On May 2, 2011, Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed by US Special Forces during an early morning (approximately mid-afternoon on May 1 in the United States) raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

The body of Osama Bin Laden was buried at sea, according to U.S. officials.

What was the reason for the non-recovery of the body? Also, why was the option of capture off the table? Wouldn't this just cause more doubt?

  • 5
    Can you make it a little clearer what the question is? "Why would don't we parade corpses?", "Why do we kill our enemies?", "Is there any evidence Bin Laden might not be dead?", but I'm also not clear that any of those are really on topic.
    – user9389
    Commented Jan 4, 2018 at 5:18
  • 23
    I think the question is "why kill and not capture?" @notstoreboughtdirt.
    – user11249
    Commented Jan 4, 2018 at 5:20
  • 9
    Isn't the premise of this question wrong? The mission was officially to "kill or capture" Bin Laden. Did most of the people involved in the manhunt want him dead? Probably. Did the Navy Seal who shot him have the option to capture him, or was he forced by the situation to shoot? We'll never know.
    – ArrowCase
    Commented Jan 4, 2018 at 17:35
  • 2
    @notstoreboughtdirt, it's pretty clear. Why not capture him and if not, why dump it at sea? It would create doubt and controversy.
    – Noah4343
    Commented Jan 4, 2018 at 19:17
  • 8
    Who says capture was off the table? AFAIK, the White House has maintained that if bin Laden had surrendered, they would have taken him alive.
    – mikeazo
    Commented Jan 5, 2018 at 15:32

5 Answers 5


Kill versus capture

  1. If they had captured Osama bin Laden, what would they have done with him? Barack Obama opposed the Guantanamo Bay facility, so they would have had to keep him on United States soil. Where?

  2. If captured, he would have been tried, convicted, and executed. So not kill versus capture but kill then versus later.

  3. His trial would have been an obvious target and excuse for retaliation.

  4. His trial would have kept him in the news, encouraging more attacks.

  5. He was perceived as dangerous at the moment that he was shot. Source

    When the commandos reach Bin Laden’s room on the third floor, an AK-47 and a Makarov pistol are seen in arm’s reach of Bin Laden.

  6. While there have been times and circumstances when the US military has taken prisoners intentionally, that's not really their job.

Burial at sea

If he had been buried on land, his grave would be a landmark. Supporters might use it as a rallying point or symbol. Opponents might vandalize it.

No grave makes it harder to focus on a location.

Obama's words in a 60 Minutes interview:

"It was a joint decision. We thought it was important to think through ahead of time how we would dispose of the body if he were killed in the compound," says the president.

Note that this also indicates that it was not guaranteed that bin Laden be killed at the compound. Capture was on the table.

Published photos

  1. Ick. Who wants to see that?
  2. Another thing to make people mad.

Obama said in the interview:

It is 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. As a propaganda tool. You know, that's not who we are. You know, we don't trot out this stuff as trophies. You know, the fact of the matter is this was somebody who was deserving of the justice that he received. And I think-- Americans and people around the world are glad that he's gone. But we don't need to spike the football. And I think that given the graphic nature of these photos, it would create some national security risk.


Apparently they felt that the risks of a capture were worse than the risks of a death. So the mission parameters were such that they shot him rather than attempt a capture. Although apparently there were some circumstances in which he would have been captured, the reaction to the actual circumstances erred on the side of safety for the raiding party.

Once he was dead, they seem to have focused on not making him any more of a martyr than he already was. That was more important than proving his death.

Obama, from the same interview:

You know, the truth is that and we -- we're monitoring worldwide reaction. There's no doubt that Bin Laden is dead. Certainly there's no doubt among al Qaeda members that he is dead. And so we don't think that a photograph in and of itself is going to make any difference. There are going be some folks who deny it. The fact of the matter is, you will not see bin Laden walking on this Earth again.

  • 52
    +1. Minor criticisms: (1) IMO it was within the resources of the US government to detain bin Laden in a secure fashion on US soil, most likely on a military base; (2) "that's not really their job" On the contrary, under the Geneva Conventions there are conditions when the US military is obliged to take prisoners. Commented Jan 4, 2018 at 8:32
  • 39
    "Published photos - 1. Ick. Who wants to see that?" I think you're giving humanity much more credit than it deserves here...
    – Guy G
    Commented Jan 4, 2018 at 9:33
  • 11
    @GuyG, And they did published photos of Gaddafi's corpse later that year. And Che Guevara's too years before. Why not publish Bin Laden's too?
    – user28434
    Commented Jan 4, 2018 at 9:51
  • 8
    @NSNoob While his own faction might feel that way, that doesn't mean other factions might not use him as a martyr to further their cause, potentially including his grave.
    – Cronax
    Commented Jan 4, 2018 at 10:27
  • 52
    @user28434: Who exactly is "they"? Neither Gaddafi nor Guevara was killed by US Special Forces. The USA is certainly not bound to follow precedent established by the Bolivian government in the 1960s. Commented Jan 4, 2018 at 10:38

To cop a phrase, "intellectual and social insecurity". From that, there are more logical steps that could be drawn in the lead-up, however.

Terrorists are killed overseas on a daily/weekly basis by drone strikes, but virtually none have committed any high-profile attacks on the US or other Western countries. Bin Laden did coordinate such an attack, so he had perverse celebrity status. Thus, a unique effort was expended (boots on the ground vs. yet another drone strike) to confirm his capture/killing and set people's minds at ease. Knowing where he was, and following it up with anything short of an unconfirmed drone kill would be political suicide.

Furthermore, because he was in Pakistan, a drone strike there has the potential to cause a tremendous diplomatic incident. If a bomb levels the building and Pakistani personnel are first on the scene, they could frame the incident basically however they want. Maybe bin Laden wasn't there and the US just senselessly attacked an ally. It still caused a kerfuffle, but Pakistan was in a tight spot trying to claim support for the US while simultaneously harboring its #1 Most Wanted.

Thus, the team on the ground was fated and Brythan's answer explains it from there.

  • 4
    He was in a fairly suburban, upscale neighborhood in Pakistan, as well, with a lot of high ranking military types living there. A drone strike could have been a real, real mess. Nice perspective on what wasn't already touched upon. +1. Liked the term "perverse celebrity status," as well. Commented Jan 4, 2018 at 20:27
  • 1
    Re "virtually none have committed any high-profile attacks...": 1) Should low-profile attacks be acceptable? 2) Surely the point is to prevent attacks, not simply avenge them? 3) Since most attacks are suicide ones, it's fundamentally impossibe to do anything about the people who actually commit the attacks. So why should those who plan, organize, and supply materiel for the attacks be able to work with impunity?
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jan 5, 2018 at 4:01
  • 1
    1. No, but realpolitiks. 2. Yes, prevention is best, but to quote Iron Man, "if we can't protect the [country], you can be damned sure we'll avenge it." 3. I kinda glossed over that, but yeah, bin Laden didn't pilot the planes or bomb the towers. I think legally if you're a party to the crime by material support it's kinda the same thing?
    – Nick T
    Commented Jan 5, 2018 at 7:01
  • The "fairly suburban, upscale neighborhood in Pakistan" was in Pakistan's equivalent to Garrison, NY (West Point)
    – pojo-guy
    Commented Jan 6, 2018 at 3:12

Your question has a false premise: that the goal was to kill him. The goal would have been to put an end to his terrorist activities.

He probably could have been more useful alive, it just didn't happen.

While war has been called politics by other means, it does tend to end up with more people dead than sitting around a table and talking. And terrorists aren't exactly known for their tendency to surrender peacefully.


Because Osama didn't want to be captured

If Osama had tried to surrender the SEALs were under instructions to allow it. He didn't try to surrender however, which mean the SEALs used lethal force. See Wikipedia article on the Death of Osama bin Laden.

The Associated Press reported at the time two U.S. officials as stating the operation was "a kill-or-capture mission, since the U.S. doesn't kill unarmed people trying to surrender", but that "it was clear from the beginning that whoever was behind those walls had no intention of surrendering". White House counterterrorism advisor John O. Brennan said after the raid: "If we had the opportunity to take bin Laden alive, if he didn't present any threat, the individuals involved were able and prepared to do that." CIA Director Leon Panetta said on PBS NewsHour: "The authority here was to kill bin Laden. ... Obviously under the rules of engagement, if he in fact had thrown up his hands, surrendered and didn't appear to be representing any kind of threat, then they were to capture him. But, they had full authority to kill him."


I'll see if I can find a link to back this up but I remember reading an article about this at the time. The mission wasn't approved by Pakistan, it was a top secret incursion into a nation that might have responded with force had they known. That meant they were on the clock. A fast in and out mission was essential to it's success.

One of the choppers went down, making getting in and out fast all the more difficult.

The orders were "Take him alive if he'd come quietly", the Marine, when he saw Bin Laden said "surrender" or "lay down", presumably in Arabic. Bin Laden didn't comply, so he shot him right then and there. If he'd laid down, they might have taken him alive.

Given the necessity for speed, capture alive wasn't the priority, but it was the plan if he'd not resisted. That's what I read anyway shortly after the event. It's possible this was just words to make it sound better and not how it actually went down, but that's what I read.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .