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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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit