who is unemployed, said the official story “looks fishy to me.”
The burial from an aircraft carrier in the North Arabian Sea was videotaped aboard the ship, according to a senior defence official who spoke on condition of anonymity because a decision on whether to release the video was not final. The official said it was highly likely that the video, along with photographs of bin Laden’s body, would be made public in coming days.
The swiftness of the burial may have raised suspicions but was in accord with Islamic traditions. Islamic scholars, however, challenged U.S. assertions that a burial at sea was an appropriate fate for a Muslim who had died on land.
The act denied al-Qaida any sort of burial shrine for their slain leader. Once again, bin Laden had vanished, but this time at the hands of the United States and in a way that ensures he is gone forever.
If that satisfies U.S. goals and its sense of justice, Brad Sagarin, a psychologist at Northern Illinois University who studies persuasion, said the rapid disposition of the body “would certainly be a rich sort of kernel for somebody to grasp onto if they were motivated to disbelieve this.”
Also expected to come out is a tape made by bin Laden, before U.S. forces bore down on him, that may provide fodder to those who insist he is alive.
Pakistan, for one, is a land of conspiracy theorists, and far-fetched rumours abound on the streets and in blogs throughout the Arab world. But that’s not just a characteristic of the Islamic pipeline. Many ordinary Americans — and one billionaire — persistently questioned whether Obama was born in the U.S. despite lacking any evidence that he wasn’t.
Sagarin said most people will probably be convinced bin Laden is dead because they cannot imagine the government maintaining such an extraordinary lie to the contrary in this day and age.
Yet, he said, “as with the birther conspiracy, there’s going to be a set of people who are never going to be convinced. People filter the information they receive through their current attitudes, their current perspectives.”
To be sure, even photos and video, subject to digital manipulation, may not provide the final word to everyone. But Seth Jones, a RAND Corp. political scientist who advised the commander of U.S. special operations forces in Afghanistan, said the administration should do all it can to minimize doubts.
“There are always conspiracy theories,” he said. “There are individuals who believe that bin Laden wasn’t involved in the 9/11 attacks.”
Associated Press writers Zarar Kahn in Abbottabad, Pakistan; Malcolm Ritter in New York; and Lolita C. Baldor, Ben Feller, Matt Apuzzo and Pauline Jelinek in Washington contributed to this report.