Bin Laden's Death Spawns Conspiracy Theories

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. [Top 10 Conspiracy Theories]

"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.) [Top 10 Weird Ways We Deal With the Dead]

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. [Is This Article on Conspiracies Part of a Conspiracy]

"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 Live Science writer Wynne Parry on Twitter @Wynne_Parry. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.

Wynne Parry
Wynne was a reporter at The Stamford Advocate. She has interned at Discover magazine and has freelanced for The New York Times and Scientific American's web site. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Utah.