Gruesome photographs taken in the immediate aftermath of the United States raid on Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani hideout have emerged, showing the blood-soaked bodies of three un
identified al-Qaeda militants. Reuters released the pictures as the Obama administration announced it would not be publishing a picture of Bin Laden’s body.
The disturbing images, the release of which has not been sanctioned by the White House, give a sense of the extreme violence employed by US Navy Seals as they stormed through the compound in the early hours of Monday. Two of the men lie in pools of congealed blood; a third lies prone, with his arms flung over his head.
Scattered around are hints of life before the Americans struck: computer cables, bedding, a tin mug and a plastic gun.
The photographs may also explain why the White House is refusing to release a similar image of Bin Laden — if it is nearly as graphic it could provide an incendiary rallying point for America’s Islamist enemies. Security in New York and Washington, as well as at US bases and embassies around the world, has been stepped up in fear of al-Qaeda retaliation over the killing.
The pictures emerged as the US administration insisted the killing of Bin Laden was legal and not an execution, while human rights groups and international lawyers pressed the White House for more details of the mission.
Eric Holder, the US attorney general, said the killing was justified and the US forces would have taken Bin Laden alive had he tried to surrender.
Meanwhile, a senior Pakistani intelligence official told the Guardian that members of the Bin Laden family were being held in custody in Pakistan, including his Yemeni-born wife, Amal Ahmed al-Sadah, and his 12-year-old daughter, Safia, who allegedly claimed her father had been shot in cold blood in front of her.
The official did not confirm a report by al-Arabiya news that the daughter is claiming her father had been held first and then shot.
George Little, a CIA spokesperson, denied Bin Laden had been held by US forces before being shot. “There is no indication that Bin Laden was somehow captured and later killed inside the compound.”
Questions about the legality of the killing have multiplied since the White House backtracked on Tuesday on its initial account of the mission, admitting that Bin Laden had not been armed.
White House spokesperson Jay Carney refused to provide further details. The Obama administration has been forced on the defensive after giving conflicting accounts of what happened.
Asked yesterday whether the team that killed Bin Laden had come under fire, Carney said the White House had gone to the limit in providing details and any more would jeopardise future operations. “I am not going to get into operational details,” he said.
Asked about the legality of the killing, Carney read from a statement that said it was consistent with the laws of war and that Bin Laden would have been captured alive had he surrendered.
Holder, giving evidence to the Senate armed services committee, said it had not been a kill mission but a “kill or capture” mission.
“If he had surrendered, attempted to surrender, I think we should obviously have accepted that, but there was no indication that he wanted to do that and therefore his killing was appropriate,” Holder said.
The attorney general said Bin Laden had no intention of being captured. “Let me make something very clear. The operation in which Osama bin Laden was killed was lawful. He was the head of al-Qaeda, an organisation that had conducted the attacks of September 11. He admitted his involvement,” Holder said.
Andrea Prasow, a Washington-based spokesperson for Human Rights Watch, said: “Our position is that we do not have enough information to determine whether the killing of Bin Laden was lawful. We hope the US government will provide a more detailed accounting of what happened so we can understand if it was in fact lawful under either international humanitarian law — the so-called law of war — or under human rights law.”
Philippe Sands, a professor at University College London, who is writing a book on the making of modern international law, said much would depend on the exact circumstances of Bin Laden’s death. “If no one else was around, if they had him in a room unarmed and the building was covered, then it looks pretty bad,” Sands said.
He added that the US would have an additional layer of defence under international law. “The ‘doctrine of necessity’ excuses wrongdoing if the actions taken can be demonstrated to be the only way to protect an essential interest, like the lives of large number of citizens.”
Benjamin Ferencz, a US lawyer who was a prosecutor at the Nuremburg trials, asked whether the killing was justifiable self-defence or premeditated illegal assassination. He would have preferred that Bin Laden be captured and put on trial.
An old guy in pyjamas
“The picture I get is that a bunch of highly trained, heavily armed soldiers found an old guy in pyjamas and shot him in the chest and head. And that borders, without access to more facts, on murder. Even [head of the Luftwaffe, Hermann] Göring had a right to trial.”
The rules of engagement for the Seals team made it unlikely that Bin Laden would have had much chance to surrender. The counterterrorism adviser at the White House, John Brennan, in an interview with Fox, said he could only have surrendered if the team believed he did not pose a threat and were confident he did not have a bomb under his clothes.
The Pakistani authorities may get confirmation or a conflicting account from the members of Bin Laden’s family and others from the compound it has in custody. Pakistani intelligence said it would not allow the US to interrogate them.
“That would occur only if there was written assent from their country of origin. We are yet to receive any request, to my knowledge, but given the [critical] statements coming out of Washington and the fact that this [the raid] was not an operation we were involved in, we would not accept,” the Pakistani intelligence official said. —