Tainted Legacies: to the Victor go the (Narrative) Spoils?

By Chris Lundry

The first 48 hours after the death of Osama bin Laden were grounds for relief in the United States, its allies, and those who condemn violent extremism, but they have also been fraught with speculation and rumors concerning the operation. Is bin Laden really dead? Did he really use his wife as a shield? Was he really armed and did he fire at the Navy Seals? Why have there been no pictures of his body released? Why was he buried at sea?

Extremists have attempted to pounce on these seeming inconsistencies in the tale of bin Laden’s demise. The Indonesian branch of Hizbut Tahrir emphasized the inconsistencies to cast doubt on the American version of events. Going even further, extremist blog Prisoner of Joy posted a story attributed to Ruslan Sinbarigov of the Kavkaz Center (an Eastern European Islamist website) that claimed – based on the purported tweets of a nearby Pakistani – that the helicopter did not malfunction but rather was shot down, that the operation took two hours and not forty minutes, that the DNA test took too little time to be believable, and others. The implied conclusions?

  1. Bin Laden was not in the house that was attacked by the Americans.
  2. Bin Laden was indeed killed, but the body was so badly damaged, or the Americans so desecrated his body by doing some of their kufar rituals, that it was not possible to identify him visually.

The Voice of al-Islam parrots these claims: according to the Taliban, Osama bin laden is not dead. Adding fuel to the fire is the presence of fake Osama bin Laden “death photos,” which began circulating just after his death. A simple Google image search brought up these images, but after they were exposed as fake, this became proof of a conspiracy for extremist sites such as Hizbut Tahrir and Prisoner of Joy. The fact that the White House has decided (at this point) not to release images of a dead Osama bin Laden means that these rumors will most likely live on since they haven’t been effectively countered.

Curiously, one above-ground Islamist group in Indonesia, the Islamic Defender’s Front, chose to hold a “service of gratitude” for bin Laden, apparently taking reports of his death at face value. This is curious because the group shares no theological affinity with the salafist al Qaeda, and despite its publicized attacks on specific targets it deems antithetical to Islam, it does not promote the kind of violence – bombings, for example – that al Qaeda does.

The struggle over the image of someone – living or dead – is of course nothing new. I was reminded of this Washington Post article of last year, which described CIA plots to portray both Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein as gay. The plan to film a Hussein impersonator in compromising actions was shelved after analysts reached the conclusion that a film showing him bragging of sex with young boys would do little to damage his credibility. The plan against bin Laden actually made it to the filming stage. One CIA employee remarked that “some of us dark skinned employees” were used to portray bin Laden and his cohorts around a campfire, drinking liquor and reminiscing about their homosexual conquests. This plan was scrapped as being “ridiculous.”

There is a history of such plans. In the 1950s, the CIA hatched a plan to make a pornographic film starring a look-alike of Indonesian President Soekarno, using an actor wearing a Soekarno mask. The film, entitled “Happy Days” was apparently shot but not circulated, although still photographs were. The plan was purportedly canceled after some thought that it might actually enhance Soekarno’s reputation among Indonesians (Soekarno was a well-known philogynist). A similar plan was hatched – and later shelved – to film Soviet Premiere Nikita Kruschev in flagrante delicto with a comely spy.

Sometimes, however, rumors and sexual innuendo win the day. As my colleagues Daniel Bernardi, Pauline Hope Cheong, Scott Ruston and I describe in our  book Narrative Landmines: Rumor, Islamist Extremism, and the Struggle for Islamic Influence (Rutgers University Press, forthcoming), the Indonesian government successfully floated a rumor to taint the legacy of Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist Noordin Top (comops blog post here). Following a forensic exam, a police spokesman and a University of Indonesia forensics expert claimed that a physical deformity in Top proved that he was gay or bisexual, antithetical to his puritanical brand of Islam and rendering him a munafiq or hypocrite. The mainstream news reported it, and it soon spread to the Indonesian blogosphere, YouTube, and elsewhere. Despite the fact that the rumor was based on demonstrably false forensic science from the 19th century, Top’s legacy appears to have been successfully tainted: jihadist websites that normally laud killed extremists as martyrs were strangely silent following the announcement.

In the uncertainty and secrecy inherent in operations such as those that killed bin Laden, rumors and doubt will surface and swirl, and sides will jostle for control of the narrative. Although the changes in the American portrayal of the fight are understandable due to its chaotic nature, it nevertheless left some room for extremists to attempt to influence the narrative. At this point, however, it seems a lost cause, especially as these attempts begin to float toward the ridiculous.