Conspiracy theorists on the left and right insist Osama bin Laden is either still alive or has been dead for years, pouncing on the government's decision to slide the body of the world's most wanted man off a board into the Arabian Sea.
WASHINGTON — Within hours of the raid on Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan compound, the CIA had used 21st technology to get “a virtually 100 percent DNA match” on the dead man. But something out of another century may come back to haunt the United States: the al-Qaida leader’s burial at sea.
Conspiracy theorists on the left and right were quick to insist bin Laden was either still alive or had been dead for years, pouncing on the government’s decision to slide the body of the world’s most wanted man off a board into the Arabian Sea.
“I am sorry, but if you believe the newest death of OBL, you’re stupid,” antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan posted on her Facebook page. Infowars, the website of Libertarian radio host Alex Jones, was crammed with stories charging that the U.S. government concocted the killing to justify a security crackdown. The Tea Party Nation website brimmed with indignant posts questioning the timing of Obama’s announcement.
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“Don’t you think OBAMA needs something to assure his reelection,” one commentator wrote.
Even a relative of one of the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks voiced skepticism, citing the burial at sea.
“Is it true or false? I don’t know,” said Stella Olender of Chicago, whose daughter Christine died at the World Trade Center. “To me, that seems strange, that they disposed of it and no one (besides) whoever was right there knows what happened.”
The conspiracy theories spoke to the quandary facing the United States: proving the al-Qaida leader’s death without inflaming his supporters and the broader Muslim world. Because of that concern, U.S. officials were considering the merits of releasing gory photos of bin Laden taken after he was shot.
The burial at sea — which occurred on the USS Carl Vinson, an aircraft carrier in the northern part of the Arabian Sea — was necessary because arrangements couldn’t be made with any country to bury bin Laden within 24 hours, as dictated by Muslim practice, administration officials said. But a senior military officer said the United States also wanted to avoid creating a shrine on land that would attract his followers.
Administration officials said Monday there was no question who was killed in the Pakistan raid. In addition to being visually identified on the scene by U.S. operatives, bin Laden was identified by name by a woman believed to be one of his wives, according to a senior intelligence official. On Sunday evening, CIA specialists compared photos of the body to known photos of bin Laden, determining with 95 percent certainty that they were one and the same.
On Monday morning, the CIA and other agencies conducted an “initial DNA analysis,” comparing a sample taken from the body with DNA samples from several bin Laden family members. The results, the official said, gave them “a virtually 100 percent DNA match.”
The intelligence community has been collecting DNA samples from bin Laden’s relatives for years, according to another U.S. intelligence official. Because the family is so big, it was not difficult to obtain samples, officials said.
Dr. Frederick Bieber, a medical geneticist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said it is possible for genetic kinship analysis to be done quickly, particularly if profiles of relatives have already been completed.
The administration was considering whether to release graphic photos of bin Laden’s bullet-ridden body to put rumors of a hoax to rest. (A photo purportedly of bin Laden’s corpse circulating widely online was determined to be a fake.)
Some congressional leaders suggested doing so was necessary.
“Unless there’s an acknowledgment by people in al-Qaida that bin Laden is dead, it may be necessary to release the pictures — as gruesome as they will undoubtedly be, because he’s been shot in the head — to quell any doubts that this somehow is a ruse that the American government has carried out,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.
Doubt was widespread in the Muslim world.
“He is still alive,” said Sayed Mohammed, a chef at a restaurant in Cairo’s bustling Zamalek neighborhood. “He is a clever guy — he is no Hosni Mubarak.”
And in Peshawar, a city near Pakistan’s militant-infested tribal areas and a place where locals are vehemently anti-West, many refused to believe that bin Laden had been killed.
As he made copies at a Peshawar stationery store, Muhammad Sajjad said: “I am sure he will conquer America first, then he will die.”
The burial at sea largely followed widely accepted interpretations of Islamic law taking care not to anger the mainstream Muslim community, said Ebrahim Moosa, a professor of Islamic studies at Duke University in North Carolina.
During a White House news conference, John Brennan, the White House adviser on counterterrorism and homeland security, indicated that senior administration officials had weighed these concerns before the assault on bin Laden’s compound.
Defense officials said the administration reached out to one other country to take the body for burial, but the country refused. Brennan said appealing to other countries would have exceeded the time frame Islamic custom requires, of burial within 24 hours of death.
But some Islamic scholars and clerics were divided Monday over whether the sea burial was appropriate or an insult to Muslims. Several said bin Laden should have been buried on land in a simple grave. The body was washed in accordance with Islamic custom, placed in a white sheet, then put inside a weighted bag.
With only a small group of witnesses, a military officer read prepared religious remarks, which were translated into Arabic by a “native speaker,” the official said. The body was placed on a board, tipped up and then “eased into the sea” from the carrier’s lowest deck, the official said.
Akbar Ahmed, the chairman of the Islamic studies department at American University, said the sea burial prevented bin Laden’s resting place from becoming a focus for discontent.
“Shrines are very powerful,” he said. “Shrines of controversial figures in Muslim history become centers to attract the angry, the disenchanted. The shrine bestows powers of religious charisma. If they allowed Osama bin Laden to be buried in Pakistan, his followers would show up, plant flowers, and women will say the shrine has healing powers, especially among the uneducated. His myth would continue to grow.”
On the other hand, Ahmed said, the secretive burial at sea may also give rise to anger and speculation about whether bin Laden was really dead. “You really want to see him. When something like this is done under cover of dark, it leaves a lot of people asking questions.”
Mohammed Qudah, a professor of Islamic law at the University of Jordan, said burying the Saudi-born bin Laden at sea was not forbidden if there was nobody to receive the body and provide a Muslim burial.
“The land and the sea belong to God, who is able to protect and raise the dead at the end of times for Judgment Day,” he said. “It’s neither true nor correct to claim that there was nobody in the Muslim world ready to receive bin Laden’s body.”
Clerics in Iraq, where an offshoot of al-Qaida is blamed for the death of thousands of people since 2003, also criticized the U.S. action. One said it only benefited fish.
The Islamic tradition of a quick burial was the subject of intense debate in Iraq in 2003 when U.S. forces embalmed the bodies of Saddam Hussein’s two sons after they were killed in a firefight. Their bodies later were shown to media.
Two Pentagon officials say bin Laden’s at-sea burial was videotaped and probably will be publicly released soon.
Information from The New York Times and McClatchy Newspapers is included in this report.