The decision to drop terror chieftain Osama bin Laden’s corpse into the Arabian Sea was the final meticulous step in a raid whose details were calculated to exert deadly force but also to achieve maximum effect in the propaganda war: the White House was careful to say bin Laden’s body had been treated according to Islamic tradition, but also to deny his followers a shrine.
But while the watery grave may help diminish bin Laden’s status as a martyr to his followers, it was already fueling conspiracy theories; as the administration resisted releasing even photographs of the slain terrorist leader on Monday, a predictable haze of myth and rumor had already, inevitably, begun to rise around him.
The White House said Monday morning that it is running DNA tests on some element of Bin Laden’s remains, and that it’s debating releasing a photograph taken of him after the lethal U.S. raid on his Pakistani compound.
“The United States Government has not yet been made a decision on whether there will be a photo release,” White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said in an email.
No political leader of any weight has doubted the American story, though some Muslim leaders have criticized the action and there will be a delicate political calculation to be made by bin Laden’s presumed successor, Ayman Al Zawahiri, as to whether he confirms or denies the death.
But in an age of mistrust for authority, and when the mainstream media has lost its ability to damp down discredited theories, bin Laden’s death is already in dispute.
An arm of a Pakistani Taliban group led the charge Monday, according to Pakistan’s GEO TV, insisting that Bin Laden is still alive. Supporters rallied around a new Facebook group called, “Osama bin Laden NOT DEAD.” Meanwhile, the Pakistani and British media Monday fell prey to a recycled and faked photograph of a dead Bin Laden.
In the United States, suspicious voices rose across the political spectrum. Radio host Alex Jones, a powerful hub of anti-government sentiment and leader of those who believe the American government was behind the September 11 attacks, instantly floated his own theory: “Government had Osama bin Laden frozen for years.”
Anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan wrote her supporters, “I am sorry, but if you believe the newest death of OBL, you’re stupid. 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? This lying, murderous Empire can only exist with your brainwashed consent—just put your flags away and THINK!”
And on the conservative site Big Government, J. Michael Walker demanded that Obama lay the corpse out in lower Manhattan. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” he wrote.
Others speculated that perhaps bin Laden had never existed at all. And throughout a Muslim world in which bin Laden’s guilt in the 9/11 attacks remains, according to polls, widely doubted, the stealthy American incursion could only stir more conspiracy theorizing.
And yet the American decision not to display the cadaver was, to many analysts, a reasonable one.
“The conspiracy theories were inevitable. Conspiracy theory and bin Laden go together like olive oil and hummus,” said Hussein Ibish, a fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, who said that burial at sea would be less anathema to Muslims than cremation, while having roughly the same effect. “You can’t stop the conspiracy theories but you can stop the shrine.”
“Inside the region, you’re dealing with an irrational, illogical mindset to begin with. And you’ve got people in this country who believe that the moon shot was filmed in Arizona,” said Aaron David Miller, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. “There will be people who think we never killed him and this is an invention and there will be people who think that he was innocent.”
The nature of modern warfare likely means that the U.S. government holds extensive video, photographic, and biometric evidence of bin Laden’s death. Government qualms about releasing photographs stem from the same impulse that led them to dispose of the body: A wish to avoid inflating the cult of a terrorist martyr.
But even photographs, in an age of digital trickery, may not convince everyone. The faked photos that re-emerged yesterday after circulating in 2009, for instance, are dramatic and compelling.
“The photos of Saddam Hussein’s sons did not really quiet the doubts about their death,” said Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who noted that the White House will probably avoid releasing photographs over the same propaganda concerns that prompted the burial at sea.
“I’m sure there are photographs. And I’m sure the administration will be extremely reluctant to release any of them if they can avoid it,” he said.
Though analysts of both American and Muslim politics said some level of conspiracy is inevitable, some factors could damp the theories down. Al-Zawahiri could use an announcement of bin Laden’s death to consolidate his organizational power. The Saudi ruling class, which owns much of the Arabic-language media, was bin Laden’s first target, and will likely celebrate his death, not perpetuate his legend. And bin Laden may be more useful to his movement as a martyr than as a myth.
“I think it’s going to be harder for them to create a conspiracy theory around this,” said Noah Pollak, the executive director of the Emergency Committee on Israel. “There’s no way to do it that flatters the Holy Warriors.”
And yet without Bin Laden’s head on a pike at the White House gate, most analysts of the running global conflict expect the theories to fester.
“Twenty years from now you, you’ll still find people in the Arabic world who insist that Osama bin Laden is still alive and living well in Karachi,” said Andrew Exum, a fellow at the Center for New American Security.