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Osama Bin Laden Conspiracy Theories Abound: Doubters' Defiance

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OSAMA BIN LADEN
AP

Even now, more than a week later, the story is still so surreal. For many, it is literally unbelievable.

The world's most notorious fugitive was not being harbored in the wilds of Waziristan. He was living in a lovely home in one of Pakistan's most secure cities -- and under the nose of the country's ultimate protector.

U.S. forces helicoptered to his hideout, killed him, whisked the corpse away, prepared it for burial, and lowered it into the sea.

Many have clamored for the U.S. government to publish photographs of Osama bin Laden's dead body to prove that the whole affair is true. Washington, citing fears of incitement, has refused. At any rate, in this era of Photoshop, any image can be doctored or concocted and would not necessarily ease suspicions. Neither will al-Qaeda's confirmation of its leader's death (issued via the Internet), given the impossibility of proving its authenticity.

In fact, short of draining the North Arabian Sea and exhuming the terrorist's remains, there is little America can do to disabuse the conspiracy theorists of their delusion that it was all one big lie. This is significant in Pakistan, where the doubters are an emboldened lot with recent history on their side.

The fact that the country's prime purveyors of conspiracy theories are not social outliers, but rather the mainstream broadcast media, is well known. Less often acknowledged, however, is that much of what they have spouted in recent years has been proven true. U.S. military forces operating inside Pakistan? Check. Blackwater lurking within the country? Check. CIA personnel running amok? Check. Nothing gives conspiratorial talk more credibility than the truth.

The U.S. government, after revising the facts about Operation Geronimo, announced it would reveal no new details. This information vacuum provided the greenest of lights for the conspiracy mill to grind into action: Whatever happened in Abbottabad surely had nothing to do with bin Laden, it buzzed excitedly, because he actually died from kidney failure years ago (according to, among others, scholar David Ray Griffin in his 2009 book, Osama bin Laden: Dead or Alive?). Or because he was killed by the militant Omar Sheikh, as Benazir Bhutto commented in a 2007 Al Jazeera English interview that has now been dismissed as a slip of the tongue. Or because he actually fled deeper into Afghanistan following the Tora Bora battle, and not into Pakistan as commonly assumed, which documents released by WikiLeaks revealed the week before bin Laden's demise.

In reality, bin Laden's presence in Abbottabad is perfectly believable -- and quite ingenious. In all likelihood, he made his way into the tribal areas at some point after 2001 (according to the WikiLeaks sources released at the end of last month, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden's deputy, surfaced in South Waziristan in 2003). Thereafter, with Pakistani firepower and American drones raining down, bin Laden's handlers probably concluded it was time to move. They decided to relocate him to the most unsuspecting location -- not to Mullah Omar's base in Quetta, or to the popular terrorist haven of Karachi, but rather to the nearby picturesque garrison town of Abbottabad. Where, perhaps, a few friendly enablers from the security services were on hand to assist.

For sure, many Pakistanis accept that bin Laden was killed. Quite a few have mourned his passing -- including the crowds of lawyers who have gathered to commemorate their "hero," and the legions of Islamists who have assembled to pray for him. This is a country, after all, that as recently as 2007 gave bin Laden approval ratings of nearly 50 percent.

Yet then there are the likes of Mohammad Khan, identified in press reports as a government employee. "I think Osama did not die," he told the Associated Press after al Qaeda had confirmed his death. "I don't believe even 1 percent that he was martyred in Abbottabad."

In some ways, the angry acceptors of bin Laden's recent death are less worrisome than the defiant doubters. Consider the calls coming from Washington: The Pakistani military should be investigated, the government should reveal how much it knew, and the state should commit to a new foreign policy paradigm.

Given all those in Pakistan who cannot accept the fact that bin Laden was killed on May 2 (in a poll of urban, educated Pakistanis conducted several days after the raid on his compound, 66 percent said he was not), it is folly to assume that Islamabad will hurriedly acquiesce to these American demands. The doubters, after all, reflect the pervasive mistrust of Washington that makes up the Pakistani zeitgeist. Pushback and resistance are likely, and one shudders at the implications.

Conspiracy theories, as the joke goes, constitute Pakistan's only growth industry. Yet they could also help sever the single thread by which the U.S.-Pakistan relationship now hangs.