The same friend who questioned my supposed approval of Osama’s murder has asked me why I think that a trial of Osama would have produced little that is actually new.
Any trial of Osama would inevitably have as its main focus his role in the 9/11 attacks. In a video tape Osama issued in 2004 he publicly assumed responsibility for the 9/11 attacks. Other than this admission hard evidence of his actual involvement in the 9/11 attacks is thin. The Americans have released a video they captured in Afghanistan which purports to show Osama talking about the 9/11 attacks as if he had foreknowledge of them. However the value of this video as evidence has been challenged with doubts expressed about the accuracy of the English translation the Americans have provided of Osama’s comments, which were of course originally made in Arabic. The man who claims to have been the main planner and mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who has been in US custody since 2004 and who is currently in Guantanamo, has cast doubt on the extent of Osama’s involvement and has vigorously disputed claims that he was in any sense Osama’s subordinate. Indeed there appears to have been some personal friction and even animosity between the two men.
Lost in most discussions of Osama and of the 9/11 attacks is the fact that in the world of the jihadi movement in which Osama operated he would have had a strong interest in playing up his role in the 9/11 attacks in order to boost his importance and prestige. There is in fact evidence that Osama’s titular leadership of the jihadi movement was a consequence of the prestige he gained as a result of the 9/11 attacks and that he did not enjoy such a position before them. The same appears to be true of Al Qaeda. Prior to 9/11 Al Qaeda appears to have been just one of a myriad groups that together make up the international jihadi movement. It is not clear for example that Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was even a member. After 9/11 Al Qaeda became by far the most famous jihadi group so that jihadis from across the Muslim world wanted to become associated with it.
The trouble is that the same imperative that drove Osama to claim responsibility for 9/11 in his video in 2004 would have been at work at his trial. Having assumed responsibility for 9/11 it is impossible to see how Osama could have backtracked from this at his trial without forfeiting his leadership of the jihadi movement, which everything about him suggests he would have been desperate to avoid having to do. The overwhelming probability is that his trial would have been as unsatisfactory as was that of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed with Osama continuing to claim responsibility for the 9/11 attacks without providing or being able to provide many details.
Having made these comments perhaps I ought to say that such evidence as exists does suggests to me that though Osama’s role in arranging the 9/11 attacks may not have been as great as most believe he nonetheless did have some knowledge of the attacks before they happened and may through his organisation have facilitated them in some ways. The jihadi world is small and these people all know each other and it is difficult to believe that they would have been able or would have wanted to keep a project like 9/11 secret from each other. Prior to 9/11 Osama’s key role in the jihadi movement was to provide funding, volunteers and technical support, which as a member of the Saudi elite able to tap onto the resources of the Arab Peninsular he was ideally placed to do. All the 9/11 hijackers apart from one were Saudis and it is not unreasonable to believe that they were recruited into the mission in whole or in part through his organisation. There is no evidence however that he was involved in any of the detailed planning and from what is known about him and from what Khalid Shaikh Mohammed has said this seems unlikely.
Nor do I think that Osama would have been much more informative about jihadi actions post 9/11. It seems that he was living in Abbotabad or its outskirts from shortly after his escape from Afghanistan in the winter of 2001. Isolated from the rest of the jhadi movement and without access to a mobile phone or a landline telephone (not to mention email and fax) it is difficult to see how he could have exerted much control over the broader activities of the farflung jihadi movement by relying only on couriers. Apart from giving general guidance, cooking up one or two plans such as the hare brained scheme to attack America’s railway network and producing videos to exhort his followers it is difficult to see what more active role he could have played. Over time he would surely also have lost touch with most of what was going on. I for one cannot see how he could have kept himself informed in any detail about the actions of jihadis in such places as the Caucasus, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Kashmir and Afghanistan if he was reduced to a level of communications with the outside world that the rest of humanity left behind with the invention of the telegraph in the nineteenth century.