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I was surprised to hear today that Osama bin Laden was never criminally charged with attacking the WTC on 9/11/2001. So I went and checked his wikipedia page to verify, and indeed, there seems to be no mention of charges against him specifically related to the 9/11 attacks. This is extra puzzling to me since he is commonly treated as the mastermind behind this incident as if that was officially his biggest crime. Moreover, he was indicted for other attacks such as the 1998 embassy bombings.

So my question is why has OBL never been formally indicted for the 9/11 attacks?

Note: My question is not "Was Osama Bin Laden responsible for 9-11?". Rather, it's a follow up question to that, as in: "Since yes seems to be the answer, why is there no formal indictment?".

Note to those who say it makes no sense after his death. First of all, there was 10 years time before his death to do this. Secondly, isn't it simply part of due process against any criminal? Thirdly, it also makes sense to do it just to show the world "black on white" that this is his (biggest) crime. To be honest, the reason I am asking this is because the fact that there is no formal indictment may give somebody reasonable grounds to doubt that OBL was really the (main) perpetrator of said attacks, or doubt that the US are certain of his guilt in this matter.

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  • I don't think there is any plausible reason to charged a man in his grave. If he's still alive and has been captured, or chased after, then that could make sense.
    – r13
    Sep 20 at 1:58
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    You could say the evidence was too weaksauce for a criminal trial. After all the Q you link to also has a comment debating the accuracy of the translation of the tape, based on a German TV analysis. And much of other evidence would have probably been just as problematic, obtained under "enhanced interrogation" etc. Just as the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed seems to be stuck on that usatoday.com/in-depth/news/politics/2021/09/10/…
    – Fizz
    Sep 20 at 9:26
  • It seems your question is not "Why was Osama not charged?" but "Don't you think Osama should have been charged?"
    – James K
    Sep 20 at 21:42
  • Secondly, isn't it simply part of due process against any criminal? No, in fact due process means you should among other things that you should be able to defend yourself, which you cannot do when you are dead.
    – Relaxed
    Sep 30 at 10:34
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  1. You can't prosecute someone for a crime until you arrest them (although an arrest warrant could have been issued).

  2. Osama bin Laden was widely reputed to be in Pakistan which wasn't willing to cooperate with a criminal justice response to Osama bin Laden with its own government.

  3. As soon as the U.S. was in a position to arrest Osama bin Laden, he was killed by the military unit that found him. This was possible because an authorization for use of military force passed by Congress shortly after 9-11 authorized the U.S. military to do so.

  4. You can't criminally prosecute dead people.

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    (-1) You can't prosecute someone for a crime until you arrest them. First of all I'm not asking about prosecution, rather about legal accusation. So if that is what you wanted to say, then your point 1 still seems to be incorrect, precisely because I noted in my OP that: Moreover, he was indicted for other attacks such as the 1998 embassy bombings. Was he arrested for the 1998 embassy bombings? Not that I know of, do you? And yet he was indicted for it (among others). Sep 24 at 13:21
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1. Guessable, but not knowable

I think, the truth is that no one knows for sure, as many documents about the subject remain classified. Even if some are unclassified, we don't have any guarantees that the the unclassified documents are exclusive.

The only tool we have to analyse this situation, is to logically analyse the history of the involved parties, their current behaviour. Then use such analysis to generate educated guesses about what might be going on.

2. Others' guesses so far

I've read the other answers, and the comments underneath them. They're all contradictory. Here is a summary:

  • Because OBL is dead — This is contradictory, as OBL was alive until 2011, which is a decade since 9/11. Is a decade not enough time to charge OBL for his crime? OBL was publicly accused for 9/11, and the U.S. Navy SEALS was assigned the duty to assassinate OBL for 9/11, but somehow not accused legally.
  • Because the evidence was too weak for a trial — If the evidence is too weak for a trial, then why use it to not only assassinate him, but even wage a war against an entire country (Afghanistan)?
  • Because the 9/11 attack was big — So? Then perhaps charge him legally with a big penalty for his big crime?
  • Because OBL was not in USA, otherwise he could've been convicted like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed
    • Irrelevant, as criminals get charged for their crime in a nation, irrespective of their physical location. Sometimes INTERPOL is used to bring them to law.
    • The case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is not a good case of legal trials, as the suspect admitted under torture. U.S. lawyers defending other suspects have mocked some of the trials, concerning other suspects that were detained in the same facility, as "hearsay evidence".
    • Might not be that important in this context, but Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is still not convicted (detained for 18 years).

3. My best guess so far

Based on my analyses, my best guesses (which is all we can do at the moment) is that USA intentionally desires to keep the 9/11 vague in order to continue pressuring other governments, for strategic gains, beyond the lifespan of individuals.

E.g. if USA announces the full list of the suspects, convicts them, then that's the end of it. But if the case is not resolved, then USA can, say, use the case to continuously pressure Saudi (which USA keeps doing until today) irrespective of who is the king in charge.

What might support this conclusion is that, nowadays, USA pressures Saudi more than it pressures Taliban about 9/11, despite the fact that Saudi had considered OBL an enemy of Saudi and revoked his citizenship since 1994 (7 years before 9/11). Logically, I cannot find any better guess than: pressuring Saudi is more profitable than pressuring Taliban. If Taliban's Afghanistan becomes richer, then they may get the pressure.


Appendix: The bigger picture

USA must not be hated for this. We must not forget the bigger picture, that every entity commits mistakes, and USA's share of mistakes seem to be relatively small specially when considering that it is the strongest world power history has seen so far. Entities that use such events to hate USA are often puzzled with worse mistakes (specially when you consider that their powers are far less).

The whole sequence of incidents, starting from 9/11 and going through years of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, was to the best of my observation a mistake that only benefited China/Russia/Iran in the short run (but will harm them in the long run), and harmed everyone else.

The fundamental idea of invading Afghanistan and Iraq may not have been necessarily a mistake, but the mistake was in the details: handing those regions to Iran's allies, which simply empowered Russia and China against US and NATO interests, which their effects echoed not only in Middle East, but also in Europe (Crimea) and Asia (Hong Kong, etc).

This is unfortunate, as Taliban used to be a force against Russia (pro Chechnya independence) and could've made a strategic US ally. This is also a loss for Afghanistan as China continues to enslave the Uyghurs.

Maybe if this sequence of incidents wasn't done 20 years ago, today Australia might not be in a position to need nuclear submarines to guard itself against China's threats.

To the best of my observation, what happened over the past 20 years was a demonstration of the death spiral bug in the game theory principle tit for tat. Perhaps this is a remainder to use the solution: tit for tat with forgiveness to advance our civilisation for the greater good of life forms. Hating USA will simply continue the death spiral issue, and will lead to everyone's loss. We need to be realistic, and exercise forgiveness, specially that the intentions of USA/NATO are towards doing more good.

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    "convicted like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed" Was he convicted? Sep 24 at 3:12
  • @KeithMcClary - He is not. Updated the text. Thanks for the correction.
    – caveman
    Sep 24 at 3:26
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Clearly, the US government decided early on on an entirely different extra-legal response to the attacks. The invasion of Afghanistan is part and parcel of this response but you could also mention Guantanamo Bay and the whole network of covert detention sites and extraordinary renditions that was very active in the aftermath of the attack. Some officials have attempted to provide some legal cover for all this (the “enemy combatant” concept and John Yoo's torture memos) but what is indisputable is that there was a deliberate decision to keep this outside the regular criminal justice system.

This is most obvious in the way the US has treated Khalid Sheikh Mohammend. He was captured in 2003 and finally charged with terrorism through some ad hoc process in 2008. Once he is in the hands of US authorities, they could conceivably have decided to bring him to the US and follow the usual rules and procedures of the justice system. Instead, they decided that the ability to detain him indefinitely and torture him was more valuable, for whatever reasons.

The Obama administration move away from some of this but has been unable or unwilling to completely reverse it. The fate of Guantanamo is a case in point. In this context, any trial, beside being legally problematic since Bin Laden is dead (even if you apparently don't want to hear it) would also face huge standard of evidence issues (cf. fruit of the poisonous tree). Obviously, a lot of what the US knows about Obama's role in the attack would come from various intelligence sources, which are presumably sensitive or legally inadmissible.

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The response to the 9/11 attacks was military, not legal.

This was due to the scale of the attacks, and to the fact that the Osama bin Ladin was not in the USA.

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  • 3
    Are military response and legal response mutually exclusive? I don't think so but you make it sound like it. Sep 19 at 21:49
  • Perhaps not, but in this most extreme case the response of the USA was military, not legal. There could have been a legal process... but there wasn't. The USA chose to follow a military process instead.
    – James K
    Sep 19 at 21:56
  • Others involved in the attacks were charged, e.g. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed who was captured in Pakistan (although he hasn't been tried and convicted). I suspect if they caught OBL they would have charged him.
    – Stuart F
    Sep 20 at 8:59
  • @StuartF Probably the SEAL Team could have captured him instead of killing him if they were so ordered.
    – Barmar
    Sep 22 at 23:41
  • If the attack was too big for legal accusations, then why are some accused of it legally, or even threatened of being accused of it legally (e.g. Saudi government despite it declaring OBL its enemy and revoking his citizenship since 1994), while OBL isn't, even though he lived for 10 years after 9/11? There is at least 1 (or more) contradiction(s) in this story. Doesn't add up.
    – caveman
    Sep 24 at 16:40
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This is because what Osama was charged with didn't come into the common category of crime because of the scale of the 9-11 tragedy. Had he been charged with a crime, he would have had to be picked up by police.

The USA determined that a military response, a declaration of war against Afghanistan (and Iraq) was the proper response.

According to a senior policy advisor to the then German chancellor, Schroeder, Germany was afraid that the US would overreact. In fact, they said 'all cards were on the table'. And this meant the nuclear option. According to the advisor, they had serious plans drawn up. This would have been an extreme over-reaction. Had they decided on a bombing mission on the scale of Vietnam, this would also be an extreme over-reaction, only just slightly less so than the first option. What they decided on was conventional warfare. This is a severe over-reaction, especially in the light of the Talibans willingness to negotiate on the capture of Osama bin Laden. I recall at the time, the Afghanistan 'parliament' met after 9-11, the jirga, and they requested that the US provide proof of Osama's guilt.

This seems to me a fair request, especially after we know of the duplicitousness of the US and allies in preparing to go to war in Iraq. The moral figleaf then provided was to find Saddam's WMD. None were found. None were expected to be found. It was the US punishing the Middle East for the carnage of 9-11.

Had such proof been provided, an international police force could have been put together to smoke out Osama bin Laden. Moreover, you would have had the willing help of the Taliban and that would have made the job much easier. He might have been found in two or three years, instead of the ten years it finally took. In the end, he was found by such a small force.

This would have avoided two wars, a million lives wasted (I'm counting in Afghani and Iraqi lives lost) and probably on the order of ten trillion dollars wasted (I'm counting in here, the damage done to the infrastructure of Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the outlay by the US in making these two wars).

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    you would have had the willing help of the Taliban -> source required !
    – Evargalo
    Sep 24 at 7:39
  • @Evargalo - This after the bombings started. Another source (an aid worker that happened to be in Afghanistan at that time) reported on YouTube in a TV series show a similar message by Mulla Omar very early on, where Mulla Omar was angry on radio that USA refused to supply evidence to send OBL to the Afghani court and just wants to invade them instead. I'll put a link to it if I find it again (hopefully, if I remember).
    – caveman
    Sep 24 at 16:18

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