Osama bin Laden was No. 1 on the world’s “most wanted” list, a serial mass murderer of Americans that the United States wanted dead or alive, a fugitive from U.N. justice pursued by the nations of the world, and evil incarnate to millions of people around the world.
Bin Laden’s conscious disregard for the sanctity of human life manifested itself in the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians in the United States, Europe, and Central and South Asia.
The grandiose attacks he commissioned in New York, Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, Madrid, London, Moscow, Karachi, and Bali underscored the al-Qaida leader’s malevolence and accomplished a feat that has eluded the Community of Nations since the U.N.’s founding in 1945 — from the local Tanzanian police station to the Norwegian Room (UNSC Chamber) in New York, it galvanized world consensus around a single goal — bring bin Laden to justice!
Unprecedented international consensus notwithstanding, the U.S. president was justified in ordering a solo insertion and extraction mission in Abbottabad. The risks accompanying a joint U.S.-Pakistani military operation would be too great, especially since history had shown the Pakistani military to be heavily infiltrated by jihadi operatives and sympathizers.
That only a few key decision makers in Washington had prior knowledge of the raid did not diminish the fact that Seal Team 6 fast-roped into bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound on behalf of the entire international community.
Whether bin Laden was effective as the leader of al-Qaida is immaterial. He had eluded capture and death for nearly a decade since 9/11 and it was time for him to be brought to justice.
The Abbottabad mission wasn’t about “beheading,” paralyzing, or debilitating al-Qaida. Justice had waited long enough and the world needed to know that the U.S. and the rest of the free world will not cow to terror.
Until Seal Team 6 had bin Laden in their crosshairs, there was no debate over “dead or alive.” But after they had fully secured the megabunker, hindsight wondered if bin Laden should have been taken alive.
It was the U.S. President’s prerogative to order the mission. The U.S. wanted bin Laden dead or alive so the commander in chief was justified in taking charge of the operation. The al-Qaida leader had been responsible for so many American deaths that his execution was no longer up for debate.
Indeed, President Obama met his own country’s criteria for “direct justice and ordered al-Qaida’s founder and leader executed on the spot. However, in so doing, Obama prevented “historical justice” from being served.
Bin Laden was no “garden-variety” war criminal, to be sure, but he did command a terrorist organization that readily acted upon the doctrine of Combat Jihadism (Arabic: al Jihadiyya al Qitaliyya). He used this depraved doctrine to full effect, rationalizing and directing the mass murder of Americans and other countries’ citizens.
If not for this ideology and its promotion, even the charismatic and wealthy bin Laden would have found it difficult to build a following.
By acting on that ideology and instructing others to do the same, he had already sentenced himself to direct justice. Nevertheless, the crimes of al-Qaida are far too great to be glossed over by the eradication of the organization’s architect. If killing him was direct justice, delegitimizing his ideology would serve the greatest historical justice possible in light of the massacres and wars that it inspired.
In my own view, bin Laden immediate execution was unfortunate because it took away the opportunity to showcase, before the eyes of the world, the depraved moral and ideological foundations of the movement that gave birth to bin Laden and that will give birth to future “bin Ladens.” Had I been in a position to advise decision makers on the matter, I would have recommended capture because bin Laden’s trial, which would have ended with the same result, would have delivered a broader, longer, more decisive blow to the ideology that made the man.
The heroism of U.S. Navy Seal Team 6 presented us with the option to capture or kill the al-Qaida leader. Bin Laden was killed and then “buried at sea.” With the capture option, the man who brought down the World Trade Center towers and part of the Pentagon would have been flown to the U.S. as a war criminal, forced to see the sites he destroyed and hear the names of every life he snuffed out.
Bin Laden should have been made to stand trial before a U.S. military tribunal, in Manhattan, at Ground Zero. He should have stood trial along with the mastermind of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and other lieutenants who participated in the attacks. If needed, the Congress of the United States could have adopted appropriate special legislation in a “Seal Team Minute” to sanction such a trial.
The American people deserved to see justice served on the man who had ordered thousands of their family members, loved ones, friends, colleagues, and countrymen killed.
A special military tribunal with highly trained prosecutors and skilled lawyers could have been formed and an accurate account given of the military operation that brought bin Laden face-to-face with the people whose lives he had shattered. The wounded might have found closure and healing as they witnessed bin Laden receiving the justice he deserved.
More importantly, the charges against him would have been read and immortalized forever as a reminder to future generations of Americans.
The prosecution would have recited Bin Laden’s crimes and cited the speeches he gave declaring war on the U.S. and inciting genocide against American citizens. The texts of his speeches should have been set beside Nazi fascism and calls for extermination of the Jews. The prosecution’s case would have comprised the first part of historical justice.
Then bin Laden’s response would come in which he would repeat his fustigations against America, the Europeans, infidels, apostate Muslims, and the rest of the planet. His defense would have been vital in exposing and identifying, once and for all, the ideological root of terrorism and the foundation upon which al-Qaida and others like them, have based their war on the international community.
His references to Jihadi dogma would have carried no weight in court, but at least his political doctrine would have been exposed. Last, the court would have responded in accordance with U.S. legal principles, and bin Laden would have met his fate under law, incontrovertibly and with clarity.
I would not have dismissed the idea of a special international tribunal, even though many of my American compatriots are dubious of the concept. The International Court was established because one politician, Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, was murdered.
Genocidal leaders have been indicted under international law, as was the case with Sudan’s President, Omar al-Bashir. Bin Laden’s organization and its ideology killed people in numerous countries including Spain, Britain, Canada, Russia, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia, Australia, Lebanon, Algeria, Kenya, Tanzania, and many more.
A Nuremberg-style tribunal for al-Qaida and its ilk, with trained prosecutors and judges from the victimized countries, should have been formed because it could have destroyed the legitimacy of al-Qaida and its anti-peace doctrine.
Either approach would have delivered historical justice — U.S. military tribunal or special international court — and both would have been legitimate. Eliminating bin Laden quickly and disposing of his body have brought a sense of swift justice to many, but did not deal a fundamental blow to the ideology behind the bloodshed.
Al-Qaida survived the raid and will find another leader to replace bin Laden. Yet I concede that the current political establishment of the U.S. may not strategically comprehend the historical benefit of a trial of the ideology before the punishment of the master terror.
In my book Future Jihad, I liken the fight against al-Qaida with the storyline in the movie, “Lord of the Rings.” We shouldn’t limit the struggle against terrorism to a pursuit of the mastermind. The latter can perish without the “ideological ring” being destroyed and a new mastermind will arise to resume the terror.
As I wrote in 2005, bin Laden was that mastermind, but the jihadi ring lives on, and is already creating a new warlord of jihadism. The U.S. has celebrated direct justice, but historical justice remains to be served. Let us hope that the desire for instant justice without historical justice doesn’t backfire on the U.S.
Dr. Walid Phares is the author of “The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East.” He teaches global strategies in Washington DC and advises members of the U.S. Congress on the Middle East.
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