When Bad Guys Die, What Happens to the Bodies

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Among the ironies surrounding the discovery and death of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan is the location of his final resting place: according to reports, the arch-terrorist who we’ve imagined for years skulking in caves and stalking the arid, rugged badlands of the Af-Pak border is now sleeping with the fishes of the Arabian Sea. U.S. officials claim they deposited bin Laden into the ocean in order to comply with the stipulation in Islamic tradition that the deceased must be conferred to his or her grave within 24 hours of death.

At a press conference in Washington, John Brennan, the White House’s top counterterrorism official, said the burial at sea was conducted “in strict conformance with Islamic law,” though he was somewhat imprecise about what clerical officials were in attendance. When asked about the treatment of bin Laden’s body during his briefing, Brennan first referred to the body’s “disposal,” before hastily correcting himself with the word “burial.”

As our Mark Thompson reports on the Battleland blog, the “sea burial was selected because no country wanted bin Laden buried in its soil.” The Guardian corroborates this:

Finding a country willing to accept the remains of the world’s most wanted terrorist would have been difficult,” a US official said. “So the US decided to bury him at sea.” The burial reportedly took place from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in the North Arabian sea.

Yet some Muslim groups have already come out in criticism of the burial, claiming, among other stipulations, that sea burials according to Islamic tradition only take place when the deceased in question perishes away from land — keeping the corpse aboard a vessel would place a decomposing, unsanitary body in proximity to other passengers. The Guardian quotes a number of Islamic religious jurists on the matter. One suggests that the body should be lowered in “a vessel of clay” so to protect it from being defiled by nibblers of the deep. Beyond stressing that the ceremony was conducted in proper respect to Islamic conventions, Brennan and other U.S. officials were utterly vague about how bin Laden was committed to the waves. One Baghdad preacher growls:

It is not acceptable and it is almost a crime to throw the body of a Muslim man into the sea. The body of Bin Laden should have been handed over to his family to look for a country to bury him.

It’s likely that American officials simply wanted an excuse to lose any trace of a man responsible for the worst, most traumatic assault on the U.S. since Pearl Harbor, and were keen to deny his remaining supporters the opportunity to rally around a potential martyr’s grave — radical propagandizing is probably trickier when it involves scuba gear. But it’s also plausible that no country was willing to accept the body from U.S. forces.

There’s precedent for this. Following the “26/11″ attack on Mumbai’s ritziest neighborhood by Pakistani militants, the Indian metropolis’s chief Muslim clerics commanded that the bodies of the terrorists not be granted space in the city’s Muslim graveyards, nor that any imam preside over their last rites. Months after they were gunned down by Indian security forces, the unclaimed terrorist corpses still languished in a hospital morgue.

In 2006, when U.S. aircraft successfully targeted Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then al-Qaeda’s most dangerous and bloody-minded operative in Iraq, his body was interred in an undisclosed location after the Jordanian government refused requests from the militant’s hometown to accept the body. Not dissimilar to the language invoked now, U.S. officials insisted that Zarqawi’s remains had been handed over to the “appropriate Government of Iraq officials and buried in accordance with Muslim customs and traditions.” Bin Laden, at the time, lionized the fallen jihadist and mastermind of many suicide bomb attacks as a “martyr” and a “hero.”

Few are issuing such proclamation in his defense right now, and one suspects that discontent in the Muslim world over the means of his burial will not linger all that long. And, besides, for someone like bin Laden, it could have been much worse. Just ask the ghost of Benito Mussolini. After his defeat and execution at the end of World War II, U.S. officials walked off with chunks of his brain — as a souvenir.

More reading: TIME’s historic coverage of the demise of Adolf Hitler, replete with this iconic cover.

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