Few Facts, Lots of Imagination Bin Laden's Death Fuels Conspiracy Theories

The confusion over the details of Osama bin Laden's death has prompted wild speculation and a slew of conspiracy theories. Many Pakistanis believe the al-Qaida leader was not actually living in Abbottabad, while some jihadists are claiming the Americans buried Osama at sea because they had defiled his body.

Images of Osama bin Laden are displayed for sale at a roadside in Karachi, Pakistan on May 4.

Images of Osama bin Laden are displayed for sale at a roadside in Karachi, Pakistan on May 4.

By Yassin Musharbash and in Berlin and Abbottabad, Pakistan

The citizens of Abbottabad have a lot of questions these days. Was Osama bin Laden truly ambushed and killed in their midst? Was it really the world's public enemy number one, hunted down with great effort and expense, who had been living in their city? And if so, had he been living there for "five to six years" as the White House is now claiming?

"Impossible," says Zubair Gul, who lives a few hundred meters from the house where a US Navy Seals team killed bin Laden. Gul finds it hard to believe that the terrorist leader was killed here. "Abbottabad is in a valley, and you immediately hear every helicopter that flies by. Who can possibly believe that bin Laden was sitting in his house and had no idea that the helicopters were coming?"

Gul, a German citizen, runs two restaurants in Damme near Osnabrück in northern Germany. Originally from Peshawar, he moved to Abbottabad with his German wife in 1998, "because of the good climate and because things were always peaceful here," as he says. The shots that were heard on Sunday night and the ensuing explosion have destroyed this image.

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Nazar Abbasi, a pharmacist in Abbottabad, says that he was pleased about the news that bin Laden was dead. But then he was surprised that no photos of the body were released as evidence, and that fake photos were circulating instead. "And when I heard that the Americans had thrown the body in the sea, I knew that all of this was just a big show."

Many in Abbottabad agree with Gul and Abbasi. It's all because US President Barack Obama is running for reelection, people there say. On top of that, they add, the US wanted to harm Pakistan's image. People in this garrison town find it impossible to believe that the Pakistani government knew nothing about the planned raid or may even have helped bin Laden. "Our army and our intelligence service can't be that stupid," says Maqbool Shah, a merchant. "No, it was clearly not bin Laden."

Questions about the Course of Events

Or maybe it was indeed bin Laden, but the way the raid on the compound was carried out was very different to how it had been described. On Wednesday, the Al-Arabiya television network reported that a 12-year-old girl, supposedly a daughter of bin Laden, had said that her father was captured alive and then shot. The girl claimed to have been present when the building was stormed. The network's source was an unnamed Pakistani intelligence officer.

Given that the ultimate evidence of the death of the al-Qaida leader has not been provided, and that Washington has already had to correct its initial statements on the question of whether bin Laden was armed, speculation is now running rampant. And the conspiracy theorists are loving it.

Pakistan now faces suspicions that parts of its intelligence service may have known about bin Laden's whereabouts the whole time. The country vehemently denies this, but in this case, too, every supposed clue, no matter how tiny, is quickly sucked up and disseminated by the media. The Christian Science Monitor, for example, writes that a reporter discovered something odd: While census takers had left notes on houses everywhere in the neighborhood stating that they had been there within the last two months, no such note was found at the compound where bin Laden was in hiding.

Was Osama's Body 'Defiled?'

The US government's account of what happened is also being questioned outside Pakistan. Some are saying that none of what Washington says can be believed, given that the US is a war party. Only when al-Qaida has confirmed his death, say others, can bin Laden be considered truly dead. This, at least, is the mood on pro-al-Qaida websites, but also among moderate Islamists. Al-Qaida sympathizers have held back with conspiracy theories for now. If the terrorist group were to confirm the death of its leader, such theories would become untenable.

A few furious bin Laden worshippers are preoccupied with one detail in particular: bin Laden's burial. The body should not have been washed, as indicated in the US government statement, because this would be inappropriate for a "martyr," they argue. Meanwhile, other Islamist and deeply religious groups are also criticizing the burial at sea. According to the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, none other than Grand Imam Ahmad Tayyeb of the renowned Al-Azhar University in Cairo has criticized this practice as un-Islamic. But this criticism has not found wider resonance yet.

Meanwhile, Central Asian jihadists have published on the Internet the theory that US soldiers may have "defiled" bin Laden's corpse, which is why it was disposed of in the ocean -- or that the al-Qaida leader was not shot, after all.

Conspiracy theories do not play a role in coverage by key Arab news stations and newspapers, however. On Tuesday, the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat ran a cover story laconically titled "The Murderer was Killed." The authors of many opinion pieces in many Arab countries have pointed to the large number of al-Qaida victims in the Islamic world. They almost unanimously welcomed bin Laden's death.

A number of commentators also concluded that bin Laden's death was not a major issue, because his network had already long passed its peak. Besides, they added, the current revolts in the Arab world are making al-Qaida's ideology increasingly irrelevant.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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