The killing of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden in Abottabad, Pakistan, on 1 May, brought an end to an extraordinary life, and a humiliating search by the US. It did not bring an end, however, to the all-pervasive western propaganda surrounding the al-Qa’eda phenomenon. There were immediate questions about the legality of the US attack on bin Laden’s compound on 1 May but there are also larger and more important questions.
Concern about the raid by US special forces (carried out without the knowledge of the Pakistani government) was heightened as the Pentagon’s initial story of armed resistance by bin Laden unravelled, and it was conceded that he was shot in the chest and in the head as he fled unarmed. According to an account in the Washington Post, US soldiers discovered bin Laden who “then turned and retreated into the room before being shot twice – in the head and in the chest.” This account suggests that he was actually shot in the back, and in the back of the head. (Another account states that he was shot twice in the head, long a standard procedure for western special forces.)
A US official told the Post: “He was retreating,” a move that was regarded as resistance. “You don’t know why he’s retreating, what he’s doing when he goes back in there.”
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams commented: “I think the killing of an unarmed man is always going to leave a very uncomfortable feeling; it doesn’t look as if justice is seen to be done.” Former West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt observed: “It was quite clearly a violation of international law.”
Human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson said of bin Laden: “This man has been subject to summary execution, and what is now appearing after a good deal of disinformation from the White House is it may well have been a cold-blooded assassination.”
More important than the lies about the manner of his death were the continuing myths about bin Laden’s life and thought. There are essentially two stories about al-Qa’eda. Either it is a wholly irrational reaction to western democracy or it is retaliation for western policy towards Muslim populations in the world.
The first story is the official western line (“They hate our freedoms” said George Bush). The second is the (private) conclusion of western security officials who bother to study al-Qa’eda. For example, the highest body in British intelligence, the Joint Intelligence Committee, which warned five weeks before the 2003 invasion of Iraq that “al-Qaida and associated groups continued to represent by far the greatest terrorist threat to Western interests, and that threat would be heightened by military action against Iraq.”
In 2004, the Foreign Office and the Home Office drew up a secret joint report entitled “Young Muslims and Extremism”, which identified three main causes of this “extremism”, the first-mentioned of which was “Anger”, caused by “a perception of ‘double standards’ in British foreign policy”. One year after the 7/7 attacks in London, a report into the terrorist threat compiled for senior Scotland Yard officers by anti-terrorist specialists stated in a headline introducing one section: “Foreign policy and Iraq; Iraq HAS [its emphasis] had a huge impact.”
The current attorney general, Conservative MP Dominic Grieve, said on 2 August 2005, in the aftermath of the 7/7 attacks: “I have to say, I find the suicide bombing totally explicable in terms of the level of anger which many members of the Muslim community seem to have about a large number of things… I’m sure that something like the Iraq war contributes to it, because after all the Iraq war is about the intervention of western countries in a state that is seen as being essentially Muslim.”
US political scientist James L Payne analysed the 24 bin Laden statements released between 1994 and 2004 (published in Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden). Payne wrote: “The first surprise is that the topic of imposing fundamentalist Muslim beliefs and practices on the West is essentially absent. With one inconsequential exception – a rote call to Islam, discussed later – this theme does not appear at all. There is no mention of how Western societies should be turned into Muslim ones, and no thought given to what they would look like if they were.” Payne continues: “The topic that does appear on page after page, amounting to 72 percent of the total, is criticism of the United States and other Western countries for their aggression against Muslim lands and the need to defend against and punish this aggression. ‘What America is tasting today,’ wrote bin Laden shortly after the 9/11 attack, ‘is but a fraction of what we have tasted for decades’.” These realities were obscured in the mainstream coverage of bin Laden and al-Qa’eda in May.
Also forgotten in the coverage was the fact that there were several opportunities to negotiate bin Laden’s extradition after the 11 September 2001 attacks.
The Taliban government of Afghanistan made repeated offers to extradite bin Laden – if evidence of his involvement in the 9/11 attacks was provided. The most authoritative statement came from the Taliban supreme leader mullah Omar, who said in a speech on 19 September: “We have told America that if it has any evidence, give it to the Afghan supreme court, or let the clerics from any three Islamic countries decide his case, or he could be placed under the observation of the organisation of the Islamic conference [representing 52 countries]. But these offers have all been rejected.” In fact, not only did the Taliban offer extradition, according to an account that has never been disavowed, the Taliban actually agreed to extradite bin Laden.
According to the Daily Telegraph (4 October, 2001), Hamid Gul, former director of Pakistan’s powerful inter service intelligence agency, and leaders of two Pakistani Islamic parties, the Jamaat-i-Islami and the Jamaat Ulema-e-Islam, negotiated bin Laden’s extradition to Peshawar, Pakistan, (where he would be held under house arrest) to stand trial for the 11 September attacks. The final stage of the negotiations was in Kandahar, on 1 October, in a meeting with mullah Omar. According to the Telegraph: “The proposal, which had bin Laden’s approval, was that within the framework of Islamic shar’ia law evidence of his alleged involvement in the New York and Washington attacks would be placed before an international tribunal. The court would decide whether to try him on the spot or hand him over to America.”
Note that this agreement reportedly “had bin Laden’s approval”. It was turned down not by al-Qa’eda or the Taliban, but (according to the Telegraph) by the Pakistani government, almost certainly under pressure from the US government, which rejected all the extradition offers with disdain. We do not know if the Taliban (or bin Laden) were serious about these initiatives, but if they had been explored, there may well have been a resolution to the 9/11 attacks that did not lead to war and destruction and further terrorism. It might have ended in a court judgement rather than a night-time assassination.