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 don’t believe 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 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.
Administration officials said Monday there was no question who was killed in the Pakistan raid. In addition to being visually identified on the scene by U.S. operatives, bin Laden was identified by name by a woman believed to be one of his wives, according to a senior intelligence official. On Sunday evening, CIA specialists compared photos of the body to known photos of bin Laden, determining with 95 percent certainty that they were one and the same.
On Monday morning, the CIA and other agencies conducted an “initial DNA analysis,” comparing a sample taken from the body with DNA samples from several bin Laden family members. The results, the official said, gave them “a virtually 100 percent DNA match.”
The intelligence community has been collecting DNA samples from bin Laden’s relatives for years, according to another U.S. intelligence official. Because the family is so big, it was not difficult to obtain samples, officials said, particularly from relatives who opposed bin Laden’s activities.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a former FBI agent, confirmed that the government had more than one source of DNA.
“Through the DNA testing and other things, it is clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that this was Osama bin Laden, based on the science,” he said.
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’s 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 at sea – which occurred on the USS Carl Vinson, an aircraft carrier in the northern part of the Arabian Sea – was necessary because arrangements couldn’t be made with any country to bury bin Laden within 24 hours, as dictated by Muslim practice, administration officials said. But a senior military officer said the U.S. also wanted to avoid creating a shrine on land that would attract his followers.
The burial was videotaped aboard the ship, according to a senior defense 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 burial at sea 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.”
Pakistan, for one, is a land of conspiracy theorists, and far-fetched rumors abound on the streets and in blogs throughout the Arab world. But that’s not just a characteristic of the Islamic pipeline.
Within hours of the raid on Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan compound, U.S. conspiracy theorists on the left and right were quick to insist that bin Laden was either still alive or had been dead for years.
As blogs hummed with allegations that the Obama administration had faked the middle-of-the-night raid, the bin Laden “death hoax” threatened to replace questions about President Barack Obama’s citizenship as the latest Internet rumor to go viral.
“I am sorry, but if you believe the newest death of OBL, you’re stupid,” antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan posted on her Facebook page. “Just think to yourself – they paraded Saddam’s dead sons around to prove they were dead – why do you suppose they hastily buried this version of OBL at sea?”
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.”