The Politics and Logistics Behind Bin Laden's Watery Grave

After the terrorist's burial at sea, a debate over releasing photos of his bullet-ridden body

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When the news was breaking last night that U.S. forces had killed Osama bin Laden, special emphasis was placed on the fact the terrorist's body was "in U.S. custody." That didn't last long. By 2 a.m. Washington D.C. time, bin Laden's body had already been buried at sea. An explanation of the political concerns and diplomatic that influenced the handling and burial of the body, and a look at how the U.S. is making the case abroad that they really got their man.

Why so fast?

Because the White House is adamant  the body be handled in accordance with Islamic practices, which state a corpse must be buried within 24 hours. A senior administration told Politico's Matt Negrin that properly disposing of the body "in accordance with Islamic practice and tradition" was "something that we take very seriously, and so, therefore, this is being handled in an appropriate manner." That reinforces the point President Obama made in his speech to the world last night, when he declared "the United States is not -- and never will be -- at war with Islam."

Why at sea?

The New York Times says that by burying the terrorist at sea, "American authorities presumably were trying to avoid creating a shrine for his followers." A source tells The Wall Street Journal that Saudi Arabia (bin Laden's country of birth) was initially offered custody of the body, but declined

Will the U.S. release photos of the body?

The White House is weighing that decision right now. (The photos currently circulating the Internet claiming to show the Al Qaeda leader's body are fake.) ABC News reports DNA testing has already confirmed the body is bin Laden's, while a source tells CNN there are "photographs of the body with a gunshot wound to the side of the head that shows an individual that is not unrecognizable as bin Laden." The problem is the photos aren't definitive. Because bin Laden was shot in the face, the U.S. had to use "facial recognition work, amongst other things, to confirm the identity" of the body. This could foster conspiracy theories in the Arab world that bin Laden isn't actually dead and allow "myths of 'escape' [to] build up," writes The Guardian's Paul Harris. (Harris cites similar conspiracy theories that followed the death of Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, killed in a bombing in Iraq in 2003, when his relatives refused to accept his remains and bury them in Jordan.) Appearing on C-SPAN this morning, Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA's Bin Laden unit, predicted the administration would be "forced to put out the pictures" to deal with the conspiracy theories.

There is precedent for releasing such images--the Bush administration released photos of sons Usay and Qusay's bodies 11 days after they were killed in 2003.

Update 1: There's disagreement among Islamic scholars as to whether the sea burial was permissible. "They can say they buried him at sea, but they cannot say they did it according to Islam," Mohammed al-Qubaisi, Dubai's grand mufti, told the Associated Press. "If the family does not want him, it's really simple in Islam: You dig up a grave anywhere, even on a remote island, you say the prayers and that's it..Sea burials are permissible for Muslims in extraordinary circumstances. This is not one of them." University of Jordan Islamic law professor Mohammed Qudah said a burial at sea is a last resort when nobody on land is willing to take the body. "It's neither true nor correct to claim that there was nobody in the Muslim world ready to receive Bin Laden's body," he said.

Reuters is reporting bin Laden was given a religious funeral aboard a U.S. ship in the Arabian Sea before being burried.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.