Was Osama Bin Laden killed in cold blood?

Why the irregularities surrounding the al-Qaeda leader's death matter.

There he goes again: the Telegraph's torture apologist Con Coughlin, fresh from blaming the "foolhardy" Rachel Corrie for being crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer, has now pitched up to explain why irregularities surrounding Osama Bin Laden's death don't matter. In the new book No Easy Day, Mark Owen, a member of the Navy Seal team that killed the al-Qaeda leader, contradicts the official White House statement that Bin Laden may have been reaching for a gun when he was shot. "He hadn’t even prepared a defence. He had no intention of fighting," Owen writes. 

Coughlin downplays the implications of this:

There will, of course, be those among the prosperous global human rights fraternity who will argue that Bin Laden was, in effect, killed unlawfully, and that all those, from the Navy Seals involved in the operation up to President Barack Obama himself, in his capacity as America's commander-in-chief, should face prosecution for their involvement in what amounts to an extrajudicial killing. 

Well, if that's their attitude, bring it on! Given Bin Laden's well-documented involvement in acts of terrorism, they are going to have a tough time trying to find anyone to take their claim seriously.

So Coughlin's response to the suggestion that the US could have engaged in an illegal, extrajudicial killing that day in Pakistan and someone should be held accountable is that . . . er, human rights activists are "prosperous" (?), Bin Laden was a VERY BAD MAN and no one likes him anyway?

He goes on: "Bin Laden made no secret of the fact that he was waging war against the west, and as a man who personally sanctioned the mass murder of thousands of innocent people around the world, the Seal team were well within their rights not to put their own lives at risk so that Bin Laden could be taken alive." 

Which begs the question: in what way would the heavily armed Seal team have been risking their lives, faced with an unarmed man in a sleeveless T-shirt? And who needs international legal protocols when we can just ask Coughlin whether the soldiers were "well within their rights" or not?

Coughlin shrugs off the suggestion that Bin Laden's death could warrant some sympathy with the hoary old saying "He who lives by the gun, dies by the gun." A few years ago, the writer Jason Burke pointed out that "every use of force is another small victory for Bin Laden": according to Burke, Bill Clinton's bombings of Sudan and Afghanistan in 1998 and Bush's later assault on Afghanistan only strengthened al-Qaeda and helped fuel Islamist anger. Burke later wrote in the Guardian that Bin Laden's death was "undoubtedly important" but I think his earlier point still stands: after all, it's not all peace and love in the Middle East.

Al-Qaeda might not be as active today as it was once perceived to have been but there are other groups looking for an excuse to see in the west an unaccountable, conquering villain. That's one reason why international law matters: if it's a war the west is fighting, it must abide by the internationally agreed rules of warfare. Drones, assassinations and the long resistance of the US to acknowledging Guantanamo Bay detainees as prisoners of war suggest a dangerous flexibility of thinking in this respect. Coughlin's exhortations to brush aside such concerns only fuels the attitude that some countries should be able to kill "in cold blood" whenever they choose to, regardless of the consequences. Daft.

Decline and fall: the demolition of the compound where Osama Bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.