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 contributing writer for the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

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What does it mean for Ukip if it loses in Stoke-on-Trent Central?

The party’s prospects are in question if it fails to win over the “Brexit capital” in Thursday's by-election.

“The Only Way Is Up!” blasted through a hall in Stoke-on-Trent Central on a damp Monday evening earlier this month. It was the end of a public Ukip meeting, in which Nigel Farage and his successor and by-election candidate Paul Nuttall made their rallying cries to an audience of around 650 supporters.

But even then, a fortnight ago, the note of triumph in the dance classic was tinged with uncertainty. “We’ve won the war, but we’ve yet to win the peace,” Farage admitted to the sympathetic crowd. And while this message is supposed to make Ukip’s fight relevant even in the context of Brexit-bound Britain, it betrays the party’s problem: the battle that was its raison d'être is over.

Failing fortunes

Since then, the party has had more to contend with. Its candidate in the Labour seat has been caught lying about having “close personal friends” killed at the Hillsborough disaster. This comes on top of a number of other false claims, and an investigation into whether he falsely registered his home address as being in the constituency.

After these scandals – and a campaign seemingly unable to turn out apathetic voters (which I covered a couple of weeks ago) – Ukip’s chances in the West Midlands seat look worse than expected.

Initially the main challenger to Labour, Ukip is now being predicted for third or even fourth place in the seat, behind a Tory party that essentially stood aside to give Nuttall room, and to focus on a concurrent by-election campaign in Copeland.

It’s in Labour’s interest for the campaign to continue looking like a close Labour-Ukip fight, in order to keep hold of tactical voters. But both the Conservative and Lib Dem campaigns are feeling more buoyant.

“We are relatively confident that Ukip are not going to win, and that is quite a change,” the Lib Dem campaign coordinator Ed Fordham told me. “That has actually relieved lots of voters of the emotional risk of letting in what they perceive to be an unpleasant, far-right option . . . and voting for who they would like to represent them.”

One local activist chirped: “It will hopefully be a terrible result for Ukip.”

So what will it mean for Ukip if it loses?

Great expectations

Ukip has a lot riding on this seat. Farage called the by-election “absolutely fundamental” to Ukip’s future. Its new leader, Nuttall, took the risk of running as the party’s candidate there – riding his reputation on the by-election.

This created a lot of hype about Ukip’s chances, which the party has privately been trying to play down ever since. Even before the scandal surrounding Nuttall, he was emphasising that the seat had only been Ukip’s 72nd target, and told me he had taken a gamble by running for it. “The way it’s being written up as if this is the one – it wasn’t,” he insisted.

But Stoke-on-Trent, where 69 per cent voted Leave, has been labelled the “Brexit capital”. According to political scientist Rob Ford, the author of Revolt on the Right who has been studying Labour’s most Ukip-vulnerable seats: “It should be a pretty favourable seat for them, pretty favourable demographics, pretty favourable [negative] attitudes about the EU, very high Brexit vote there and so on.”

In other words, if Ukip can’t win here, against a weak Labour party, where can it win?

Struggle for seats

Brexit is central to Ukip’s by-election campaign. The party has highlighted Labour’s splits over Europe, pointed out the Labour candidate Gareth Snell’s Remainer credentials, and warned that the government needs to be held to account when negotiating Britain’s exit.

But Ford believes this rhetoric is unlikely to work, since the Tories are already pursuing a “hard” Brexit focused on immigration control. “A difficulty for Paul Nuttall and Ukip is that people are going to say: why would we vote for you when we’re getting what we want from the government? What’s the point right now?” he said. “I can have all the Brexity stuff, all the immigration control stuff, but with none of the incompetence and serial lying about Hillsborough – I think I’ll take that!”

So if rerunning the EU referendum doesn’t work, even in such a Brexit-heavy seat, this means trouble for Ukip elsewhere in the country. A Ukip councillor in a top Ukip target seat with similar demographics to Stoke believes it’s “crisis time” for the party.

“It is very sad to say, but Ukip has lost its way,” they told me. “It’s still a strong party, but after losing Nigel, it’s lost a little of its oomph. The new gentleman [Nuttall] has been silly with the comments he’s made. That’s a big worry in some regards. You need to be a people person. It’s a serious situation at the minute.”

If Ukip can’t prove it can win parliamentary seats – even in favourable by-elections – then it will be difficult to prove its authority as a political party come the general election.

Leadership lament

Should Nuttall lose, Ukip’s leadership will come into question. Again. During a tumultuous time late last year, when the favourite Steven Woolfe left the party after a physical altercation, and Diane James quit the leadership after 18 days, commentators asked if Ukip was anything without Farage.

When Nuttall eventually took over, the same voices warned of his threat to Labour – citing his northern and working-class roots. It’s likely this narrative will change, and Farage’s golden touch pondered again, if Nuttall fails to win.

But rather than panic about its national leader, Ukip must look carefully at those who commit to the party in local campaigns. On the ground in Stoke, running Nuttall as a candidate instead of a local Ukipper is seen as a mistake.

“I don’t know why they did that,” one local activist for an opposing party commented. “If they’d run Mick Harold, they would’ve won. He’s a Stokie.”

Harold, the deputy chair of Staffordshire County Committee, and chair of Ukip’s Stoke-on-Trent Central/North branch, won 22.7 per cent of the vote for Ukip in the constituency in 2015. He insists that he stands by his decision to step aside for Nuttall, but does highlight that Ukip should increase its vote share.

“If we’re increasing our percentage share of the vote, we’re still moving forward and that’s how we’ve got to look at it,” he told me. “I got 22.7 per cent in 2015. I would think this time we’re going to certainly get somewhere around the 30 per cent mark.”

Would it have been more likely to achieve this with Harold as candidate? “Whatever happens, happens, we’ve just got to move forward,” he replied. “If you’ve made a mistake, you move on from it.”

I have heard similar misgivings from local activists in other parts of the country – people who have achieved impressive results in local elections and the general election, but haven’t had much thanks from the national party. “We need to get professionalised now,” one such campaigner said. “Because we’ve got grassroots people who are not career politicians [doing all the hard work].” They say their local party is fed up with leadership being dictated by “personal grudges” at the top of the party.

***

As I’ve written before, I don’t think this is the end of Ukip. Once Brexit starts to bite, and it’s clear immigrants are still needed to fill jobs, there will be resentment enough to make space for them again. But losing Stoke will highlight the challenges – of purpose, leadership and local organisation – that the party will need to overcome for its next stand.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.