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This article is from the In-Depth Report Osama bin Laden: The Science of His End

Ask the Experts: Does Bin Laden's Death Add Fuel to Conspiracy Theorists?

The al Qaeda leader's popularity was waning in Pakistan, but the nature of his death has created fodder for conspiracy theorists



Google via Huffington Post

The raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan was planned and conducted in secret. Only a handful of U.S. officials knew about it in advance, and the international community was kept in the dark. This stealth contributed to the operation's success, but it may also have sowed suspicion in some quarters—particularly in places like Islamabad, about 50 kilometers from the Abbottabad compound in which bin Laden was killed, where some people are already prone to accept conspiracy theories.

To find out how the news of bin Laden’s death is being received in Islamabad, Scientific American spoke with retail management professor Murtaza Haider of Ryerson University in Toronto, who returned to his native Pakistan last week to conduct research on country's rehabilitation after the devastating magnitude 7.6 earthquake in 2005. Haider, who grew up in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province before immigrating to Canada at the age of 23, was setting up his research base in Islamabad when the U.S. raided bin Laden's compound.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

Based upon your observations, what has been the reaction in Islamabad to bin Laden's death?
You know, it is so surprising. I got the news at about 10 A.M. this morning [Monday] Pakistan time. At that very moment, I thought it would be chaos and there would be riots happening and bombings and fireworks. And at the end of the day, at about 3 or 4 P.M., after I'd gone and interviewed people in Islamabad and in different parts of a neighboring city, I ended up having a relaxing lunch at Pizza Hut. People are so fed up with this violence here. Everybody that I spoke with said, "It's America's headache; we don't care whether they kill Osama bin Laden or don't kill Osama bin Laden.

To what do you attribute this calm, at least for the time being?
I have trouble processing as to why there is so much calm. Usually when there is news like this, it spreads like fire. When [former Pakistani prime minister] Benazir Bhutto was assassinated [in December 2007 while running for prime minister once again], within hours the whole country was in flames. Railway engines were set on fire, highways were blocked—it was a chaos within hours. [Regarding the bin Laden news] it's not that no one knew about it. We have 24-hour news channels that people are watching live. I think they don't care.

I went back into my records and found a Pew Research Center study on global attitudes. This one specifically related to Muslims' confidence in Osama bin Laden. Surprisingly, the poll showed that Pakistani support for bin Laden had declined [from a high of 52 percent in 2005] to 18 percent last year. I think bin Laden had his glory days of fame in Pakistan, but that's no longer relevant.

You mentioned that, despite bin Laden's decreasing popularity, conspiracy theories about his death began almost immediately. What is the nature of these theories?
There are people here, educated people, who don't actually believe bin Laden was captured or killed at that compound. They think his death might have taken place a long time ago, and that it is only now being reported.

People believe this even though there have been reports of explosions and gunfire the night bin Laden was said to have been found?
Because of the fact that there's no body to view, the conspiracy theorists in Pakistan are having a field day. They're saying, "There's no body, no evidence, it's all fake." Many people I've spoken to here—and I'm talking about the cab driver who took me to Islamabad to the waitress at the Islamabad Pizza Hut to the clerk at the book store where I spent my early evening—they all think that timing is more tied to the American presidential election schedule. They think it's the volatility in American politics at this time, with the "birthers" wanting President Barack Obama's birth certificate and then all sorts of people coming out of the woodwork to contest the upcoming elections against him. They think he needed a boost and this is all just political game playing.

So people in Islamabad are having a hard time believing bin Laden is dead without seeing his body, which was reportedly buried at sea?
Again, because there is not going to be a body to see, the conspiracy theorists will prevail. If the burial at sea is true, I don't know how idiotic one could be. First of all, even if you provide very explicit scientific evidence in this part of the world to people, they would still lean toward the conspiracy theories. That's just the culture. Just imagine the right-wing columnists and media people and political parties and religious parties in Pakistan and throughout the Muslim world who are militant extremists—you actually gave them more fodder. You could have had the body and said, "Here's the forensic evidence. Here's an international body of doctors that performed an autopsy." Maybe they did all of this before they dumped the body. Still, the airwaves in Pakistan are being led by the conspiracy theorists.

Bin Laden was found in a heavily fortified compound in a fairly populated area near Islamabad. Did that come as a surprise?
It's standard in Pakistan to build these humongous compounds, where living quarters are covered by green space and that green space is then gated and there's a boundary wall, which is usually substantially high with barbed wire on top of it. It's not something out of the ordinary.

This is a very tribal culture where people—men, especially—believe that women should not be seen by strangers. In addition, a large number of tribal Pashtuns living in the area became wealthy by the drug trade and could afford to build these compounds—this whole area is a major trade route for opium. Another reason to build those compounds is security. A lot of wealthy Pashtuns have disputes with their cousins over land that they have inherited. Because of these inheritance disputes, a lot of people end up hurting or killing their own cousins over their land. So it's common to build these compounds to ward off attacks from your relatives who may be after your land as well.

If it is true that Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, I'm not at all surprised because that is a place where a lot of these radicalized clerics came from. What does surprise me was his proximity to the Pakistani military academy, which is the West Point of Pakistan, where all the commissioned officers get trained. It is surprising that he was bold enough to find refuge so close to the military training college. There are a lot of people who are trying to create intimations that the military was perhaps involved. You know, if the military were involved they wouldn't have kept him there; they would have kept him 100 miles away from that place. It's possible that the military was looking for bin Laden everywhere, and that's the last place they would have bothered to look.

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