Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-546b4f848f-zwmfq Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2023-06-03T12:31:52.891Z Has data issue: false Feature Flags: { "useRatesEcommerce": true } hasContentIssue false

9 - Case study II: Osama bin Laden – ‘justice done’?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 April 2015

Helen Duffy
Universiteit Leiden
Get access


Introductory overview of available facts

On May 1, 2011, twenty-five highly trained US Navy SEALs raided a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan where bin Laden, some of his family and his bodyguard had been hiding. The SEALs overwhelmed the compound, and shot bin Laden and another five individuals dead. Hours later, President Obama announced that ‘justice had been done’.

Analyses and opinion promptly followed. While many applauded – including notably UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon – dissenters lamented the decision to kill rather than capture and prosecute bin Laden as an ‘assassination’ or, in the words of former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, ‘quite clearly a violation of international law’. Slower to emerge, as well as erratic and inconsistent, were details of the nature of the operation upon which, as explained below, legality in fact depends.

Different versions of the facts have ‘evolved’ over time. The earliest reports suggested that bin Laden was armed and ‘engaged in a firefight with those that entered the area of the house’ and that he had used a woman as a human shield.7 Shortly thereafter, a spokesperson stated that they ‘expected a great deal of resistance and were met with a great deal of resistance’, describing a ‘highly volatile fight out’ in the compound. By other official accounts neither bin Laden nor anyone else in the room with him when he was killed was armed, while the Press Secretary noted somewhat obliquely that ‘resistance does not require a firearm’.

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2015

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Walsh, D., MacAskill, E. and Burke, J., ‘Osama bin Laden Killed in US Raid on Pakistan Hideout’, Guardian, 2 May 2011, available at: Google Scholar
Yoo, J., ‘Assassination or Targeted Killings After 9/11’, 56 (2011) New York Law School Law Review57 at 59Google Scholar
Milanovic, M., ‘Was the Killing of Osama bin Laden Lawful?EJILTalk, 2 May 2011, available at: Google Scholar
Lewis, M., ‘The Boundaries of the Battlefield’, Opinio Juris, May 15, 2011 at para. 5, available at: Google Scholar
Bowcott, O., ‘Osama bin Laden: US Responds to Questions about Killing’s Legality’, Guardian, 3 May 2011, available at: Google Scholar
(Telegraph, 3 May 2012)
Owen, M. and Maurer, K., No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden (Boston, MA, 2012), pp. 235–6Google Scholar
Bowden, M., The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden (New York, 2012), p. 230Google Scholar
‘CIA Chief Leon Panetta admits “if Osama bin Laden surrendered we wouldn’t have killed him”’, Telegraph, 4 May 2011, interview available at:
Swaine, J., ‘Osama Bin Laden: Mission Was to Shoot to Kill from the Start’, Telegraph, 1 August 2011, available at: Google Scholar
Kneezle, S., ‘Official E-Mails Detail Osama bin Laden’s Sea Burial’, TIME, November 22, 2012, available at: last visited at 22 November 2012Google Scholar
Bacon, J., ‘Musharraf: US violated Pakistan’s Sovereignty’, USA Today, May 3, 2011, available at: Google Scholar
Schmitt, M., Essays on Law and War at the Fault Lines (The Hague, 2011), p. 74Google Scholar
Zardari, A., ‘Pakistan Did its Part’, The Washington Post, Opinions, May 2, 2011, available at: Google Scholar
Bergen, P., Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden – from 9/11 to Abbottabad (New York, 2012)Google Scholar
Mallat, C., ‘The Geneva Conventions and the Death of Osama Bin Laden’, JURIST, August 4, 2011, available at: Google Scholar
Al-Skeini v. The United Kingdom, Appl. No. 55721/07, Judgment, ECHR, Grand Chamber, Judgment, 7 July 2011
Chile, IAComm.HR Report No. 167/10, Petition 402–03, Chile, 1 November 2010
Ogur v. Turkey, App. No. 21594/93, Judgment, ECtHR, 20 May 1999, Reports 1999-III
Report on Terrorism and Human Rights, 22 October 2002
McCann, Farrell and Savage v. United Kingdom, Appl. No. 18984/91, Judgment, ECtHR, 27 September 1995
Armani da Silva v. The United Kingdom, Appl. No. 5878/08, communicated on 28 September 2010
Ergi v. Turkey, Appl. No. 23818/94, Judgment, ECtHR 28 July 1998, 32 (2001) EHRR 388 at para. 79
Ben-Naftali, O. and Michaeli, K. R., ‘“We Must Not Make a Scarecrow of the Law”: A Legal Analysis of the Israeli Policy of Targeted Killings’, 36 (2003) Cornell International Law Journal233Google Scholar
Kretzmer, D., ‘Use of Lethal Force Against Terrorist Suspects’, in de Frias, A. Salinas, Samuel, K. and White, N. (eds.), Counter-Terrorism, International Law and Practice (Oxford, 2012), p. 618Google Scholar
Andronicou and Constantinou v. Cyprus, Appl. No. 25052/94, (Merit), 9 October 1997, 25 (1997) EHRR 491
Nachova and Others [GC] v. Bulgaria, Appl. Nos. 43577/98 and 43579/98, Grand Chamber Judgment, ECtHR, 6 July 2005, 42 (2006)
Case of Ramsahai v. The Netherlands, Appl. No. 52391/99, Grand Chamber Judgment, ECtHR, 15 May 2007
Gross, E., ‘Thwarting Terrorist Attacks by Attacking the Perpetrators or their Commanders as an Act of Self Defence: Human Rights Versus the State’s Duty to Protect its Citizens’, 15 (2001) Temple International and Comparative Law Journal195Google Scholar
Giuliani and Gaggio v. Italy, Appl. No. 23458/02, Grand Chamber Judgment, ECtHR, 24 March 2011
Gül v. Turkey, Appl. No. 4870/02, Judgment, ECtHR, 14 December 2000
Guerrero v. Colombia, HRC Views on Communication 45/1979, 1982
Mammadov v. Azerbaijan, Appl. No. 4762/05, Judgment, ECtHR, 17 December 2009
Hugh Jordan v. The United Kingdom, Appl. No. 24746/94, Grand Chamber, Judgment, ECHR, 4 May 2001
Finucane v. The United Kingdom, Appl. No. 29178/95, Grand Chamber, Judgment, ECHR, 1 July 2003
Eggen, D., ‘Bin Laden, Most Wanted For Embassy Bombings?’, The Washington Post, August 28, 2006, available at: Google Scholar
Guardian, 3 May 2011, available at:
Sweet, L., ‘Osama Bin Laden Buried in the North Arabian Sea Off the USS Carl Vinson’, Chicago Sun-Times, May 2, 2011, available at: Google Scholar
Leland, J. and Bumiller, E., ‘Islamic Scholars Split Over Sea Burial for Bin Laden’, The New York Times, May 2, 2011, available at: Google Scholar
Henckaerts, J.-M. and Doswald-Beck, L., Customary International Humanitarian Law, Vol. I: Rules, ICRC, Rule 114 (Geneva, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Shukurova v. Tajikistan, Comm. No. 1044/2002, HRC, Views of 17 March 2006
Ploski v. Poland, Appl. No. 26761/95, Judgment, ECtHR, 12 November 2002
Annullo and Forte v. France, Appl. No. 37794/97, 30 January 2001
Granqvist, H., Muslim Death and Burial (Helsinki, 1965)Google Scholar
Ghamidi, J. A., Customs and Behavioral Laws (Lahore, 2001)Google Scholar
Mashkhadov v. Russian Federation, Appl. No. 18071/05, ECtHR, 6 June 2013
Sabanchiyeva and Others v. Russia, Appl. No. 38450/05. Decision on Admissibility, ECtHR, 8 November 2008
(ГосДума/Duma) session of 1 November 2002, p. 5
‘Don’t Cry for Osama bin Laden’, The Australian, Opinion, 5 May 2011, available at:
Bridge, S. T., ‘Russia’s New Counteracting Terrorism Law: The Legal Implications of Pursuing Terrorists Beyond the Borders of the Russian Federation’, 3 (2009) Columbia Journal of East European Law1Google Scholar

Save book to Kindle

To save this book to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Available formats

Save book to Dropbox

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Available formats

Save book to Google Drive

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Available formats