Monday, May 9, 2011

Justice in the balance: The killing of Osama bin Laden

A. B. Qazi and M. Shafique*. This article was originally published in The Global Dispatches. The original version can can be accessed here.

In early May, President Obama announced to the world that Osama bin Laden was dead and that 'justice' had been done. The events spanning almost 10 years — from 9 September 2001 to 2 May 2011 — mark an important era which has affected us all in fundamental ways. But now the world needs to face the question: is this justice? This article tackles a number of wrongs committed during the ‘war on terror’.


The events of 9/11 shocked the world when US jetliners taking off from US soil hit two of the country’s landmarks — one the symbol of its economic power and the other a symbol of its military might. It was a blow to US aviation authorities, intelligence, and military because they all failed to prevent these horrible acts of terrorism before they happened or to intercept them while they were happening.

George Bush’s administration quickly announced to the world that Osama Bin Laden (OBL) was behind the attacks and gave the Taliban regime in Afghanistan the choice of extraditing OBL or facing war. The Taliban’s insistence on seeing evidence of OBL’s involvement (which was not forthcoming) was portrayed instead as the rejection of the US demand for OBL’s extradition. What followed has come to be known as the ‘war on terror’.

Almost ten years after the start of this global war on terror, President Barack Obama announced that the hunt for OBL had ended as US Special Forces had killed and then buried him in the Arabian Sea. The world was told that he had been hiding deep inside Pakistan, a few hundred yards away from a military academy in a town near the capital Islamabad. The White House also revealed some details illustrating how one night, the US special forces secretively flew straight from Afghanistan to the residence of OBL, killed him, carried him back, took him to the sea, and 'buried' him there according to Islamic rituals.

The events spanning this period mark an important era that has affected the world in fundamental ways. While the whole episode might be entertaining to some, like a Hollywood movie, the world needs to take stock whether justice was actually done; to justice itself, to the bereaved families of the victims of 9/11, to the allies of the USA in this war, and to the world at large. There seem to be a number of things that do not bode well for the future of the world. This article is meant to highlight the wrongs that led to and were committed during the ‘war on terror’.

Cruel irony and a Manichean choice

In the run-up to the war, the Bush administration had used a simple and mutually exclusive choice of being ‘either with us or against us’ to judge other nations. Indeed, no responsible nation would have liked to add insult to the injury of the US by being ‘against’ at that stage and thereby inviting wrath.

While the choice was straightforward for most, it was probably the greatest diplomatic dilemma in the history of Pakistan, for several historical and strategic reasons.

As for the history, Pakistan had long been an ally in the US’s proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, but the US had abandoned Pakistan immediately after the Soviet withdrawal. Pakistan had been left to host millions of Afghan refugees who had migrated to and assimilated in Pakistani society over the decades. This assimilation was so undetectable that an average native Pakistani could not tell between an Afghan and a Pakistani hailing from its north western province adjacent to Afghanistan. Afghans were free to enter, work, marry, and live anywhere in Pakistan, and the country had no proper record of Afghans, including a whole generation born and raised in Pakistan.

Moreover, Pakistan’s friendly relations with neighbouring China, with its history of difficult relations with the US, added further complexity to the scenario. Being part of the US-led war in the backyard of China had important geostrategic implications for this closest friend of Pakistan.

As always, the only factor favouring the US at that time was that the reins of power were in the hands of military dictator Pervez Musharraf who had toppled an elected civilian government and was desperate for international legitimacy. Otherwise, the West already considered his army as a ‘rogue army’ due to its adventure in Kargil that had put the two nuclear states at the brink of war.

In short, the choice between ‘with or against the USA’ was not as simple for Pakistan as for most other nations in the world. Being friends with the US meant not only creating millions of foes integrated within the very fibre of its own society but also sowing the seeds of enmity with a brotherly neighbour Afghanistan to reap the consequences forever. On the other hand, the repercussions of not being a friend of the US in that hype are not too difficult for one to imagine. This choice invariably meant a deep split within Pakistani society and exposing it to severe dangers in either case. Nevertheless, Pakistan chose to side with the victim and since then it has been obediently serving as an ‘ally’ of the US in the war on terror.

Roots and branches of terrorism

Pakistan is, indeed, one of the most attractive havens for terrorists due to its proximity and largely unguarded border with Afghanistan, which has been a land of war and lawlessness for several decades. The roots of the terrorism the world so commonly knows today go back to the cold war.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan stirred stiff resistance typical of Afghans. It quickly turned into a sacred war (jihad) for many Muslims around the world. Sharing a long border with Afghanistan, Pakistan naturally became part of this resistance due to the imminent threat to itself. It was an open secret that Pakistan was part of the Soviet enemy camp. Backed by the US, Pakistan quickly became an operational base for jihad in Afghanistan — attracting a large number of Muslim warriors, mainly from the Arab world, including Africa.

Given the stakes, Pakistan’s military and intelligence apparatus did anything and everything to keep the Afghan jihad afloat. As it turned out, Afghanistan quickly became the battleground for a proxy war between the USSR and the US. The US also helped Pakistan’s ferocious campaign of jihad in Afghanistan for obvious reasons. However, after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, it was assumed that the mission of jihad had been accomplished and the US abandoned Afghanistan and Pakistan without helping them clean up the mess created during the jihad, leaving behind a mass of arms and undisciplined warriors.

It is not difficult to imagine that while two generations of Afghans had grown up seeing war as a normal part of life, what else could be expected of them but to fight. Therefore, while the victor Afghans split into ethnic factions and busied themselves in the battle for power, foreign warriors lost interest in the local struggles and, for the most part, quit. Those foreign warriors naturally searched for avenues where their skills were in demand. Consequently, they must have clustered in certain areas — where their brethren Muslims were facing real or perceived aggression like the one they were taught and fought against the Soviet Union. Since these warriors were splinters of a large social network formed during the Afghan war, they systematically rewired this network due to commonalities in interests and threats.

However, this time the aggressor turned out to be the West in general and the US in particular because of their silence and apparent complicity with aggression in Palestine, their foot-dragging on the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Bosnia, and the US military presence in Muslim lands in the Arab world. The first Gulf War and actions in this sequel were largely perceived in the Muslim world as an orchestrated campaign to establish complete control over Muslim lands and their strategic asset, oil, by establishing permanent military bases in those parts that are geostrategically important in this regard.

As regards the difference between the resistance against the aggression of Soviet Union in Afghanistan and that of the US in different Muslim countries (including Afghanistan), it is commonly perceived in the Muslim world that in the former case, it was touted as ‘jihad’ and in case of the latter, the same thing has been rebranded as ‘terrorism’. The issue of branding aside, the unfortunate reality is that the global environment has been turning more and more conducive for expansion of the ‘jihadist’ network engaged in this global war.

Pakistan as the operational base

It is an irony of fate that Pakistan has had to serve as the operational base, initially in support of jihad against the Soviet Union and then against this jihad when it turned into ‘terrorism’. When it was jihad during the 80s, there was a mushrooming of ‘jihadi’ outfits under different banners and slogans. Both Pakistani and US governments turned a blind eye to, or rather encouraged, their proliferation and operations. Most of these outfits had unhindered access to Afghanistan and hence recruits got ‘on-the-job-training’ in various parts of battling Afghanistan. It was a matter of prestige for a warrior to have ‘graduated’ from the battlefield of Afghanistan.

It is an open secret that some of these outfits were supported by the intelligence apparatus of Pakistan whose control diminished over time as these outfits became more entrenched and networked themselves with the local political system via religio-political parties. As a consequence, Pakistan became a virtual battlefield for sectarian groups competing to be the bastion of Islam. This environment also gave rise to ethnic militancy in Pakistan in various forms and manifestations.

What the whole world is reaping today is what was sown during the cold war and as most of it was sown in or around Pakistan, the poor country has been reaping most of the ‘fruits’ ever since. The irony is that the US abandoned Pakistan after the end of Soviet war, but got a rude awakening when the first consignment of ‘fruits’ ultimately reached its homeland on 9/11.

The troublesome facts

Pakistan is indeed one of the most attractive places for jihadists to take refuge because of the intimate social contacts jihadists nurtured during the Afghan war and afterwards, not to mention the country’s ethnic and linguistic diversity, its mountainous terrain, huge population of 170 million, and above all, the jihadist network’s experience and knowledge of it. The prevalence of widespread corruption networks within Pakistan’s administrative, law-enforcement and judicial system provided further insurance against the risks. It is therefore no surprise that many of the most wanted Al Qaeda operatives and high value targets were captured by Pakistani security forces within its territory.

The irony is that while Pakistan has been struggling with the menace of terrorism ever since the Afghan-Soviet war, the world only came to realize it after 9/11 and seems to believe that Pakistan harbours terrorism and all Pakistanis are potential terrorists. There can be nothing more untrue than this perception. Pakistan had already lost several thousand lives due to terrorism even before 9/11, and since then it has lost several thousand more soldiers and civilians while fighting the ‘war on terror’; in direct combat with militants as well as in suicide attacks in the mosques, streets, markets, and public places across the country. Pakistan even launched military operations against the Pakistani chapter of Taliban within its own territory causing history’s biggest internal displacement of people, which ran into millions.

Further, Pakistan gave the US a free hand to conduct drone attacks on terrorist hideouts within its territory as and when it deems necessary. These drone attacks alone have resulted in the killing of thousands of civilians in the name of ‘collateral damage’. Whether drone attacks in tribal areas eliminate any terrorists is an open question, but it surely gives birth to many others.

Pakistan also provided reasonable access, support, and information to the US intelligence apparatus to work within its territory, keeping aside its laws about foreign nationals and diplomatic staff. The fact that US intelligence operative Raymond Davis was roaming around across the country in violation of the laws of the land and killed in cold blood two of its citizens, and yet the Pakistani government brokered his release, is indicative of the level of support the US has received from Pakistan.

On the other hand, the US indicted a woman, Afia Siddiqui, for “attempt to murder” her US captives while she had been reportedly kidnapped from Pakistan and was being detained in Afghanistan. This duality of justice in saving a US citizen who brazenly murdered two Pakistani citizens in broad daylight and indicting a Pakistani citizen in US courts for the attempted murder of her abductors in Afghanistan is yet another telling story.

Despite all the sacrifices of Pakistan, and being itself a great victim of terrorism, the operation against OBL was conducted in a way that humiliated and defamed Pakistan, giving the impression to the world that Pakistan is officially complicit with Al Qaeda or protected OBL. While Pakistan captured most of Al Qaeda’s leaders and operatives and handed them over to the US in the absence of any extradition treaty, the allegation that Pakistan would aid and abet OBL makes little sense.

If the US intelligence and security forces had failed to detect terrorists and prevent 9/11 in their homeland despite all their sophistication, does this prove or indicate that they were complicit with the terrorists? Besides this allegation, the US operation without confiding in Pakistan (who has been fighting its war for more than three decades) has cast an unmistakable message that she does not consider Pakistan even an ally let alone a friend, neither does she care about its sovereignty.

By doing so, the USA has provided the fuel and ammunition to those who believe and propagate that the US has been zeroing in on Pakistan as the target for the next expedition after Iraq and Afghanistan. It must not be difficult for one to imagine how this message is going to affect public opinion in Pakistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world and how it will help the ‘war on terror’.

At the very best, it has set a dangerous precedent that may be used as an example by neighbouring India, which already believes Pakistan to be harbouring terrorists. The attacks on Indian parliament and a Bombay hotel are glaring examples of incidents that may motivate India to follow the example. One can imagine how such an action by India can trigger a war between the two nuclear states in which Pakistan is decidedly weaker in conventional war capabilities.

Violation of fundamentals of justice

Based on the experiences of history and evolution, humankind has agreed upon a fairly refined set of values and procedures that constitute justice. While there are a few differences here and there in the justice systems of individual nation states, there is a consensus about the minimal procedural requirements to bring about justice. Even a cursory view of the ‘war on terror’ indicates a gross violation of justice throughout this period, right from the beginning to the end.

The minimal condition of justice is that the accused is duly charged for an act of crime and proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This can happen only through a fair trial involving three parties — the prosecution, the accused, and a jury. Prosecution tends to presume that the accused is actually guilty while the accused has the right to be presumed innocent. This is why, the prosecution has the responsibility to provide the evidence and the jury has the right to decide whether the accused is guilty.

In the ‘war on terror’, the prosecution has also assumed the rights and privileges of jury, and hence only two parties have participated in the bid for justice. What kind of justice can be expected of this parallel system of justice?

The George W. Bush administration did not provide any reasonable evidence to the world or even to its own courts of law for convicting OBL and his fellows in relation to the 9/11 attacks. The administration inculpated him and others based on its own so-called intelligence reports and went on to hunt them with the intention of exacting justice and punishment. As proven in the case of the weapons of mass destruction upon which the US based their invasion of Iraq, intelligence reports can be grossly mistaken.

What the world has witnessed is that during the 10 years of the ‘war on terror’, neither OBL nor any of his collaborators were ever formally charged, tried, convicted, or warranted by any court of law to be arrested, let alone executed. The inherent injustice involved in this practice aside, this is also an injustice to the victims of terrorism and their families who can never be certain that actual perpetrators have been brought to justice.

In the same fashion, the US captured a large number of people from around the world and held them in Guantanamo for an indefinite period without affording them due access to the procedures of justice. The world has known very little about these prisons, operated outside its territory and jurisdiction, which were set up for so-called ‘enemy combatants’ who are not even given the rights of a prisoner of war as stipulated under the Geneva Convention.

Unfortunately, this practice has diffused around the world in many forms and manifestations. In developed countries, it has resulted in the frequent infringement of individual liberties and rights in the name of national security. In developing countries, the situation is even worse because security apparatuses have systematically morphed into modern-day gestapos, causing massive violations of the human rights set out in the UN charter. For instance, the cases of hundreds of missing persons allegedly abducted by intelligence agencies of Pakistan has been lingering for years in the Supreme Court of Pakistan while the whereabouts of the abductees are still unknown.

This situation raises a fundamental question: is terrorism a separate breed of crime that cannot be handled by the existing system of justice that we know? Then probably the world needs another convention for a parallel system of justice to tackle it. Thanks to this doctrine, Pakistan has already set an example by establishing a system of ‘anti-terrorist courts’ parallel to the ‘normal’ judicial system.

Justice and authority

What indicates a dangerous evasion of justice is the way OBL was executed. Although there were initially contradictory statements from various officials of the Obama administration regarding the status of OBL at the time of the operation, now we have a unified stance from the administration that he was neither armed nor did he resist in any way.

It must be remembered that although he was declared an enemy of the US in the war, the operation took place in a non-combat zone. Therefore, according to the known procedures of justice even in times of war, he should have been captured as a prisoner. One wonders what prevented dozens of special services personnel from arresting OBL? Regardless of who he was, killing him in front of his family when he was unarmed, unguarded, and did not resist, may very well constitute a war crime.

This entire episode, starting from OBL's incrimination by the Bush administration and his execution by the Obama administration, either constitutes a capital crime or proves that the US administration is the ‘supreme court of the world’ with the right and authority to accuse anyone of a crime, order their hunt, and execute them anywhere in the world without the need to prove them guilty. Is there any other plausible conclusion if the world cares about justice?

Crisis of credibility

As if there were not enough unanswered questions in this unprecedented killing of a terror suspect by US special forces on Pakistani soil, the US authorities made it more controversial by not providing any appropriate evidence of the claim that they had actually succeeded in the hunt for OBL. It has been a routine practice of US authorities to make such information public to lend credibility to the US ‘claim’ of success in relation to any declared enemy.

For instance, the CIA transmitted a mugshot of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to news agencies around the world. Photographs of the dead bodies of Uday and Qusay, the sons of Saddam Hussein, killed by US in July 2003 were also released. For that, Paul Bremer (US Administrator to Iraq after the invasion) had reasoned, “I think it will help convince people that these two people are dead...”.

When Saddam Hussein was captured alive in December 2003, video footage was released showing a doctor supposedly examining and ascertaining that it was in fact Saddam Hussain. Similarly, the US government released a photo of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s corpse after he was killed in a US air strike in June 2006. One wonders why the US administration needed credibility of success in relation to Uday and Qusay but not in case of OBL who was the proclaimed raison d’etre of the ‘war on terror’.

The US actually needed more credibility now than at the time of killing of Uday and Qusay, due to the crisis of credibility following the 2004 revelation about the torture going on in Abu Ghraib prison, the falsehood about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Bush’s acknowledgement of the existence of ‘black sites’ (i.e., secret CIA-run prisons across Europe), and Obama’s retreat on the promise to close Guantanamo Bay.

The most concrete evidence supporting the claim that OBL had been killed would have been his dead body, which was supposedly thrown into oblivion with a burial in the North Arabian Sea within hours of his execution. For a decade, the Western media had already made OBL a ‘source of inspiration’ for jihadists around the world when he was alive, and the US put a seal on his ‘legendary’ status by hastily getting rid of his corpse in a mysterious way.

Muslims would ask, where did this sea-burial come from? The chief advisor of President Obama for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, John Brennan, claimed that it was done in “strict conformance with Islamic precepts and practices”. Scholars disagreed however, saying it is exceedingly unusual.

When further asked about the hastiness involved in burying OBL, Mr. Brennan replied “it was determined that it is required by Islamic law that an individual be buried within 24 hours… therefore, we thought that the best way to ensure that his body was given an appropriate Islamic burial was to take those actions that would allow us to do that burial at sea.”

It is true that Islam discourages unnecessary delays in burial, but there are no time limits prescribed in Islam in relation to burial. It is a well-known practice that burials may be halted until close blood relations of the deceased arrive to see the dead body and attend the funeral proceedings if they so wish. This may, however, be the practice prescribed by the US administration to bury the alleged terrorists of Islamic faith within 24 hours of their death, and that too, in deep waters. Even if such claims may be excused for want of their poor knowledge about Islam, the White House could have come up with other plausible reasons for their claim instead of using religion as a false pretext and adding insult to the injury of OBL’s family and offending Muslims.

Who is winning: the world or the terrorists?

Immediately after the 9/11 attacks President Bush said: “we will not allow this enemy to win the war by changing our way of life or restricting our freedoms”. However, since the heinous 9/11 attacks and the comparably heinous ‘war on terror’, the very fundamental principles and values of freedom and justice have been compromised by the West, especially by the US itself.

Be it freedom of speech, right to information or presumption of innocence unless proven guilty, most fundamental values have been suspended or pushed aside in the name of security. The Guantanamo phenomenon and the PATRIOT Act are two clear examples but much more runs even deeper.

President Obama was seen as a tide of change in this regard — not only because of his anti-Bush-policy rhetoric during his election campaign but also because of his inauguration pledge that “the US does not have to continue with a false choice between our safety and our ideals”. He was even given a Nobel peace prize in advance of any concrete achievements, in the hope that the US under his leadership would bring about peace in the world.

Yet what happened instead was President Obama proposing a law of ‘indefinite preventive detention without a charge’. He has already betrayed his own pledge to “restore the standards of due process and the core constitutional values that have made this country great even in the midst of war, even in dealing with terrorism”.

What we have witnessed during this era of modern terror suggests that the freedoms and rights which the West in general and the US in particular champion, have already been sacrificed by their former protectors on the altar of ‘war on terror’. It seems that terrorists have been making consistent progress in ruining the peace of the world by baiting its harbingers and protectors everywhere. The greatest of their successes was to provoke the super power of the world hard enough and pitch it against Muslims; and the rest has been taking care of itself ever since.

What is most worrisome is that the successive US administrations never fail in touting their values of freedom and justice but their actions almost always fail to conform to their claims. Consequently, the US provides good reasons to a large part of the world (and its own Muslim) population to feel that it applies different standards of human rights, freedom and justice for Muslims. It seems to us that the behaviour of the US has been shaping a global system of perceptions, actions and reactions that may propel the theory of clash of civilizations into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

*Both authors are PhD fellows in economics and policy studies of technical change at United Nations University-MERIT (UNU-MERIT) in the Netherlands. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of UNU-MERIT.


  1. Agree with most of the things written here. The only thing I would like to say is that the authors took too much trouble to say the obvious (i.e. the concluding paragraph). Most of the article contains recent historical events (facts) that are known almost to every body who matters and yet this is not changing anything on the ground. This to me is the most disturbing thing in the world we live today. I've converesed with a lot of people (europeans mostly) on the killing of OBL and more than 90% of them view the methodology of US as flawed (not the end result, or the justification of that). Yet, might I again say, this is not changing anything now, and wouldnt change the way US conducts itself in the world in the future. I dont know either how this is going to change. For Muslims and specially for Pakistanis the only thing doable seems to be, stand in qeues, bow our heads, move step by step behinde the one we are standing ultimtely to be shot in head and thrown in a ditch full of our beloveds.

  2. US Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates:
    “If I were in Pakistani shoes, I would say I’ve already paid a price — I’ve been humiliated, I’ve been shown that the Americans can come in here and do this with impunity.”

  3. This is for sure now that US wants to leave the region as they are losing the war. But for sure, this will bring some more unrest in Pakistan.
    It looks like Pakistan is to pay price for everything happening around the globe. They will stand up one day to take revenge I am sure ... there is an end to everything.