What happened to Osama bin Laden’s body?

Update 3:45: The similarities between the disposal of bin Laden’s body and Eichmann’s ashes (by Israel) and the Nuremberg defendants (by Germany) are obvious. See this article from Ha’aretz:

No ‘holy tomb’

The prime minister brought up an additional issue: the question of Eichmann’s body. What should be done with it? Ben-Gurion’s position was decisive: “We don’t need for the place where [Eichmann] is buried to become a holy site and we shouldn’t give the body to the family.” Dov Yosef suggested dealing with the body “like at Nuremberg – they incinerated the bodies and scattered the ashes.” Ben-Gurion, who was afraid of a “holy tomb” reaction, was sharp: “This is what I wanted, that not a trace of him will remain.”

Update 3:15pm PST May 2: New York magazine also reports that the DNA match was made by comparing bin Laden’s DNA to that of his dead sister, who died on US soil.

U.S. officials say that DNA evidence confirms with 99.9 percent accuracy that it was indeed the body of Osama bin Laden shot and killed in Abbottabad yesterday. The DNA match was made by comparing physical evidence from bin Laden’s sister. According to the Telegraph, after she died of brain cancer at Massachusetts General Hospital years earlier, the FBI immediately subpoenaed her body so that it could later be used to identify him if he was caught. Her brain was preserved, and blood and tissue samples were taken and used to compile a DNA profile, reports ABC News. Detailed photo analysis as well as matching features and height (he was six foot four) also helped confirm the identity of the Al Qaeda leader.

And just as many Twitter users suspected, the photo of Osama’s corpse is now being reported as a fake. The Guardian says:

The image is based on a genuine photograph of Bin Laden taken in 1998 and used by the Reuters news agency.

On Twitter, a composite including the other photograph used to make the image was posted by @HannahMarbina and other users showed how easy it was to find the image already online with a simple search.

Update at 2:45pm PST May 2: Slate’s ever-useful Explainer column explains whether we always bury enemies of state at sea (the short answer: no.) And Islamic scholars have been criticizing bin Laden’s sea burial, according to the Associated Press. The BBC has the most details about what actually happened: “Religious rites were carried out on the deck of a US aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson. The body, shrouded in a white sheet and placed in a weighted bag, was then placed on a flat board, tipped up, and eased into the Arabian Sea.” Politico says the shroud itself was weighted.

It’s been a fascinating evening, and I’ve been glued to my Twitter stream. Since I can’t stop looking for information about what happened to Osama’s body, I’ll live-blog it here as I find it. (Update: 2:15 am PST — The links below have been re-arranged and edited into a more sensible order, for those interested in piecing together the story. The information is presented roughly in the order I found it, not necessarily the order in which it broke. I’m going to bed!)

News of Osama Bin Laden’s death broke on Twitter, at about 7:30 PST. (See Mashable’s timeline of tweets.)

CNN says forces used “facial recognition work, amongst other things, to confirm the identity” of Osama bin Laden.”

US officials were quick to confirm that the body was being treated in accordance with Islamic practice. (This is actually required by the Geneva conventions.)

From Wikipedia, which already has its own “Death of Osama bin Laden” entry: ABC news is reporting that the body has been identified, though Reuters says DNA results won’t be available for a few days.

The Guardian has an entire article about the difficulties of dealing with Osama’s corpse: “And where to send Bin Laden’s remains? His large extended family in Saudi Arabia have largely distanced themselves from him.”

The latest news (as of 12:33) is that the body has been buried at sea. On Twitter, I’m seeing some skepticism about a burial before DNA analysis, but I can see every reason why the administration would want to dispose of this body quickly. Holding the body of a dead leader is like a game of hot potato — just ask the folks who dealt with Eva Peron’s corpse.

NYT is also reporting that Osama was buried at sea.

CBS is saying that the body was buried at sea in order to adhere to “Muslim traditions, which include strict rules on burial taking place within 24 hours after death.”

The Associated Press explains the sea burial: Muslim customs require burial within 24 hours, plus “Finding a country willing to accept the remains of the world’s most wanted terrorist would have been difficult.” (Background note: The Encyclopedia of Death and the Human Experience has a page on Muslim funeral customs: burial within 24 hours is definitely a priority.)

@AaronFleishman on twitter directed me to this list of Muslim burial laws. Death in the ground is preferable, but burial at sea is ok in some circumstances, especially if mutilation of the body is a concern.

The conspiracy theory is already flowing thick and fast on Twitter. The burial at sea seems to strike people as a bit fishy — no pun intended.

Other famous burials at sea (usually of ashes): Albert Einstein (well, most of him), Janis Joplin, John F. Kennedy Jr. and Jerry Garcia (according to Grave Matters). And of course, lots and lots of Vikings.


8 thoughts on “What happened to Osama bin Laden’s body?

  1. I’d like to pose one question here: when, how, and where did the US get Osama Bin Laden’s DNA to compare to any alleged blood sample that they might have got from the dead guy?

  2. He never existed. If he did, he’s not dead. I mean not a single US soldier killed? No real picture of the body? Why not? This is all bollocks in my opinion.

  3. JM, excellent point. Scientific American just ran a guest blog asking how they managed to ID his body so quickly, and Christie Wilcox notes: “What they do have is brain tissue from Bin Laden’s sister, who died in the US. They can compare his genetic signature to hers and determine if they are related — which is as close as you can get to guaranteeing it’s Bin Laden without a sample of his actual DNA from prior to his death.”

  4. This is making no sense. Why bother to compare the DNA with his dead sister when they had him. Burying Osama Bin Laden’s body at sea post haste makes no sense. Why not bring it back to the United States? Why didn’t they consult his family members to see what they wanted to do? Since when has America observed the religious traditions of a so-called terrorist? A terrorist, who by the way, has always denied responsibility for 9/11. I spoke to a Pakistani who said “burial at sea,” is pretty much an outdated custom. So it makes no real sense. I would think the USA would want to prove to the entire world they got the real guy and not leave anything up to question. So keep the body to autopsy it or whatever. As it is now, all Americans have is the govt’s word, and a few pictures. Sorry to say, our govt is made up of politicians and politicians are often, for the most part, lawyers and lawyers are always liars. Don’t think so, just work for and with some.

  5. Is Saudi Irabia feel the pain of loosing a intelligence most wanted man Osama Bin Ladin? How Did da force of U.S got an Idea that Osama is Hidding Pakistan?

  6. I really believe Osama bin Ladin is dead-however, he died of kidney disease (cancer) in the Spring-the US just found this out when they raided Osama’s compound. This is why they did a cover up and made up this ridiculous story. Yes, his remains were traceable and the DNA was matched with his sister’s in the US who also died of cancer. The US did uncover the circumstance…but Osama died long before he was murdered.

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