The Che Guevara of al-Qaeda

Why is it that so few people seem to be bothered by the trend of cheering a practice that may simply amount to extrajudicial killing of suspects? Is the old eye-for-an-eye revenge getting the upper hand over international justice?

Found, killed, dumped in the sea

"An old, frail-looking man sits slouched on a floor, a television remote control in his hand. He strokes his grey beard and rocks gently as he watches himself on the screen." [source]

In the early hours of 2. May 2011, a team of US army special forces, on a secret mission near Islamabad, found, killed and quickly disposed of the corpse of Osama bin Laden, one of the most sought-after men in the history. A reporter's breathless voiceover of the ABC video posted in this BBC article recalls the drama vividly: "We understand that there were 30 to 40 US Navy Seals that landed on the roof of that compound coming down on ropes from helicopters which, it is reported, had flown in from Afghanistan at a very low altitude, below Pakistani radar, and this really was a truly covert operation, and those Navy Seals, we are told, searched the compound, found the man who they quickly believed to be Osama bin Laden, in one of the rooms; when he refused to surrender, they shot him twice in the head, and the body of Osama bin Laden was then buried at sea by the Americans, after identification, as is customary in Islamic tradition, within 24 hours of his death."

Let's not dwell much on the questions about legality of deadly US incursions to Pakistan, without any knowledge of the Pakistani authorities. After all, actions like that nowadays do take place frequently, although usually without as much fanfare, simply by firing missiles into suspected militants' cars or houses from robotic airplanes ("drones") remotely operated by "pilots" with joysticks in military bunkers half a world away, in the USA.

I have been particularly puzzled by the quick killing of the frail unarmed man just for "refusing to surrender". Imagine the situation: a dark house filled with criss-crossing flashlights, shouting, cries and sporadic gunshots. US Navy Seals, armed to the teeth, finally kicked out the right door, finding a surprised man they "quickly believed" to be Osama bin Laden. Apparently, one of Bin Laden's wives ran to help her husband, and she was shot down.
Now, the following images are crucial, but very unclear. How was Bin Laden requested to surrender and how exactly did he "refuse" to do that? It is very clear that he was unarmed. There was no other "hostile" in the room, which probably was Bin Laden's bedroom, that could possibly endanger the fully armed US special forces and their mission. Yet, a US soldier decided to shoot the old man to the head. He hit Bin Laden above his left eye.

Make sure he's dead

Jordi Serra del Pino, a futurist, wrote to the WFSF mailing list: "The whole American approach to the response of the 9/11 has always seemed to be consistent with a vision of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, being Bush Wyatt Earp and al-Qaeda the cowboys. The whole idea of invading a country to eradicate a terrorist movement (which is international) seems odd, but it makes sense if you are looking for a cathartic showdown in which you kill the bad guy. This has little to do with justice and it only serves as retribution. As a futurist the aspect that stroke me the most then, is that it was a 19th century approach to a 21th century issue. By now, it is clear that the chosen action line has worsened the situation. My criticism, beyond the moral issue (that I cannot condone) is that this is deeply stupid; Bin Laden was in a situation in which the only bad option for him was to be arrested and judged as a criminal; as a free man, he could keep on defying and mocking Western supremacy; as a dead man, he is a martyr. I do not think the world is better or safer today."

A colourful expression of one's standpoint, indeed. The Wild West features of the "War On Terror" (remember e.g. the most-wanted Iraqi deck of cards?) have often been remarked upon before. However, even the bad guys in the Western movies would not shoot unarmed enemies, and only the worst hitmen in thrillers would shoot such person in the head for a second time, just to "make sure that he was dead". "That is, however, precisely what the "brave" US Navy Seal soldier did. "After this first shot, reports ABC News' The Blotter, [Osama bin Laden] was shot again, to make sure that he was dead." [source]

Assassinating unarmed man

"The US has offered two different successive accounts of the killing of Bin Laden. Originally, officials said the al-Qaeda chief had "participated" in a firefight when he was shot dead. [A day after], the White House corrected this, saying Bin Laden was unarmed. But it still insisted that he was resisting capture -- although it is unclear exactly how he did this." [source] Also this BBC article says it loud and clear: "Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden was unarmed when he was killed by US troops on Sunday after resisting capture, the White House has said."

Right to a fair trial

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states: "Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him." Even more basic is the principle of presumption of innocence until the accused is proven guilty. Even schoolchildren would recite that the right to a fair trial is one of the core values for all countries that respect the rule of law.

First of all, Osama bin Laden was a suspect. He may have claimed responsibility for some incidents, other things were attributed to him or his influence. Still, he was never convicted of any crime. BBC in this article correctly says that "Bin Laden is believed to have ordered the attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001 and a number of others." Most reporters and news outlets, however, seem to forget this little "detail".
But then, even if Bin Laden had been clearly convicted of some serious crimes, my reservations would hardly differ. Who has the right to kill anybody else if it's not in (self-)defence?
I have been deeply shocked by how so many people, unfortunately led by the (formerly so agreeable) US president Barack Obama, could so cheerfully celebrate the killing. Apprehension, capture -- all right. But shooting dead a frail unarmed man? ??? the trend of celebrating ...

Jim Dator, another notable futurist, wrote in the same mailing list: "Killing is never justified, and should never be a cause of celebration. Killing by the state/government is even less justifiable, in spite of obsolete conventions of international law that say otherwise. Many of us in the US and elsewhere immediately condemned our government's "war on terrorism" reaction to 9/11 as wrong, asserting, as others have already said here, that it should have been treated as an international police action and not a "war" of any kind."

Keith Hudson, a versatile writer I much admire, noted: "I suggested that it “might” have been wiser for President Obama not to have been so triumphant about the killing of Osama Bin Laden despite the temptation of enhancing his electoral credibility. I should have written that it would have been wiser not to have announced it at all but let the knowledge seep out. Obama has now succeeded in humiliating Pakistan’s army, secret services, politicians -- pretty well all of the politically powerful in Pakistan. The only people who will benefit are the mullahs and the members of various quasi al-Qaeda groups in the country who will now feel strengthened in their hatred of America and anything Western. Such a public slap in the face doesn’t help the situation of a failing nation-state which already has nuclear weapons and advanced missiles. A faction within the Pakistan army might already be planning some sort of action in order for the country to save its face. The country is already close to a state of war with India over Kashmir. Goodness knows how Pakistan is going to react now." [source] ???\_for\_an\_eye = the principle of retributive justice

On my recent trip to Paris, over lunch I brought up this topic with two US ladies making a holiday in Europe. I asked them whether they did not think it would have been better to capture Bin Laden alive and bring him to trial. "Oh, no!", they cried unisono. "Imagine the cost of the trial, and how long it would take! That guy deserves to be dead!" The only thing that troubled these ladies was that the killing markedly increased the popularity of their current president, Barack Obama. "Both of us are republicans, you know," they explained to me, as if I hadn't guessed already...

It is unacceptable that the US Attorney General Eric Holder can get away with the feeble explanation that Bin Laden was a lawful military target, whose killing was "an act of national self-defence". "It was a kill-or-capture mission. He made no attempt to surrender." [here]

The news was most captivating, and just like on 11. September 2001, on 2. May 2011 I found it difficult to concentrate on other things. But I kept feeling a growing discomfort from reading, hearing and watching the celebrations and simplistic slogans of men and women interviewed in the street. They were so full of vengeance, so uncivilized, so unjust, so disgusting. Maybe you know how difficult it sometimes is to find yourself feeling significantly differently from the large surrounding crowd. Strong social pressure tends to make us uncertain. I also started doubting my opinion. Fortunately, over the next few days after the news, many other people expressed their dismay. Some examples follow:

• A BBC correspondent in Germany writes: "Nobody I know thinks Osama bin Laden was anything but a bad lot. And nobody says he shouldn't have been killed, but there is also among the people I've met a hint of carping about the excess of celebration in Times Square and at Ground Zero. ... But then there's also a cartoon in the paper with a very different take. It shows President Obama holding a placard saying "Obama killed Osama" and underneath the caption: "This makes re-election certain." Is this a suggestion, I wonder, that killing Bin Laden was about crude politics in America?"

• The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, said the killing of the unarmed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden leaves "a very uncomfortable feeling" [source]

• Noam Chomsky provokes, but not without a point: "We might ask ourselves how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush’s compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic." He continues: "It’s increasingly clear that the operation was a planned assassination, multiply violating elementary norms of international law. There appears to have been no attempt to apprehend the unarmed victim, as presumably could have been done by 80 commandos facing virtually no opposition -- except, they claim, from his wife, who lunged towards them. In societies that profess some respect for law, suspects are apprehended and brought to fair trial. I stress “suspects.” In April 2002, the head of the FBI, Robert Mueller, informed the press that after the most intensive investigation in history, the FBI could say no more than that it “believed” that the plot was hatched in Afghanistan, though implemented in the UAE and Germany." [source]

"The issue here is whether what was done was an act of legitimate self-defence," said Benjamin Ferencz, an international law specialist who served as a prosecutor during the Nuremburg trials and argued that it would have been better to capture Bin Laden and send him to court. "Killing a captive who poses no immediate threat is a crime under military law as well as all other law," he told the BBC World Service. [source]

The same article says: "US officials have suggested that Bin Laden may have been reaching for a weapon, and that the Navy Seals may have suspected that people in the compound were wearing suicide belts. But they have also said Bin Laden was not carrying a weapon - after initially saying he was. And they have told US media that just one person in the compound shot at the special forces team, in what appears to have been a fairly one-sided confrontation. Legal experts have therefore asked whether the US forces were instructed to kill, and whether Bin Laden was offered a chance to surrender." [source]

"US Attorney General Eric Holder said it was "conducted in a way that was consistent with our law, with our values". "If he had surrendered, attempted to surrender, I think we should obviously have accepted that, but there was no indication that he wanted to do that and therefore his killing was appropriate," he told the Senate judiciary committee." [source] Well, I am sorry, this sounds pretty outrageous to me. Since when is killing of suspects legal in the USA? What US values permit shooting an unarmed man in the head? Does the US approve of killing suspects just because they are not eager to surrender?

Like Mr Ferencz, British law professor Philippe Sands QC says it is impossible to make a definitive legal judgement without knowing precisely what happened. But he says the case for the raid's legality has been weakened. "The question to ask is: were the measures taken in the actual situation that pertained reasonable and proportionate given the circumstances in which the [Navy Seals] found themselves?" he told the BBC. "The facts for Bin Laden don't appear to easily meet that standard." ... The extent to which Bin Laden could have still been a key commander, given the restrictions on his movements and communictions, has been queried, though the US has said he was "active in operational planning" from Abbottabad. But the fact that Bin Laden was killed in a normally quiet town, in a country with which the US is not at war and says it was not given prior warning of the raid, has also raised questions. "As a matter of international law, one country is not free to enter another country apparently without the authorisation of that country, and intervene, whether to kidnap or kill a national of a third state," Mr Sands said. He acknowledged that under what is known as the doctrine of necessity, where there is an "overriding threat to national security", such an act might not give rise to responsibility or liability. But he said the difficulty with that argument was that it comes against a background of a rise in extrajudicial killings, including through the use of drones, and that this was not a "lawful direction to be taking". The logical conclusion of any idea that Bin Laden could be killed as an enemy combatant was "that anyone associated with al-Qaeda in any country in the world can be taken out, can be executed," Mr Sands said. "I think it's deeply troubling if we are indeed moving to a place where you can have a global assassination policy for those who are perceived to cause trouble," he added. [source]

US officials have justified Bin Laden's killing as an act committed as part of an armed conflict with al-Qaeda. Mr Holder said Bin Laden's killing was "an act of national self-defence", calling the al-Qaeda leader "a lawful military target" who had acknowledged his role in the 9/11 attacks. "It's lawful to target an enemy commander in the field," he said. Some legal experts have backed up that position. "I don't think that this is an extrajudicial killing," Philip Bobbitt, a specialist on constitutional law and international security, told the BBC's World Tonight programme. "I think this is part of an armed conflict authorised by the United Nations, authorised by both houses of Congress." [source]

However, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, and the special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Martin Scheinin, have also raised concern. "In certain exceptional cases, use of deadly force may be permissible as a measure of last resort... including in operations against terrorists," they said in statement. "However, the norm should be that terrorists be dealt with as criminals, through legal processes of arrest, trial and judicially decided punishment," they added. "Actions taken by states in combating terrorism, especially in high profile cases, set precedents for the way in which the right to life will be treated in future instances." [source]

Thierry Gaudin, another notable futurist, wrote to the above mailing list: "Bin Laden claimed to be responsible for 3000 casualties, and probably is not (re-open 9/11). The Bush family, Cheyney and Kissinger could claim for more than 300,000 innocent casualties. Where are the criminals? Where is the justice? (US still refuses to sign the International Criminal Court treaty.)" In another contribution, he adds: "United states allowing themselves to kill Bin Laden, while it would have been relatively easy to catch him alive (using sleeping gases for instance) goes back to the time of tribal revenge and denies the path towards the global state of law. The crual details of this assasination, widely broadcasted, are exciting the lowest instincts of human nature, moving backwards from civilisation. United states claims to be the leader of a free and civilized world, and we europeans as allied through NATO, are supposed to follow. Let me say that I am ashamed for US, and do hope that this crime will be the last of that kind."

Saddam Hussein was tried, if somewhat tendentiously, and hanged. Timothy McVeigh was tried and executed. Nazi criminals have been hunted to this day -- but they also have stood trials instead of simply being shot dead in their homes. Doubtless, Hitler would have been tried had he not quickly committed suicide.
How come that so little seems to have been done to capture and try Osama bin Laden? Heck, why was the mighty USA really so afraid of this frail sick man that has been surviving in hiding for the past 10 years?
Just very hypothetically: what would happen if Osama bin Laden, for example in front of the International Criminal Court in the Hague, produced a credible proof that he did not order the 9/11 attacks. Who would we possibly start to hunt then? Bin Laden's death is much more convenient: the popular thirst for blood has been satisfied, the currents of vengeance discharged. Any more detail answers can be filled in by imagination and blockbuster action movies that are doubtless being sketched as we speak.

"Islamic" burial... at sea

And then, after killing, without qualms, a surprised sick old man in his bedroom, someone who could hardly have posed any threat to the perfectly armed and protected US Navy Seals, after ditching a broken helicopter and a quick escape back to Afghanistan, with the corpse and a cache of hard drives and other "evidence of terrorism", the US army, in a rather touching manner, decided to prepare a burial conforming to Islamic tradition... if at sea!

"Islamic tradition requires the dead to be buried as soon as possible, unless an autopsy is required. The US military took this requirement very seriously, burying the body within hours. ... Religious rites were carried out on the deck of a US aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson. The body, shrouded in a white sheet and placed in a weighted bag, was then positioned on a flat board, tipped up, and eased into the Arabian Sea. This occurred at 0600GMT, approximately 12 hours after the firefight during which Osama Bin Laden was shot in the head. ... "A military officer read prepared religious remarks, which were translated into Arabic by a native speaker," a US defence official said." [source]

As pointed out by Noam Chomsky here: "There is also much media discussion of Washington’s anger that Pakistan didn’t turn over bin Laden, though surely elements of the military and security forces were aware of his presence in Abbottabad. Less is said about Pakistani anger that the U.S. invaded their territory to carry out a political assassination. Anti-American fervor is already very high in Pakistan, and these events are likely to exacerbate it. The decision to dump the body at sea is already, predictably, provoking both anger and skepticism in much of the Muslim world." [source]

After the shooting, the corpse of Osama bin Laden was flown to Afghanistan and Bin Laden's identity was confirmed. Officials say a DNA sample was taken that matched that of several other family members. Some sources say facial recognition technology was also used. From Afghanistan, the body was, it appears, flown to the USS Carl Vinson. [source]

No posing with the trophy

Another interesting feature of the story is that the USA has decided not to publish photographs or videos of Bin Laden's death. President Barack Obama even said publishing photos of the dead Osama Bin Laden threatens US national security. ... Mr Obama said: "It is important for us to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence, as a propaganda tool. That's not who we are." ... Mr Obama, who monitored the progress of the raid from the White House, saw his approval rating jump 11 points to 57% in a New York Times/CBS News poll [two days after]. [source]

I don't want to question whether or not (the right) Osama bin Laden was killed. Indeed, perhaps the USA just needed to get rid of a ghost created by the Neocon fervour of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld -- and win a few brownie points while doing that. There are few indications that has happened, so I leave it to the scores of conspirative theories that are being put together. ??? There already are news that: "Online spammers using fake videos and photos of Osama Bin Laden's death have seen their phishing scam go viral. Since the al-Qaeda leader was shot and killed by American special forces there's been speculation about exactly how he died." [source] ??? Initially, those calling for release of photographs were people, mostly in the Middle East, who accused the US of deception. "This news is only coming from one side, from Obama's office, and American has not shown any evidence or proof to support this claim," Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in a statement. Blogs, message boards and web pages - including a Facebook group entitled "Osama Bin Laden not dead" - have been filled with suggestions that the US government faked the raid. Many people in Pakistan have also expressed doubt that he has been killed, and in a debate run by the BBC's Asian Network [the day after], some British Muslims were sceptical too. But on [4. May], a growing number of voices in the US political scene joined the fray, saying there was an inevitability about the pictures emerging at some point. [source]

What worries me more is the contrast between the actual assassination, which is deemed to be a cause for celebration, and the plain two-dimensional static or moving picture display of it. In other words, it is no problem to kill an unarmed foreign suspect by shooting him in the head, then shooting him second time "to make sure that he was dead", all that without even informing the host country, but there are qualms about showing the world the pictures of what exactly they are celebrating. I am pretty sure the jubilatory atmosphere at Times Square would cool down a few notches if that big screen above the crowd screened, just for a while between all the advertisements, the scene where a brave US Navy Seal shoots dead an unarmed old man and his wife in a shabby house. I would think that killing a person, an irreversible, brutal act, is far more shocking than showing pictures of it. But of course, in today's world, what is not seen matters less.

It is possible that he US government decided not to repeat mistakes that took place in relation to the other well-known terrorist / revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara. He was executed in a similar hasty manner, by Bolivian soldiers trained, equipped and guided by the US Green Beret and CIA operatives, in 1967. [source] But in his case, there is a story of brave resistance, unconquered idealism, there are quotations and last words. His photographs are idolized and turned into art pieces, and even the post mortem photos of Che Guevara continue to inspire generations of young people that believe that a radical change of the old ways is necessary. And so the last photos of Bin Laden show no more than a worn-out little old man narcissistically watching himself on TV screen.

Of course, the pictures and stories of Bin Laden's assassination will surface as well one day, either through a controlled or an accidental leak. But the current unwillingness of the US government to produce them by way of transparency seems to constitute a textbook example of a manipulatory double standard.

Geronimo and other myths

Although the raid was euphemistically dubbed "Operation Neptune Spear", it became known as "Operation Geronimo", since "Geronimo" was the code name US code name for Osama bin Laden. The question why did they choose just the name "Geronimo" is indeed amusing. First of all, the Apache warrior's name conjures up an image of the American Wild West, the world over. Second, it was this fearless warrior that led the last band of Apache resistance to the white Americans. [source]

With a touch of sad disbelief, Noam Chomsky also comments on the poor choice of the US mission's code name. "Same with the name, Operation Geronimo. The imperial mentality is so profound, throughout western society, that no one can perceive that they are glorifying bin Laden by identifying him with courageous resistance against genocidal invaders. It’s like naming our murder weapons after victims of our crimes: Apache, Tomahawk... It’s as if the Luftwaffe were to call its fighter planes “Jew” and “Gypsy.”" [source]

It's as if the US spin doctors themselves were sowing a little seed of thought in people's minds. A convenient shadowy myth that will prompt even tighter security and civil freedom limitations, perhaps?

If Osama bin Laden was a criminal, he should have been tried before an international court of justice, and handed an appropriate sentence. Killing him like a rat is not worthy the image of the democratic countries that sponsored the manhunt, and it runs the risk of creating another martyr. There should have been a fair trial, however complicated, costly, long, or embarrassing. Consider the difference between Che Guevara and Saddam Hussein. Saddam, having received a chance to defend himself in a trial, will hardly appear on t-shirts of the future youth. But I suspect Bin Laden may soon join Che Guevara as a mythical freedom fighter and martyr killed in a covert US operation.

Tomáš Fülöpp
Sint-Agatha-Berchem, Belgium
May 2, 2011
Tomáš Fülöpp (2012)

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