Trump’s baffling claim about bin Laden


TWO presidents. Two daring military operations. Two dead terrorists.

There are obvious parallels between the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, confirmed by Donald Trump overnight, and that of Osama bin Laden when Barack Obama was president in 2011.

Both were hugely significant and cathartic moments in the global struggle against terrorism. Bin Laden was the architect of al-Qaeda and the September 11 attacks; al-Baghdadi the mind behind the rise of a bloody caliphate in the Middle East.

Both men had inspired a plague of extremist violence across the world.

But not even the demise of the world's most wanted terrorist is safe from partisan politics anymore. So of course, much of the reaction to yesterday's news has focused not on the parallels between Mr Trump and Mr Obama's respective victories, but on the differences.

The most obvious point of comparison is the manner in which each man announced the news.

Mr Obama delivered a short statement in 2011, which did not go into great detail about bin Laden's final moments, merely saying Navy SEALs killed him "after a firefight".

By contrast, Mr Trump held a 45-minute press conference, and described the operation against al-Baghdadi blow-by-blow. He dramatised the terrorist leader's death, saying he died whimpering "like a dog", a "coward" and a "gutless animal".

Observers have also compared the official White House photos of Mr Trump and Mr Obama overseeing their respective operations in the Situation Room.

Barack Obama, his vice president Joe Biden, secretary of state Hillary Clinton and other officials during the operation that killed bin Laden. Picture: AP/White House
Barack Obama, his vice president Joe Biden, secretary of state Hillary Clinton and other officials during the operation that killed bin Laden. Picture: AP/White House

"The Trump photo, with the President in the centre and looking severe, is more formal and captures the current President's interest in conveying the power and the grandeur of this office. It also reflects the tight circle of advisers from whom he solicits advice," AP's Aamer Madhani wrote, perhaps over analysing the images.

"The less formal Obama photo from 2011 crackles with suspense," he said.

"The packed room seems to reflect Obama's more expansive team of advisers and his interest in receiving a broad array of opinions."

Mr Trump's critics have even accused him of staging his photo.

That criticism started when the man who captured the image of Mr Obama, former White House snapper Pete Souza, noted the time at which the picture of Mr Trump had been taken - 5:05pm. Souza mistakenly claimed the operation targeting al-Baghdadi had happened 90 minutes earlier, at 3:30pm.

Others seized on that information to suggest the photo had been cynically set up when the raid was already over.

They pointed to some stray wires on the desk in front of Mr Trump, which were not connected to any devices, to back up their theory.

In fact, the timing of Mr Trump's photo lined up perfectly well with the operation.

According to the timeline currently known to us, the President arrived back at the White House from his Virginia golf club at 4:18pm. He was in the Situation Room by 5pm, at about the same time US forces took off from Al-Asad air base in western Iraq.

There is no evidence to suggest the photo was anything other than genuine.

Donald Trump announcing the death of al-Baghdadi overnight. Picture: APManuel Balce Ceneta
Donald Trump announcing the death of al-Baghdadi overnight. Picture: APManuel Balce Ceneta

The other controversial comparison between Mr Trump and Mr Obama came from the President himself.

Mr Trump used his announcement of al-Baghdadi's death to not so subtly imply he had secured a bigger, more consequential scalp than his predecessor.

"This is the biggest there is. This is the worst ever," he said.

"Osama bin Laden was very big, but Osama bin Laden became big with the World Trade Centre. This (al-Baghdadi) is a man who built a whole, as he would like to call it, a country, a caliphate, and was trying to do it again."

Going off on a tangent, Mr Trump then claimed he alone had the foresight to warn America about bin Laden before the 9/11 attacks, only to be ignored.

"If you read my book - there was a book just before the World Trade Centre came down. And I don't get any credit for this, but that's OK. I never do. But here we are," he said.

"I wrote a book, a very successful book. And in that book, about a year before the World Trade Centre was blown up, I said, 'There is somebody named Osama bin Laden. You better kill him or take him out.' Something to that effect.

"If you check, it was about a year before the World Trade Centre came down. And I'm saying to people, 'Take out Osama bin Laden,' that nobody had ever heard of. Nobody ever heard of. I mean, al-Baghdadi, everybody hears because he's built this monster for a long time. But nobody ever heard of Osama bin Laden until, really, the World Trade Centre.

"But about a year - you'll have to check - a year, a year and a half before the World Trade Centre came down, the book came out. I was talking about Osama bin Laden. I said, 'You have to kill him. You have to take him out.' Nobody listened to me.

"And to this day, I still get people coming up to me. They said, 'You know what one of the most amazing things I've ever seen about you, is that you predicted that Osama bin Laden had to be killed before he knocked down the World Trade Centre.' It's true.

"Now, most of the press doesn't want to write that, but you know, it's true. If you go back, look at my book. I think it was The America We Deserve.

"Put it this way. If they would have listened to me, a lot of things would have been different."

There are a couple of things to fact check here.

First, Mr Trump's claim that "nobody had ever heard of" bin Laden when he published The America We Deserve in 2000 is false. By that stage, bin Laden had already been linked to the bombings of two US embassies overseas, and there were public fears he was plotting an attack on the US itself.

The President is also wrong to claim he told America to kill bin Laden before 9/11. There is only one brief mention of the terrorist in the book.

"Instead of one looming crisis hanging over us, we face a bewildering series of smaller crises, flashpoints, stand-offs and hot spots. We're not playing the chess game to end all chess games anymore. We're playing tournament chess - one master against many rivals," Mr Trump wrote.

"One day we're all assured that Iraq is under control, the UN inspectors have done their work, everything's fine, not to worry. The next day the bombing begins. One day we're told that a shadowy figure with no fixed address named Osama bin Laden is public enemy number one, and US jet fighters lay waste to his camp in Afghanistan. He escapes back under some rock, and a few news cycles later it's on to a new enemy and new crisis."

Nowhere in the book did he talk about the need to "take out" bin Laden.

The death of al-Baghdadi could have been a moment of bipartisan goodwill, bringing the two bitterly divided sides of American politics together for once. Instead, Democrats and Republicans have both used it as a chance to score dishonest political points.