The Ugly Reality Behind the Killing of Bin Laden

A week’s hindsight has allowed for greater confidence in assessing the recent U.S. assassination of Osama bin Laden.  Damning details have been slowly trickling out regarding the military operation, undertaken in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad.  First, it was quietly revealed, contrary to the claims of Obama’s inner circle, that Osama had actually been executed.  The admission that Osama was unarmed at the time of his death directly contradicted the administration’s earlier claim that bin Laden “engaged in a firefight,” and was subsequently killed as a result of his alleged attack on U.S. forces.

The open admission that the U.S. engages in assassinations no doubt jarred critics of U.S. policy in the Middle East and South/Central Asia.  Those who hoped bin Laden would live to stand trial for the charges against him were disappointed, as Obama apparently ordered that he be taken dead or alive.  It seems clear that the bin Laden assassination represents a fundamental abrogation of basic American legal principles and jurisprudence.  That unarmed prisoners can be executed at will and denied basic rights to due process, to be charged in a court of law, and allowed basic representation will no doubt fail to bother belligerent nationalists.  This contempt, however, should disturb those committed to the rule of law.  Even someone as vile as Osama bin Laden deserved his day in court.

Obama’s “self-defense”-turned-execution operation isn’t the only revelation that materialized in recent days.  Other details are now emerging that question the legitimacy of the operation altogether.  For one, the popular U.S. narrative that Pakistan’s government has either been colluding with al Qaeda or was incompetently sheltering bin Laden is questionable.  The Independent of London featured a story last week reporting, with regard to the Abbottabad residence at which bin Laden was killed, that the U.S. was “alerted [by Pakistani leaders] to [the] bin Laden compound in 2009” as a potential safe haven for al Qaeda, and that the CIA had used intelligence from the Pakistani government when tracking down bin Laden.  Similarly, the Nation of Pakistan reported that the Abbottabad compound “had been under surveillance since 2003, resulting in the highly technical operation” by Pakistani forces in 2004 “which had led to the capture of a senior al Qaeda leader.”

The stories portrayed in the above reports are largely unknown to Americans, who have been subject to non-stop reports alleging Pakistani incompetence or collusion with terrorist forces.  Reports from major media in the U.S. did report claims that Pakistan cooperated in anti-terror operations, although Pakistani intelligence sharing on Abbottabad was relegated to paragraphs 13 and 12 in single reports last week by the New York Times and Washington Post respectively (see NYT: “Pakistan Sees Shared Intelligence Lapse,” and Wash Post: “U.S. Presses Pakistan for Information on Osama bin Laden Compound”).   Similarly, the Washington Post reported that Pakistan had raided the compound  Abbottabad looking for high profile al Qaeda leaders in 2004 (see: “In Pakistan, Rare Doubts About Military and Intelligence Service Over bin Laden Case”), although that admission was buried in paragraph 11 of the story.  In short, Pakistani cooperation with hunting down bin Laden has largely been erased in the U.S. press.

Far more popular in the U.S. is the narrative that Pakistan colludes (knowingly or unknowingly) with terrorists.  This narrative was popularized after CIA director Leon Panetta announced that the choice not to inform Pakistan about the U.S. Abbottabad raid was based on fears that “any effort to work with the Pakistanis could jeopardize the mission: They might alert the targets.”  Panetta further argued about Pakistani officials that “either they were involved [in supporting bin Laden and al Qaeda] or incompetent.  Neither place is a good place to be.”  Panetta’s comments were followed by a flurry of attacks from Washington officials.  Republican representative Ted Poe introduced legislation that would prohibit aid to Pakistan until the government proves it was not protecting bin Laden.  Poe commented: “it seems like Pakistan might be playing both sides, and they have a lot of explaining to do.”  Representative Kay Granger has taken aim at stripping $190 million in flood assistance for Pakistan in light of the bin Laden accusations.  Representative Howard Berman announced that Pakistan “is not serving the interests that we intended that military aid to serve.”  He attacked Pakistan’s record of aiding U.S. “counter-terror” operations as “very weak.”  Democrats like Senator Dianne Feinstein have also indicated openness to cutting off aid to Pakistan.

The American media has uncritically followed political officials’ lead.  Featured reporting from the Washington Post quickly focused on U.S. officials’ demands “that Pakistan quickly provide answers to specific questions about Osama bin Laden” and his residency in Abbottabad, and on official claims that “it defied logic that bin Laden was able to hide in plain sight without some level of official Pakistani knowledge or complicity.”  The New York Times featured “scathing assessments of the Pakistani army as either incompetent or duplicitous, saying renewed [U.S.] financial support was hardly guaranteed.”  The Times went on to highlight the debate going on in Washington over “whether the U.S. should continue to invest in a Pakistani military whose assurances that it does not work with terrorists carry less weight than ever.”

There are numerous problems with the official-media narrative.  It is certainly true that available evidence points to past collusion between Pakistani intelligence and Islamist forces.  Pakistan’s ISI (the national intelligence agency) has long been known to be a supporter of the Taliban, dating back to the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan during the mid 1990s.  The ISI, like the United States, also played an important role in supporting the Islamist Mujahideen fighters (whom bin Laden was one) during the 1980s and 1990s, in opposition to the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.  Wikileaks documents also suggest that the ISI has continued to retain a strong relationship with the Taliban, in anticipation of the group’s possible political and military ascendancy following a U.S. military drawdown and withdrawal.  Finally, a recent report in the Guardian by Tariq Ali highlighted the author’s 2006 exchange with an ISI official, who claimed that “Bin Laden was in the country [Pakistan] and being kept safe.”  The ISI official reportedly told Ali that his intelligence agency [the ISI] chose not to turn against bin Laden because of the large level of aid Pakistan was receiving from the U.S. in the name of “fighting terror.”  As he argued, “why kill the golden goose” at a time when the U.S. was pouring in massive resources?

The above evidence, however, should not be taken as an indication that the Pakistani government is uniformly working with or supporting al Qaeda and the Taliban.  Pakistan’s ISI has long been in conflict with the central government itself, whose leaders (such as Benazir Bhutto, Asif Ali Zardari, and Pervez Musharraf) have forged strong alliances with U.S. officials in their “War on Terror.”  High level Pakistani political leaders have extended much cooperation to the U.S. in supporting U.S. drone attacks within Pakistan’s borders, and in providing intelligence to aid in U.S. “counter-terror” operations.  A more nuanced explanation of the tensions operating within Pakistan are established by a recent Council on Foreign Relations report, which highlights the ongoing competition for power between Pakistan’s intelligence and political communities: “Many in the Pakistani government, including slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, have called the [ISI] intelligence agency ‘a state within a state,’ working beyond the government’s control and pursuing its own foreign policy.”  However, CFR reports, “the agency does not function independently?it [also] aligns itself to the [political] power center” of the country, “and does what the government or the army ask it to do.”

The situation in Pakistan, in which the country’s U.S.-aligned political leadership and its Islamist-allied intelligence community compete for power, is quite precarious.  Support for the U.S. agenda in the “War on Terror” from Pakistani officials comes with dramatic costs, as seen in numerous (successful and unsuccessful) assassination attempts against prominent leaders such as Musharraf, Bhutto, and others.  It is this precariousness that the U.S. has disregarded (at its own peril) as officials in Washington engage in cowboy “diplomacy” and militarism against Pakistan, widely evident over the last week.  Slowly but surely, the United States’ drone attacks, assassination operations, and belligerent rhetoric (not to mention contempt for Pakistani sovereignty) are alienating Pakistani leaders who are willing to aid in counter-terror operations.

Pakistan, as those familiar with the country know, has been in possession of nuclear weapons for the last 13 years.  The constant instability of the country’s political leadership, coupled with the intelligence community’s strong Islamist sympathies, raise the specter of a regime change that could bring to power nuclear-armed fundamentalist forces that are largely hostile to the United States.  These concerns have been arrogantly and incompetently dismissed by U.S. officials, who freely violate Pakistani sovereignty, while verbally insulting its officials with little concern for the consequences.

There should be no question that the assassination of Osama was blatantly illegal under international law.  As laid out in the United Nations Charter, the use of military force within the territorial boundaries of Pakistan (or any other country) can only be authorized following that country’s own authorization of such an attack.  Exceptions to this rule include U.N. Security Council authorization of force (which the U.S. didn’t have), or the use of force in self defense against an ongoing attack from an outside power.  The raid in Abbottabad can’t be classified as self defense against an ongoing attack, since there is no current attack ongoing against the U.S., and since that the raid was based merely on the suspicion that bin Laden may have been there (rather than absolutely certainty of his whereabouts).  If the recent raid is defended as legal under the pretext of “self defense,” then technically any U.S. drone attack, assassination effort, or any other military operation/attack for that matter that’s taken place over the last ten years without the permission of the host state, but in the name of “fighting terror,” can be deemed legal under international law.  Taking such a cavalier stance will effectively ensure the irrelevance of international law ? at least among those with a serious commitment to it.

The U.S. violated Pakistani national sovereignty in the Abbottabad raid.  Pakistani officials were openly irate and distraught over the attack, which was undertaken without U.S. political or military officials bothering to inform them until after the fact. As the New York Times reported last week, Pakistani General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani informed U.S. officials that he “would not tolerate a repeat of the American covert operation that killed Osama bin Laden, warning that any similar action would lead to a reconsideration of the relationship with the United States.”  Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir stated that “this matter of sovereignty and violation of sovereignty raises certain legal and moral questions that fall in the domain of the United Nations.”

Pakistan’s leaders have good reason to be concerned over the implications of U.S. unilateralism within their borders.  These actions threaten to undermine what’s left of the national government’s legitimacy, which has been strongly undermined by the recent attack.  Pakistan’s Karachi reason erupted into rebellion following the bin Laden assassination.  Numerous other cities also saw protests against the U.S., with a rallying cry by organizers condemning the “American assault and attack upon the solidarity and sovereignty of Pakistan.”

The government’s reluctant tolerance of ongoing U.S. predator drone attacks also poses a major obstacle for Pakistan’s government.  These attacks are undertaken in the name of fighting terrorism, but reports suggest that they are successful mainly in killing civilians in mass.  CIA director Leon Panetta celebrates U.S. drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere as “very effective because they have been very precise in terms of targeting” and since they produce “a minimum of collateral damage.”  Available empirical evidence largely challenges these claims as propagandistic.  In estimating that drone attacks may cause ten civilian deaths for every militant killed, the Brookings Institute warns that, in order “to reduce casualties [associated with drone attacks], superb intelligence is necessary.  Operators must know not only where the terrorists are, but also who is with them and who might be within the blast radius.  This level of surveillance may often be lacking.”  Other available evidence, put forward by the Pakistani government, further reinforces Brookings findings.  Pakistan’s Ambassador Rustam Shah Mohmand estimates that assessments based on accounts from bombed areas find that 80 percent of casualties from U.S. bombings are civilian.  Pakistani government data concludes that, of the 60 U.S. predator drone attacks undertaken from January 2006 to April 2009, 94 percent of the 687 killed were civilians, compared to just 6 percent (or 14 people) who were alleged members of al Qaeda.  After on-the-ground investigating of numerous U.S. drone strikes, a recent study by the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict concluded that an average of 3.3 civilians were killed for each drone strike examined.

The American public is largely unaware of the fact that U.S. drone attacks are punishing civilians, rather than “terrorists.”  My own examination of U.S. media reporting from the New York Times and Los Angeles Times during early to mid-2009 found that only a single story (out of 28 stories total) featured the death of civilians from U.S. predator drone attacks.  The rest featured the government line that the attacks were aimed at terrorist targets.  These drone attacks have continued following Osama’s assassination, with strikes reported within a week of that operation being undertaken in Pakistan and Yemen.

Americans welcomed the death of Osama bin Laden, in light of the terrorist atrocities of September 11th, 2001 that led to the deaths of more than 3,000 Americans.  What has been missed in the orgy of celebrations, however, is the fact that the assassination operation cannot be divorced from the larger U.S. “counter-terror” campaign, which blatantly violates other countries’ sovereignty, while overwhelmingly targeting and killing civilians, rather than members of al Qaeda.

Supporters of the Osama assassination will naturally wonder what other alternatives (if any) were available to the United States outside of violating Pakistani sovereignty.  A number of alternate approaches were possible, if U.S. leaders had cared to explore them.  One possible path would have been to plan the U.S. raid, but to request authorization from Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari immediately prior to engaging in the operation.  This approach would have allowed the U.S. to circumvent a potential ISI tip-off of bin Laden, while also involving sympathetic Pakistani government officials on some basic level.  Another possible alternative would be to contact Zardari, and request that he engage in such an operation ? led by Pakistani forces ? immediately following the request.  There is good reason to believe that either approach was possible, considering that the Pakistani military itself had tipped off the U.S. about the Abbottabad compound as a potential terrorist haven, and considering that Pakistan also raided the site looking for high profile al Qaeda leaders in the past.  Pakistani refusal to cooperate with such requests could have always been accompanied by the threat of an immediate termination of U.S. aid.

At the bare minimum, Obama certainly could have undertaken the raid as he did, while simultaneously (or immediately beforehand) informing Zardari, so as to minimize the damage seen in Pakistanis’ now-widespread perception of government ineptitude and lack of control of its national borders.  While this final approach (in my mind) represents an unacceptable abrogation of Pakistani sovereignty, it at least could have done something to minimize the instability and turmoil that resulted from the assassination.

Critics may dismiss the above alternatives, concluding that they were “unrealistic” in light of the United State’s longstanding unilateral approach to dealing with global terror threats, and upon considering the seemingly tremendous payoff of having finally eliminated Osama bin Laden.   These criticisms neglect the fact that the U.S. operation was undertaken under the mere suspicion that bin Laden was residing in the compound (he just as well could not have been in the compound during the raid).  Mere suspicion alone is not a valid pretext for violating another state’s national sovereignty.  Many previous raids and attacks have been undertaken under the same premise of killing bin Laden and other high level leaders of al Qaeda, and none of those attacks are an excuse for continued U.S. violations of international law or territorial integrity.   U.S. contempt for the rule of law should not serve as the basis for evaluating the desirability or undesirability of future U.S. policies.  If the U.S. is seriously concerned with fighting terrorism, its citizens need to place increased pressure on Obama to adhere to fundamental international norms and conventions as related to the use of force.

Anthony DiMaggio is the co-author (with Paul Street) of the forthcoming “Crashing the Tea Party” (Paradigm Publishers) due out in May 2011.  He is also the author of When Media Goes to War (2010) and Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2008).   He has taught U.S. and Global Politics at Illinois State University, and can be reached at:


Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He is the author of Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here (Routledge, 2022), in addition to Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020), and Unequal America (Routledge, 2021). He can be reached at: A digital copy of Rebellion in America can be read for free here.