May 2, 2011 — By killing instead of capturing Osama bin Laden, the United States avoided a courtroom spectacle that could have given Al-Qaeda a propaganda boost and created a political headache for President Barack Obama, analysts said Monday.
Although he was officially wanted dead or alive, leading bin Laden away in handcuffs would have opened up a whole new set of legal and political dilemmas for Washington, fueling controversies about how to treat and try terror suspects.
"I think the White House is probably breathing a sigh of relief that he was actually killed rather than captured," said Andrew Exum, a retired Army officer and fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
"There was a real danger if he had been captured, the trial would have been a circus, the incarceration would have been a circus.
"How we would have brought him to justice through the legal system would have been complicated," Exum told AFP.
Unlike Iraq's Saddam Hussein, bin Laden will have no chance to voice his defiance in court and rally his admirers.
The 2003 detention of Saddam Hussein in Iraq may have served as a cautionary tale for the White House, with the former strongman ranting at the judge and his messy execution provoking sympathy among Sunnis across the region.
Saddam "became a martyr in the Arabic-speaking world," Exum said.
Political assassinations were once condemned as an excess of the Cold War and outlawed in the 1970s, but in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, "targeting" operations now generate little public opposition.
"There's not likely to be too much of an outcry over the decision to kill bin Laden rather than take him alive -- for one thing, we've avoided what would surely have been a massively controversial trial," commentator Joshua Keating wrote on Foreign Policy magazine's website.
The politics of prosecuting terror suspects has turned increasingly partisan in Washington, with Obama's Republican critics rejecting civilian trials for detainees and seeking to block the transfer of Guantanamo prison inmates to the US mainland.
Capturing bin Laden most likely would have required bringing him to the prison at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and then organizing a trial in military or civilian courts.
Obama would have faced scrutiny at home and abroad over every detail of bin Laden's treatment, and possible criticism from both rights activists on the left and "war on terror" hawks on the right.
US defense and intelligence officials insisted Sunday's operation did not rule out taking bin Laden alive but that he and his entourage chose to "resist" the helicopter-borne assault force.
"The principal focus and sole focus of the operation was to kill or capture Osama bin Laden. There were certainly capture contingencies, as there must be," a senior defense official told reporters.
By burying bin Laden at sea, US officials were keen to quietly erase the Al-Qaeda architect from public view, instead of allowing a gravesite to turn into a shrine for followers of the man who took pride in the carnage of the 9/11 attacks.
Israel chose a similar route after executing Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in 1962, scattering his ashes into the Mediterrean.
"We don't need for the place where (Eichmann) is buried to become a holy site and we shouldn't give the body to the family," Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion told his cabinet at the time.
A day after the raid on bin Laden's compound, the US government had yet to release any photos or video of the Al-Qaeda leader's corpse, despite calls from some lawmakers who argued it was important to show the world that the Al-Qaeda founder was truly dead from bullets to the head.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, a Republican, said US officials were weighing whether to release photos.
"We want to make sure that we maintain dignity -- if there was any -- in Osama bin Laden, so that we don't inflame problems in other places in the world and still provide enough evidence that people are confident that it was Osama bin Laden," he said.Related: