12 May 2015

Osama bin Laden’s death: claim and counter-claim

A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist is panned for trashing the official version of the Osama bin Laden assassination – so should we start believing other outlandish theories about the killing?

When the news of bin Laden’s assassination broke four years ago, questions were immediately raised about the operation that finally tracked down and killed the US public enemy number one.

The official White House account is that an intercepted phone call to a trusted courier of bin Laden led the Americans to a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

A special forces team was flown in by helicopter, without the knowledge of the Pakistani authorities, and the al-Qaeda leader was shot dead in a raid on the compound.

The official account seemed to gain a ring of truth at the end of 2014 when two Navy Seals in the unit that carried out the killing confirmed many of the details – although they engaged in a public spat about who took the final, fatal shot.

But now, Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh has published a story that took him years to research, claiming that nothing we think we know about the assassination is true – and that the US lied profusely about the details to cover up complex and seedy motives.

All of which would carry huge implications for the US administration – and would also mean the Hollywood version of the story, Zero Dark Thirty, is completely inaccurate.

But the plot gets even thicker: Mr Hersh’s account has itself been panned, with critics pointing to the apparent flimsiness of the writer’s two main sources: Assad Durrani, who led Pakistan’s intelligence service from 1990-92, and a “retired senior intelligence official” who he claims “was knowledgeable about the initial intelligence about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad”.

Mr Hersh has defended his article on CNN, which the White House has since dismissed as “baseless”. Just how far-fetched are the claims he makes?

Pakistan helped the US raid and concocted an elaborate back-story

Senior Pakistani intelligence figures were aware of bin Laden’s location and gave it to the US to smooth Pakistani-American relations.

They also gave crucial help to the Seal operation by moving local forces away from the area and cutting power to the compound.

The White House had even hit upon a cover-up story whereby bin Laden had been killed in a drone strike in the remote mountainous region on the border with Afghanistan.

Bin Laden had been held prisoner by Pakistani intelligence for years

Rather than hiding out in a compound in Abbottabad, Mr Hersh says bin Laden was being held prisoner by Pakistani intelligence when he was killed.

The ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence service, “was using bin Laden as leverage against Taliban and al-Qaeda activities inside Afghanistan and Pakistan”, he claims.

Bin Laden was actually an unarmed ‘invalid’

Barack Obama said bin Laden was taken down during a firefight after the Seal team stormed the compound.

The retired Pakistani official told Mr Hersh: “The truth is that bin Laden was an invalid, but we cannot say that.”

He was never going to be taken alive

Even if he had surrendered on the spot, bin Laden would not have been taken away alive – despite repeated statements by the White House that he would not be killed if he gave himself up.

“It was clearly and absolutely a premeditated murder,” said the retired official quoted by Mr Hersh.

“If bin Laden put up any opposition they were authorised to take lethal action,” he added. “But if they suspected he might have some means of opposition, like an explosive vest under his robe, they could also kill him.

“So here’s this guy in a mystery robe and they shot him.

“It’s not because he was reaching for a weapon. The rules gave them absolute authority to kill the guy.’

Barack Obama lied about the assassination for political advantage

Barack Obama engaged in “high-level lying” so it could take credit for killing America’s most-wanted man.

Mr Hersh rejects claims by the White House that bin Laden was still giving orders to al-Qaeda, calling them “lies, misstatements and betrayal”.

“The White House had to give the impression that bin Laden was still operationally important,” the official said. “Otherwise, why kill him?”

Mr Obama only came up with the story about a daring raid on the Abbottabad compound after a Black Hawk helicopter crashed inside its walls.

Pakistan gave up bin Laden for a slice of the $25m reward

A former Pakistani intelligence officer gave up details of bin Laden’s location to claim part of the huge reward offered by the US.

The burial at sea never happened

When Obama revealed the bin Laden operation to the world just hours after it happened, a story had to be quickly whipped up to explain the whereabouts of the body – and the fact that US forces were able to verify its identity using DNA.

To make matters interesting, “some members of the Seal team had bragged to colleagues and others that they had torn bin Laden’s body to pieces with rifle fire,” the retired official is quoted as saying.

“During the helicopter flight back to Jalalabad, some body parts were tossed out over the Hindu Kush mountains.”

“There never was a plan, initially, to take the body to sea, and no burial of bin Laden at sea took place.”

Some even wackier theories

- Obama fabricated the whole thing to boost his re-election campaign - Iranian news agencies
- Bin Laden was frozen to be unveiled years later - The Alex Jones show, US
- Bin Laden was a US agent - Javad Jahangirzadeh, a member of Iran's security and foreign policy committee
- The US used the bin Laden raid as a pretext to invade Pakistan - former Iranian officials, talking to Ausaf
- Bin Laden is still alive, being interrogated by the US - The Glenn Beck Show, US
- Wills and Kate delayed their honeymoon to avoid clashing with the assassination - Professor Anthony Glees