Based on the available information, the circumstances of this difficult operation made it impossible to capture Osama Bin Laden alive.
(Update: Just listened to BBC World. A White House official tells the reporter that “there was no decision to automatically go for a kill. US military personnel are not authorised to kill if a subject surrenders, but because of who Bin Laden was it was widely assumed that there would be a kill. The White House also says it was Bin Laden who ‘cowardly hid’ behind a woman.”)
(Update 2: John Brennan, the White House’s chief counterterrorism advisor, was asked at a press conference whether the mission was to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. He says that the forces were prepared for “all contingencies,” but if the forces had an opportunity to capture bin Laden, they would have done so.)
(Update 3: It’s getting more complicated. The Daily Telegraph now reports that now the White House acknowledged that bin Laden did not have a weapon at the time he was shot, and did not fire back. However, U.S. officials continued to insist, while not offering details, that bin Laden resisted the U.S. military team. A bit more details can be found here, while Slate provides context on how to ‘read the Bin Laden coverage’)
(Update 4: UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay asks the US for details on the precise circumstances of Bin Laden’s death.)
In any case any order to kill, rather than detain OBL would be entirely unsurprising and in line with Obama’s general detention practices in the fight against terrorism. There was little to be gained politically by arresting and detaining OBL. It only would have caused the President (again) many domestic headaches. Where should the US detain and interrogate OBL? Guantanamo was not an option for the president, the Parwan Detention Facility in Afghanistan was off limits, and bringing Osama to the US would have created political mayhem as well. “Bringing Osama to justice” therefore always meant killing him, and not giving him a military or civilian trial.
It is also interesting to see that the use of drones, the US’ favorite technique to kill terrorist suspects in Pakistan to date, apparently wasn’t really contemplated to use in the case of such a high value target as Osama Bin Laden. There’s no clear explanation for this: was it because drones are mainly used to target “mere foot soldiers” or “lower-level fighters” anyway? Probably not. Was it because the US really wanted to make clear Osama Bin Laden had died, and there wasn’t enough intelligence to know for sure that Osama was in the compound? Perhaps. We know that Navy Seals checked the identity of Osama Bin Laden with a DNA test and face-recognition technology. (I hope they used better equipment than this one by the way.)
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