article

05.02.11

Conspiracy Theories: Is Osama bin Laden Really Dead?

Wacky Osama bin Laden conspiracy theories have been circulating ever since September 11. Josh Dzieza on calls for photos of his corpse as proof that the manhunt is really over.

Wacky Osama bin Laden conspiracy theories have been circulating ever since September 11. Josh Dzieza on calls for photos of his corpse as proof that the manhunt is really over. Plus, The Daily Beast's full coverage of bin Laden's death.

When British papers posted images of Osama bin Laden’s bloody corpse, several conspiracy-minded websites pounced, decrying the photographs as fakes. They were right. The picture was a poorly photo-shopped image that has kicked around the Internet for years, chiefly to illustrate the many false reports of bin Laden’s death. Publishing the fake images “makes little sense,” writes Paul Joseph Watson, “unless of course, somebody is trying to hide something.”

Photos: A Timeline of Osama bin Laden's Life

People looking for an excuse to raise their eyebrows hardly needed the fake photographs when they had bin Laden’s speedy ocean burial. “I am sorry, but if you believe the newest death of OBL, you're stupid,” wrote Cindy Sheehan on Facebook. “Just think to yourself—they paraded Saddam's dead sons around to prove they were dead—why do you suppose they hastily buried this version of OBL at sea?” U.S. officials say bin Laden’s body was buried quickly, in accordance with Islamic tradition, and buried at sea in order to deprive his followers of a shrine to visit, the Washington Post reports. But the quick disposal of the body combined with the lack of an authentic photograph—and ancillary coincidences, like that bin Laden was killed on the date President Bush declared “mission accomplished”—makes the operation ripe for conspiracy theories. 

One of the theories currently making the rounds is not that bin Laden is still alive, but that he was killed years ago. The theory has been in circulation essentially since the September 11 attacks. Variations abound, but the general claim is that bin Laden was killed in 2001, either in battle or by sickness, and every video and image we’ve seen of him since has been a fake used by the Bush administration to justify involvement in the Middle East.

“We have a right to view our nation’s tormentor face to face, to make sure he is dead, and to spit on him if we choose.”

David Griffin, former professor of philosophy of religion at Claremont School of Theology and author of Osama bin Laden Dead or Alive, has been raising questions about the authenticity of bin Laden’s tapes for years, pointing to seeming inconsistencies like changes in the al Qaeda leader’s weight or the fact that in one video he writes with his right hand instead of his left. Occasional comments by U.S. and Afghan officials like FBI counterterrorism chief Dale Watson or Afghan President Hamid Karzai that bin Ladin was “probably” dead kept the theory alive.  The extreme version of the theory, put forward just now by Alex Jones, is that the Bush administration, and then Obama, was holding bin Laden’s body, waiting to unveil it at a politically expedient time.

Proving that there’s never a politically inexpedient time to unveil the killing of the world’s most-wanted terrorist, some are pointing to the birther imbroglio as the controversy Obama is trying to sweep under the rug with Osama’s killing. “The use of a boogeyman is of course indispensable in political contexts like this with Obama under pressure for his birth certificate and the atrocities in Pakistan,” says Jim Fetzer, founder of the 9/11 Scholars for Truth.  Asked why Bush wouldn’t have reaped the benefits of killing bin Laden for himself, Fetzer said that he was “too useful for propagandic purposes.” Jones and Kurt Nimmo also point out that “Obama’s announcement follows the release of a highly suspicious birth certificate last week.”

Not surprisingly, a photograph isn’t going to put an end to a theory the crux of which is that every image and video we’ve seen of bin Laden is fake. “There are too many ways to fake it,” says Fetzer, pointing to The Guardian report on British papers falling for the doctored photograph. As for the DNA match with bin Laden’s sister, who died of cancer in Boston and whose brain was preserved for just this eventuality, Fetzer says it happened too quickly. “You have to have the body,” says Fetzer.

At Andrew Breitbart’s Big Peace blog, J. Michael Waller is also calling for the body, for reasons both epistemological and emotional. Proposing to put bin Laden’s corpse on display at the World Trade Center site, he says “We have a right to view our nation’s tormentor face to face, to make sure he is dead, and to spit on him if we choose.” The corpse “should be digitally scanned, inside and out—and made available for everyone to take his or her own picture.”

Those waiting to see the body will be disappointed, but they may still get a photograph. According to the Los Angeles Times, Pentagon officials have pictures of bin Laden’s corpse and are debating whether to release them. On the one hand, the photos are quite gruesome. On the other, they might be necessary—though possibly not sufficient—to silence the skeptics.

Josh Dzieza is an editorial assistant at The Daily Beast.