Video: Mission accomplished: The end of bin Laden

  1. Closed captioning of: Mission accomplished: The end of bin Laden

    >>> laden is dead. the man who killed thousands of innocent people. the man who launched the united states into two wars in the name of that attack, the man who changed the way we have to live in this country. the man who did all of this was killed by u.s. special forces acting on orders from president obama . we first learned his name back when there was still smoke rising from ground zero behind us here. the u.s. came close to getting him, but could not. he was villainized. he became something of a cartoonish cave-dwelling creature over time . in the end, though, we learned he was living well, under deep cover , but it wasn't deep enough. as the presidential and his national security team watched on live tv in the white house , two choppers full of americans landed on his compound in pakistan, rappelled down ropes and began attacking. he's already been buried at sea. a chapter is over while a new one begins. we have comprehensive coverage for you. jim remains on duty at the pentagon to start us off.

    >> reporter: the cia made it official today that dna testing positively confirmed the navy s.e.a.l.s gauot their man. the massive compound that was osama bin laden 's base of operations sat empty today after u.s. operations pulled off their daring nighttime raid. it was president obama who broke the news.

    >> tonight, i can report to the american people and the world that the united states has conducted an operation that kill killed osama bin laden , the leader of al qaeda .

    >> reporter: it was half past midnight in pakistan. american helicopters loaded with navy s.e.a.l.s hugged the ground to avoid detection from pakistani radar as they closed in for the kill. as they reached the compound, small arms fire erupted from the rooftops and then panic. one of the helicopters lost altitude and was forced to land in the middle of the compound. no americans were injured, and in minutes, a dozen commandos were looking for osama bin laden . in a firefight that lasts 40 minutes, the s.e.a.l.s killed two operatives on a small building on the edge of the compound. they then cysystematically went room by room where they found osama bin laden and his son. as the s.e.a.l.s closed in, bin laden opened fire. the s.e.a.l.s fired back, killing bin laden and a woman. bin laden was the last to die with at least one gunshot to the head. this video obtained by abc reportedly showed the room where been laudb win laden. they believe there was no other way out.

    >> the word was osama bin laden would not surrender, and his security agents had been told to kill him if it looked like they were going to lose him to a u.s. snatch operation.

    >> reporter: the commandos departed with bin laden 's body, and before the end of the day , his body was aboard the u.s.s. carl vinson where he was given a proper muslim burial at sea. u.s. officials tracked him down, while the u.s. military took him out.

    >> this is what we call a clean hit and a solid piece of work from an intelligence and special opralgzs standpoint.

    >> reporter: and that windfall may just be beginning. navy s.e.a.l.s recovered large volumes of computer data and hard drives. so much of it that could provide valuable intelligence on al qaeda . there's so much of it that they have created an entire task force all its own just to wade through it.

    >> jim , after a long night on the story and a long day at the pentagon, jim , thanks.

updated 5/2/2011 4:39:45 PM ET 2011-05-02T20:39:45

It’s not hard to imagine why the announcement sounds suspicious: A decade-long search for an international terrorist ends with his body dumped at sea, with no photos, film or other documentation provided.

President Barack Obama's announcement on Sunday night that United States forces had killed Sept. 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden leaves a lot for conspiracy theorists to chew on.

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"The potential is tremendous," said Barna Donovan, a professor of communications at St. Peter's College in New Jersey and author of the forthcoming book "Conspiracy Films: A Tour of Dark Places in the American Conscious" (McFarland & Company, 2011).

In fact, the conspiracy theorists are already out. Politico reporting that radio host Alex Jones, who thinks the U.S. government was behind the Sept. 11 attacks, said that he believes that the government had bin Laden frozen for years. Anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan has also called the announcement a fake as did an arm of a Pakistani Taliban group, according to the website. A Facebook group Osama bin Laden NOT DEAD has begun collecting attracting like minded people, and apparently fake photos of bin Laden's battered face have added fuel to the fire.

Ingredients for a conspiracy
"We have a couple of factors already that are coming out that naturally fuel the conspiratorial impulse," Donovan said. “Apparently there is no body, he was buried at sea. The conspiratorial mindset will glom onto that."

American officials have said they identified bin Laden's body with 99.9 percent confidence using DNA evidence, and that his body was photographed before being buried at sea, according to The Associated Press. (Officials said bin Laden was buried at sea because it would have been difficult to find a country willing to accept his remains and because Islamic custom requires a swift burial, the AP reported.)

The lack of documentation leaves room for conspiracy theorists to question whether or not bin Laden is actually dead, or whether he died long ago — as some, including the author David Ray Griffin, have suggested.

Another potential angle for conspiracy theorists is the timing of the announcement, according to Patricia Turner, a professor of folklore at the University of California, Davis. The most amusing theory she has seen so far speculates that Obama timed the announcement to knock Trump’s show reality TV show "Celebrity Apprentice", which runs Sunday nights, off the air to punish Trump.

Trump, who is considering running as a Republican candidate for president in 2012, has been questioning Obama's citizenship and, hence, his eligibility for office, echoing demands long made by conspiracy theorists dubbed "birthers." 

"That is a reminder as well that some of these things are amusing," Turner said.

Timing will likely feed many other theories, according to Turner.

"There are going to be people who say, 'Why couldn't we have done this earlier? Why did this take so long?'" she said.

With the approach of the next presidential campaign, for example, some could speculate that Obama timed the action to boost his popularity. Others could speculate that bin Laden's death was staged or timed to get Americans energized about committing more resources to the war on terror, said Donovan.

"Usually conspiracy theories have political angle," he said.

Who are conspiracy theorists?
Conspiracy theories have flourished since the Sept. 11 terrorist attack and in its aftermath, including the idea that the attack was an "inside job" perpetrated by the U.S. government, that bin Laden died long ago but the U.S. government never acknowledged his death as a way to keep support for the war on terror strong, and that Obama is a Muslim and in cahoots with terrorists. ( Obama is a Christian.)

Conspiracy theorists tend to be "people who feel like they don't have power in the world, they feel like they have been victimized, they often come up with these explanations how somebody must be behind it," Donovan said.  

Mindset is important, according to Turner, who has followed the birther trend. Conspiracy theories regarding an event often arise when "an official explanation of it seems incongruous to some people who have a worldview that doesn't accommodate that legitimate explanation," she said. "Or that the information that one is getting is confused, chaotic and contradictory."

Dispelling myths
To keep theories from running wild, the Obama administration should release as much information as possible, and speak directly, without any euphemisms or language that seems to be hedging a bet, Turner recommended. However, full disclosure and the clearest of talk won't convince everyone, as evidenced by the hoopla surrounding Obama's birth certificate.

"There is going to be another element of the population that is so inclined to distrust his citizenship that they are going to find flaws with his birth certificate or alternative ways of believing he is not a citizen because they have a fundamental, abiding belief that he should not be president," Turner said.

If the administration were to release documentation — say, film — showing bin Laden's burial, people with this sort of mindset would find flaws, she said. And by denying the theories, there is the risk that the administration could plant the theories in the minds of those who have yet to hear them, she said.

Dispelling conspiracy theories could be an uphill battle for the administration.

"We love conspiracies," said Guido Stempel, who conducted national surveys on them as director of the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University. These routinely found that a large portion of the population gave at least some credibility to theories, such as the U.S. government withholding information about the existence of extraterrestrial life.

In a survey in 2006, one of two that asked about the Sept. 11 attacks, Stempel and colleagues asked Americans if they believed federal officials either participated in the attacks or took no action to stop them "because they wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East."

Twenty percent said this scenario was very likely, while 16 percent said it was somewhat likely.

"That is 60 million people who think it's very likely the government got involved on 9/11. That's an awful thing for people to believe," Stempel said.

You can follow LiveScience writer Wynne Parry on Twitter@Wynne_Parry. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter@livescience and on Facebook.

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