The Revenge Killing of Osama bin Laden

Noam Chomsky

In These Times, May 31, 2011

The May 1 U.S. attack on Osama bin Laden’s compound violated multiple elementary norms of international law, beginning with the invasion of Pakistani territory.

There appears to have been no attempt to apprehend the unarmed victim, as presumably could have been done by the 79 commandos facing almost no opposition.

President Obama announced that “justice has been done.” Many did not agree–even close allies.

British barrister Geoffrey Robertson, who generally supported the operation, nevertheless described Obama’s claim as an “absurdity” that should have been obvious to a former professor of constitutional law.

Pakistani and international law require inquiry “whenever violent death occurs from government or police action,” Robertson points out. Obama undercut that possibility with a “hasty ‘burial at sea’ without a post mortem, as the law requires.”

“It was not always thus,” Robertson usefully reminds us, “When the time came to consider the fate of men much more steeped in wickedness than Osama bin Laden — namely the Nazi leadership — the British government wanted them hanged within six hours of capture.

“President Truman demurred, citing the conclusion of Justice Robert Jackson (chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trial) that summary execution ‘would not sit easily on the American conscience or be remembered by our children with pride … the only course is to determine the innocence or guilt of the accused after a hearing as dispassionate as the times will permit and upon a record that will leave our reasons and motives clear.”‘

Another perspective on the attack comes in a report in The Atlantic by veteran Middle East and military correspondent Yochi Dreazen and colleagues. Citing a “senior U.S. official,” they conclude that the bin Laden killing was a planned assassination.

“For many at the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency who had spent nearly a decade hunting bin Laden, killing the militant was a necessary and justified act of vengeance,” they write.

Furthermore, “capturing bin Laden alive would have also presented the administration with an array of nettlesome legal and political challenges.”

They quote former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who commented that “the U.S. raid was ‘quite clearly a violation of international law’ and that bin Laden should have been detained and put on trial.”

They contrast Schmidt with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who “defended the decision to kill bin Laden although he didn’t pose an immediate threat to the Navy SEALs,” and testified to Congress that the assault had been “lawful, legitimate and appropriate in every way.”

They observe further that the assassination is “the clearest illustration to date” of a crucial distinction between the Bush and Obama counterterror policies. Bush captured suspects and sent them to Guantanamo and other camps, with consequences now well known. Obama’s policy is to kill suspects (along with “collateral damage”).

The roots of the revenge killing are deep. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the American desire for vengeance displaced concern for law or security.

In his book, “The Far Enemy,” Fawaz Gerges, a leading academic specialist on the jihadi movement, found that “the dominant response by jihadis to Sept. 11 is an explicit rejection of al-Qaida and total opposition to the internationalization of jihad … Al-Qaida united all social forces (in the Muslim world) against its global jihad.”

The influential Lebanese cleric Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah sharply condemned al-Qaida’s 9/11 atrocities on principled grounds. “We must not punish individuals who have no relationship with the American administration or even those who have an indirect role,” he said.

Fadlallah was the target of a CIA-organized assassination operation in 1985, a huge truck bomb placed outside a mosque. He escaped, but 80 others were killed, mostly women and girls, as they left the mosque — one of those innumerable crimes that don’t enter the annals of terror.

Subsequent U.S. actions, particularly the invasion of Iraq, gave new life to al-Qaida.

What are the likely consequences of the killing of bin Laden? For the Arab world, it will probably mean little. He had long been a fading presence, and in the past few months was eclipsed by the Arab Spring.

A fairly general perception in the Arab world is captured by the headline in a Lebanese newspaper: “The execution of bin Laden: A settling of accounts between killers.”

The most immediate and significant consequences are likely to be seen in Pakistan. There is much discussion of Washington’s anger that Pakistan didn’t turn over bin Laden. Less is said about the fury in Pakistan that the U.S. invaded their territory to carry out a political assassination.

Pakistan is the most dangerous country on Earth, with the fastest-growing nuclear arsenal. The revenge killing on Pakistani soil only stoked the anti-American fervor that had long been building.

In his new book, Pakistan: A Hard Country, Anatol Lieven writes that “if the U.S. ever put Pakistani soldiers in a position where they felt that honor and patriotism required them to fight America, many would be very glad to do so.”

And if Pakistan collapsed, an “absolutely inevitable result would be the flow of large numbers of highly trained ex-soldiers, including explosive experts and engineers, to extremist groups.”

The primary threat is leakage of fissile materials to jihadi hands, a horrendous eventuality.

The Pakistani military has already been pushed to the edge by U.S. attacks on Pakistani sovereignty. One factor is the drone attacks in Pakistan that Obama escalated immediately after the killing of bin Laden, rubbing salt in the wounds.

But there is much more, including the demand that the Pakistani military cooperate in the U.S. war against the Afghan Taliban. The overwhelming majority of Pakistanis see the Taliban as fighting a just war of resistance against an invading army, according to Lieven.

The killing of bin Laden could have been the spark that set off a conflagration, with dire consequences, particularly if the invading force had been compelled to fight its way out, as was anticipated.

Perhaps the assassination was perceived as an “act of vengeance,” as Robertson concludes. Whatever the motive, it could hardly have been security.