What Happened To Osama Bin Laden's Body?

American officials knew well before the May 2, 2011 raid that killed Osama Bin Laden that the man's body could be trouble. The option to take him alive was always there, and counterterrorism advisor John Brennan later told The Salt Lake Tribune that the men on the ground were prepared to bring Bin Laden into custody. But the brain behind 9/11 had long been wanted dead or alive, and if he were killed, his mortal remains would invite thorny political and religious questions.

How, for one, would Bin Laden's body be disposed of? Custom within Islam calls for a dead body to be buried as soon as possible, usually within 24 hours, and the body is to be washed and wrapped in cloth. Not observing proper rites could trigger calls for retribution, but any grave of Osama Bin Laden's could also potentially act as a shrine for his followers. And then there was the issue of proof. Up until the moment the raid was carried out, U.S. officials had no watertight proof that Bin Laden was in the Pakistani compound. If he was there, and if he was killed, the Obama administration would have to decide whether to provide proof that Bin Laden was dead. To do so could be a grotesque display that sparked another rallying cry for further violence. But releasing no proof could fuel conspiracy theories.

All these problems remained hypothetical until May 2, when SEAL Team Six infiltrated the compound and shot Bin Laden in the head. A wife's testimony and DNA tests confirmed it was him. Planning for his inevitably controversial burial began, and he was ultimately buried at sea.

Bin Laden's sea burial was controversial

Early reports after Osama Bin Laden's death and burial suggested that the United States initially sought to bury him on land in a nearby country. Several reports said Saudi Arabia, his country of birth, was approached, only to deny the request. But Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, a former Pakistani high commissioner, told History that he doubted such rumors, and counterterrorism advisor John Brennan claimed that the Islamic custom of burial within 24 hours of death left the United States with no time to negotiate with other governments (via The New York Times).

Whether they approached any countries about receiving Bin Laden's remains or not, U.S. officials ultimately chose to bury his body at sea. Islamic burial traditions were still observed. Emails later obtained by the Associated Press (via Al Jazeera) confirmed that the body was washed and covered in a white sheet, and that a translator interpreted delivered rites into Arabic. The body was weighed down and slid into the ocean from the USS Carl Vinson.

Burial at sea isn't forbidden within Islam, but usually only happens if the deceased dies at sea. Clerics and scholars were divided on the appropriateness of burying Bin Laden in this manner. One even told The Seattle Times that it was a humiliation of Islam, while another said that the body should have been delivered to his family. Barring anyone from the family wanting the body, they argued a grave anywhere on land would have been more appropriate. Others, including Ahmed, allowed that the sea burial effectively removed the shrine issue.

Conspiracy theories about his body proliferated without proof

Shortly after Osama Bin Laden's death, President Barack Obama decided against releasing photographic proof of the terrorist's identity, explaining his decision during an interview with CBS' "60 Minutes." "It's important for us to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence or as a propaganda tool," he said (via History). "That's not who we are. We don't trot out this stuff as trophies." That decision divided Congress, and not along party lines. Democrats and Republicans, some of whom had seen photos collected during the raid, argued that keeping them hidden was the right call for American troops. Others, like Senator Lindsey Graham, argued that the lack of confirmation, and the sea burial itself, were a mistake (via Fox News).

Some felt that without photos there was room for doubt that Bin Laden was really dead to fester. And indeed, conspiracy theories came from all sides of the political spectrum, many denying that Bin Laden had been killed. Another theory, spread by Seymour Hersh, alleged that Bin Laden had long been a Pakistani prisoner and that the raid was staged in the sense that the Pakistani government gave him up to the Americans. In his account, Bin Laden's body was mutilated before burial.

Hersh's story was fiercely denied by then-CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell, and even congressional critics confirmed that Bin Laden was indeed dead. But any photos have remained out of public sight, and legal efforts to compel their release have been unsuccessful since 2011.