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Bin Laden Conspiracy Theories Flourish Amid Demands For Proof

  • RFE/RL

Iraqis watch Arabic satellite news channel Al-Arabiyah as it shows an image that was circulating on the Internet purporting to show the dead body of Al-Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden.

Iraqis watch Arabic satellite news channel Al-Arabiyah as it shows an image that was circulating on the Internet purporting to show the dead body of Al-Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden.

In a world where conspiracy theories abound, Washington is having a hard time convincing doubters that Osama bin Laden is dead.

Nowhere more so than in the Pakistani town where the successful raid to eliminate the terrorist mastermind took place: Abbottabad.

In this peaceful hill resort north of Islamabad, most residents say they simply don't believe Washington's story.

Fawad Ali Shah, a correspondent for RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal, has been in Abbottabad since bin Laden was killed early on May 2, and says that of the more than 100 people he's talked to, "the majority of them are still not ready to believe that Osama was killed here."

He says they point to the fact that Abbottabad is a military center and he was at the top of the Pakistani Army's most-wanted list.

What is missing, according to the doubters, is proof strong enough to overcome all the questions surrounding the astonishing location of bin Laden's final hideout.

A shepherd herds his goats past the hideout of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on May 4 in Abbottabad.
As Shah notes, people want to see the pictures. "If the U.S. soldiers killed Osama bin Laden, where are the pictures? We need proof," they say. He says most Abbottabad residents think it is all a conspiracy against the town, which had recently been "a peaceful city."

Conspiracy Explosion

In the absence of pictures, conspiracy theories are growing by the day.

Some residents say they think the whole event was staged, from the raid to the burial of bin Laden at sea. Why, they ask, would the Americans so quickly dispose of bin Laden's body after going to so much trouble to get it? What are they hiding?

Some Pakistani politicians go further than that. Mufti Kifayatullah, a member of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's provincial assembly, told Radio Mashaal he believed that bin Laden was killed elsewhere and his body transferred to Abbottabad for a variety of complicated motives.

"The whole story is concocted. He was arrested somewhere else and then brought to the peaceful city of Abbottabad, so that [the United States] may carry out drone strikes there," Kifayatullah says.

"I don't agree that the operation was originally conducted in Abbottabad. The Pakistani Army arrested him somewhere else," he continues. "When the United States pressured them to hand him over, they [the Pakistani Army] arranged an artificial operation and spread the reports of his martyrdom."

Many in Pakistan and elsewhere are demanding more evidence that U.S. forces killed bin Laden in Abbottabad.
The explosion of conspiracy theories -- which are widely debated on Pakistani television -- has put U.S. officials in the region on the defensive even as Washington declares bin Laden's death a major success in the war on terror.

U.S. regional envoy Marc Grossman told local media after talks with Pakistani and Afghan officials in Islamabad earlier this week, "You can have as many conspiracies as you wish." He added, "He's dead. It's good."

Debate On Releasing Photos

Washington says it's convinced it got the right man and has both forensic evidence and facial recognition to prove it.

U.S. officials said on May 2 they were "99.9 percent confident" that tissue samples taken from the body of bin Laden in Abbottabad and compared with samples taken from the terror mastermind's late sister establish a DNA match.

Photos of the corpse were analyzed by facial-recognition experts who compared them to previous known photographs of the Al-Qaeda leader.

But, so far, Washington has hesitated to release the proof that the public seems to value the most: photos of the dead body itself.

The hesitation comes amid an apparently heated debate in Washington over whether releasing a photo of the corpse would convince public opinion or shock it.

A widely distributed image of what Pakistani TV described as bin Laden's bloodied face (left), and a picture that clearly shows that the beard and the lower part of the image was most probably cloned and pasted on the image of a body that doesn't belong to bin Laden.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters on May 3 that "it's fair to say that it's a gruesome photograph." He appeared to be referring to an image of bin Laden taken shortly after the U.S. strike team killed him early on May 2 in Pakistan, with at least one shot to the head.

Carney added: "I'll be candid. There are sensitivities here in terms of the appropriateness of releasing photographs of Osama bin Laden."

Critics of releasing a photo of the corpse say that doing so is distasteful, could offend Muslims, and be exploited by extremists.

Still, other top administration officials, including CIA Director Leon Panetta, have signaled that they believe a photo ultimately must be released.

He told U.S. NBC television network on May 3, "the bottom line is that, you know, we got bin Laden and I think we have to reveal to the rest of the world the fact that we were able to get him and kill him."

written by Charles Recknagel in Prague, with contributions from RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal in Abbottabad

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