Everything you ever wanted to know about OBL’s death
The death of Al-Qaeda’s leader has sparked a fierce response that lacks an understanding of the real world. The world is not perfect and nobody should pretend that it is.
Nor is foreign policy black and white. It is a cocktail of aspirational idealism and hard fought realism but too often we forget this. The last few weeks have seen an army of armchair commentators purporting their often narrow and moralist interpretations of events as the only courses of action that would have been permissible. So let’s set the record straight on ten fundamental questions with some real world answers:
1. Could Bin Laden have been captured rather than killed?
http://www.nytimes.com/2001/09/19/news/19iht-t4_30.htmlWhile the United States did in fact prepare for the eventuality of his capture, and others have hypothesised what this would have looked like, there was no way this would have been possible.
Detaining Bin Laden would have likely become the biggest security exercise ever undertaken. No country would have wanted him to be imprisoned on their soil leaving either Guantanamo Bay, a US military base, a purpose built facility or a maximum security prison as the solution. Any location would have become a prime target for future terrorist attacks and risked being a massive public relations disaster for the Obama Administration who might have just wished they had killed him and worn that criticism than the ensuing problem.
Comparisons to fallen Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s imprisonment do not hold weight either. Not only was Hussein widely hated within Iraq, any pockets of support were also largely contained within one country and not across a global network. Hussein was also able to be handed over to a domestic judicial process that ultimately was able to at least perceivably provide a fair trial but ended up with his execution – as botched as it was – being recorded and released on the internet.
But had Bin Laden been captured he could not have stood trial in the International Criminal Court given it only deals with acts committed after 2002. A war crimes tribunal in The Hague could not have handed down the death penalty, which to most people on the weight of evidence would seem unreasonable. Presumably this would have left a geographically painful hearing in a New York Federal Court with Bin Laden no doubt using the trial as an opportunity to spread his messages of hatred.
Ultimately, the only reason to have taken Bin Laden alive would have been for the interrogation value but even this would not have been without complication.
2. Was it legal?
While Executive Order 11905 (later 12333) signed by President Ford in the wake of the Church Committee states that “no employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination”, there exists no definition of ‘assassination’.
Following September 11th, President Bush issued a directive that excluded what it termed “targeted killing” missions from the Executive Order. The Bush Administration also termed members of Al-Qaeda “enemy combatants” removing them from civilian due process.
What many people overlook in arguing that this provides the United States a ‘licence to kill’ anyone is that state-sponsored killings have long been a part of international affairs. From Israel’s attack on a Hamas commander in Dubai last year, to arguably the Russian’s attempt to poison an ex-KGB operative in London in 2006, there are countless examples that may not sound perfect but have been free from legal repercussions.
The issue with these and Bin Laden’s killing is not so much the legal framework, but the perceived brutality of the attacks being seen not as a more easily explainable act of self-defence. In this case, shooting an old man in the head, who it has now emerged was not armed (though was ‘resisting’ arrest) – is always going to be harder to defend than shooting someone who was either armed, fitter or if it was done in a more ‘hands off’ manner such as through a drone strike or bombing attack that Secretary of Defence Robert Gates advocated.
3. Has justice been done?
Justice implies a judicial process and this was not present (but alas not necessary for it to be legal as mentioned above).
Labelling it as such was President Obama’s biggest mistake in this exercise (that and his obligatory mention of “God bless America” at the end of his speech). Most critics are far from pacifists and in-principle would not take issue with the concept of the leader of the world’s largest terrorist organisation being killed, but would take issue with the concept that such an act represents a just process.
This was a case of President Obama playing to his audience – nothing was gained broadly by the statement – in the same way President Bush did when he declared to Congress in 2001 that: “Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.”
4. Should Pakistan have been told and was this a breach of their sovereignty?
No and perhaps, but who cares.
To any external analyst there is no doubt that the United States (and others, including Australia) do not trust the Pakistani intelligence services with good reason. The Obama Administration was clearly not prepared to risk Bin Laden getting away again and had that happened as a result of the Pakistanis, the relations may well be worse than they are now. This was a ‘Black Ops’ mission and President Obama’s wife would not have even known; the West Wing was shut down on Sunday to avoid anyone becoming suspicious at the buzz of activity.
President Obama was quick to point out that “Over the years, I’ve repeatedly made clear that we would take action within Pakistan if we knew where bin Laden was. That is what we’ve done.” Albeit with fears that Pakistan would think it was an Indian attack and would scramble fighter jets to intercept the American forces.
But in a world that has outgrown Westphalian building blocks of sovereign borders in the rise of new global threats, it was a calculated and necessary risk to keep Pakistan in the dark.
At the end of the day, Pakistan needs the United States for aid dollars and the United States needs Pakistan in their continuing fight against extremism. Both sides should temper their rhetoric with this in mind.
5. If some of the intelligence came from Guantanamo Bay detainees does this justify torture?
After initial speculation that the intelligence scoop that led to Bin Laden’s capture came from detainees in Guantanamo Bay this has since been refuted (or at least that it was not divulged as a result of torture).
Nevertheless, some elements on the hard right will no doubt use this as an opportunity to justify the continued operation of the military prison and controversial interrogation techniques such as water boarding. Republican Senator John McCain has sensibly attacked such justifications as a victim of torture techniques himself during the Vietnam War.
6. Should the White House have released a photo of Bin Laden?
This was a no-brainer for the President; there was quite simply no need.
Not only had Bin Laden’s wife identified the body but facial recognition tests were reported as being 95 per cent accurate and a subsequent DNA test as being 99.99 per cent accurate.
There will always be conspiracy theorists arguing that Bin Laden is still alive but they are a small minority and a decision as influential as this should not be designed to appease a largely unpersuadable group. Al-Qaeda has now confirmed the death and should this not be the case you would expect to see a release from Bin Laden soon.
Aside from this, a photo of a man shot above the eye through the skull would no doubt be gruesome, and certainly act as a source for inflammatory responses.
I, along with former CIA Director James Woolsey, would even argue the releasing of video footage seized in the compound was unnecessary. A winner perceivably basking in their triumph by appealing to an underlying public curiosity is not good security policy and risks divulging the extent of intelligence data ascertained. It too was quite simply unnecessary.
7. Will this guarantee President Obama’s re-election?
Predictably, Bin Laden’s death sparked a wave of presumptive calculations that this would seal President Obama’s fate next year for another term. But such predictions are amateurish.
A Gallup poll released the other week showed that the President experienced a six point bump from the events. President Bush experienced a seven point bump after the capture of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 2003.
As Gallup explains: “Most often, a president’s approval rating begins to decline fairly soon after the rally event occurs, with the increases in approval often disappearing in as little as one to four weeks.”
Criticism of the Obama Administration’s handling of the aftermath and a return to more constant issues such as the economy upset any hypothesis of a certain re-election. However, it should be noted that after the President’s performance at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner the evening before it was widely regarded that he had seen off his stronger competitor yet in Donald Trump.
8. Can our troops now come home from Afghanistan?
While the war in Afghanistan may have begun as an attempt to remove the Taliban from power and destroy Al-Qaeda, or “smoke ‘em out”, it has become much larger than that.
To use Bin Laden’s death as a turning point through which immediate troop removals can be justified would be not only naive but dangerous. Al-Qaeda would want nothing more than this.
However, this does have the potential to impact the broader debate on a strategic withdrawal timeline. Some, such as President Obama, have long advocated a staged withdrawal based on a desire to not get “bogged down in a strategic quagmire”, while others such as General David Petraeus (soon to be the new CIA Director) and Prime Minister Gillard, advocate a “stay the course” position which will see troops on the ground for at least another decade.
9. Should Americans be rejoicing in Bin Laden’s death?
Most are not.
The media have naturally gravitated towards the public spectacle of jubilant crowds gathering outside the White House and at Ground Zero. For most Americans the death of Bin Laden, while welcomed, is not a cause for celebration but rather closure. Anyone with friends in the United States will know this anecdotally through their Facebook or Twitter feeds.
Others have highlighted the youthful makeup of the crowds likening them to a fraternity group with the smell of marijuana wafting through the air as they sing Miley Cyrus’ ‘Party in the USA’. Without underestimating the intense impact the events of 2001 had on the American people it is important to remember that the average freshman student would have been only nine years old at the time and whether this reaction is more representative of their age today than exposure to the tragedy then is debatable.
10. What will Al-Qaeda’s reaction be?
While President Obama’s speech methodically covered off all the major points of contention from his perspective what was missing was any hint of either the United States’ or Al-Qaeda’s reaction to the events.
Somewhat strangely and probably after a passionate debate, the United States has neither raised their homeland security threat level nor placed troops on alert at military installations across the world. This coupled with the President’s silence is no doubt an exercise designed to inducing any public panic.
What is clearer is that Al-Qaeda was no doubt prepared for Bin Laden’s death, evident through the quick ascension of Ayman al-Zawahiri to command. While Bin Laden was a strategic mastermind, al-Zawahiri was called “the real brains” of Al-Qaeda by Bin Laden’s biographer Hamid Mar.
Furthermore, the Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, has refused to speak on the presence of Al-Qaeda ‘sleeper cells’, individuals at the ready to launch attacks within different countries when activated by a ‘go’ command or event such as this.
And it these events we should remain ever vigilant of; being cautious not to get bogged down in debates about various commentaries on events without first establishing the facts.
It is time we had an informed debate about Bin Laden.
Thom Woodroofe is a foreign affairs analyst and an Associate Fellow of the Asia Society who can be followed on Twitter @thomwoodroofe
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