One of the more peculiar storylines emerging from this week’s news that U.S. Navy Seals successfully killed the elusive Islamic-terrorist figurehead Osama bin Laden at a fortified compound in urban Pakistan was the surprising manner in which U.S. officials allegedly disposed of his remains. While it is certainly understandable that the Obama administration would want to avoid entombing his dead body, thereby allowing his followers a location which they could turn into a mausoleum for generations of al-Qaeda sympathizers, affording bin Laden a full religious funeral complete with body washing and Arabic rites was a questionable move.
With the body gone forever it now becomes undeniably necessary for U.S. officials to provide substantial evidence to support their claim that bin Laden was in fact killed. It would be unthinkable for the Obama administration not to provide the world’s media with access to hard documentation of his ‘burial at sea’, given the gravity of the claim and its implications globally.
A number of important historical examples come to mind when considering the urgent need for a better explanation of the current account.
First, when Che Guevara was killed in 1967, the Bolivian Army made a great effort to offer journalists a chance to take images of his dead body so that citizens and governments around the world could be confident that he was in fact killed. When the outlaw’s body was later buried at a secret location, however, a long and drawn out public debate over the final resting place of his remains began. That carried on for decades, to the point of obsession for many theorists, until his bones were allegedly found and exhumed in 1997 and reburied with state honors at what has become a popular tourist destination.
It was a decidedly different outcome when, in 2003, U.S. officials released graphic photos of Saddam Hussein’s two sons Oday and Qussay Hussein after they were killed by American forces in Iraq. Though they anticipated criticism, due to the graphic nature of those images, the Pentagon understood that the people of Iraq needed concrete proof of the brother’s deaths if they were going to fully accept that they had perished.
Again, when Saddam himself was hanged, video evidence offered that confirmation for Iraq’s citizenry and indeed the world over.
Saudi Reaction to Burial
Though Obama officials had obviously hoped that by honoring Islamic funeral rites, specifically the hastened deposing of bin Laden’s corpse, they would pander support from Muslim sympathizers globally, this strategy appears to have backfired. As word spread that bin Laden’s body was dumped in the sea, clerics from his birthplace of Saudi Arabia are denouncing the move.
Sheikh Abdul Mohsen Al-Obaikan, an advisor to the Saudi Royal Court, was quoted by Reuters Tuesday arguing, “This is not the Islamic way. The Islamic way is to bury the person in land like all other people.” Though he concedes that in the past if a person died on a ship or could not be buried on land in the traditional 24-hour period after death they would drop him into the sea with a weight, al-Obiakan suggested that, “Today the case is different. We Have airplanes, freezers, and it is not necessary to get ride of the body in the sea in such a way.” Prominent Saudi judge Issa al Ghaith has also suggested that the Obama administration made a mistake burying bin Laden at sea, claiming it gives the impression Americans “fear him even after his death.”
Regardless, if U.S. intelligence officials do not offer substantial video and/or photographic evidence of bin-Laden’s death and burial, they risk running a scenario similar to that of the death of Adolf Hitler, where the accuracy of Soviet accounts of his suicide, burial, exhumation, cremation, and supposed ash scattering continue to be debated by historians to the present day.
Trevor Westra is a Canadian geopolitical analyst specializing in Middle Eastern and South Asian religious historiography. He serves as a Contributing Analyst for strategic planning and risk management consultancy Wikistrat Inc.