On Sunday, the Situation Room heard the news: “Visual on Geronimo.” That night, President Barack Obama informed the nation what savvy Twitter users already knew, that Osama bin Laden was dead. The media games promptly began: in-depth looks into the actual operation, interviews with officials involved, and, of course, discussions about what backlash might follow. Those who read or watch the news will probably feel inundated already by such material trying to make sense of the surprising event and its potential impact. Humor me, however, as I consider a simple question of arithmetic about the raid.
Twenty-two – five – ten = seven.
Everyone knows that Osama bin Laden died Sunday, but there were 22 people in the compound in Abbottabad. We know that both bin Laden and his youngest son and potential heir-apparent Hamza—though the experiences of bin Laden’s fourth son, Omar, must caution our understanding of the now-dead Hamza’s intended role—were shot on the upper floors of the compound. According to White House press secretary Jay Carney, two Al Qaeda couriers and a woman unrelated to bin Laden were shot by U.S. forces on the first floor. That means that while the United States only looked to identify one corpse, they created five on Sunday.
Now we get to the part of the narrative that might not be as familiar, the part of the story that has a long way to go. Reuters has reported that ten relatives of Osama bin Laden, including one of his wives, presumably the one the White House has clarified was shot but not killed, have been taken into Pakistani custody. According to the Pakistani intelligence official interviewed by Reuters, these family of Osama bin Laden would have been taken back with the U.S. forces but for a problem of logistics: the malfunction and demolition of one of the raid’s helicopters left only enough room for the returning commandos, their macabre prize, and “other male captives.”
Here is the source of the little equation above. News reports, such as this one from the Atlantic, have used this information that Pakistan holds bin Laden’s relatives to mean that the mission had to change on the fly, from a prisoner extraction to a no-prisoners operation. The narrative is problematic. Was the operation always a “kill operation,” or would the forces have attempted to capture bin Laden if he did not resist, as CIA director Leon Panetta claimed yesterday? The White House’s line is that bin Laden was unarmed but still resisted—and it’s up to you to decide what’s the most plausible scenario there. Rather than speculate on the U.S. government’s priority with bin Laden, it seems obvious that the mission was not a pure “kill” one: If the Navy SEAL Team Six left ten people behind and killed five, we are missing seven people.
The truth appears to be that we did want prisoners—just maybe not the headache of bin Laden as one. Those choppers got fully loaded, to be sure, but the wife and young children of the terrorist were simply lower priority than the “male captives” taken. They were also lower priority than certain inanimate items captured, as well: entire computers, hard drives, and other electronics, enough to merit a new task force within the CIA. We know that two of the men killed in the assault were couriers and the last was Hamza bin Laden. We may never know the identities or roles of the members of the compound extracted.
There are so many questions to ask in the aftermath of bin Laden’s death that it is understandable if this question of the “Bin Laden Seven” will not rule the newswires. We first have to wonder about the future leadership of Al Qaeda and the next steps in our mess of a relationship with Pakistan.
Yet I am disappointed in the lack of imagination of our media and public forums. It is human nature to contextualize this event with affairs back home, and journalists will earn a couple paychecks playing parlor games about whether we are safer now or more at risk, while pollsters will feed the political beast and examine how bin Laden’s death affects the 2012 presidential election.
What we should want to know is what will happen to those captives and hard drives. What information do they have to share? Detainees provided the tip-off that ultimately led to bin Laden’s death, though not through waterboarding, as rightwing Bush apologists now want us to believe. These new detainees, the Bin Laden Seven, may have much more to share. Meanwhile, the National Security Agency must be chomping at the bit to get its hands on the electronics seized by the SEALs.
We may never know the fate of the men or the hardware, and the circumstances of their acquisition have already taken the back seat to bin Laden’s death. But given the potential breakthroughs they may enable, we should certainly be asking.
Alexander R. Konrad ’11, a former associate editorial editor, is a history concentrator in Quincy House. His column usually appears on alternate Fridays, unless bombshell government announcements dictate otherwise..