WASHINGTON — Osama bin Laden's burial at sea largely followed widely accepted interpretations of Islamic law — a politically expedient step by a White House carefully navigating the delicate balance of satisfying Americans' desire for justice and the powder keg of geopolitics.
"The burial of bin Laden's remains was done in strict conformance with Islamic precepts and practices," John Brennan, the White House adviser on counterterrorism and homeland security, told reporters Monday at a White House briefing. "It was prepared in accordance with the Islamic requirements. We early on made provisions for that type of burial and we wanted to make sure that it was going to be done, again, in strictest conformance."
It's clear the United States took a great care not to anger the mainstream Muslim community, said Ebrahim Moosa, a professor of Islamic studies at Duke University in North Carolina.
Following President Barack Obama's dramatic late-night announcement Sunday, the White House faced a barrage of questions on exactly how bin Laden, the elusive leader of the al Qaida terror organization responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, was buried. Bin Laden, 54, was perhaps the most reviled man in the eyes of Americans, and much of the world, and was also sought for the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa.
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A land burial in the United States or in some other country might have ignited tensions and violated a religious requirement that bodies be buried within 24 hours. And his gravesite might have served as a galvanizing symbol to radical Islamic sympathizers, religious experts said.
"To a large degree it had to do with not wanting to create a shrine extremists would use," said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based Muslim civil liberties advocacy group.
Moosa, the Duke professor, agreed.
"The U.S. was in a difficult situation of what to do. The best way to keep him out of gaze was to bury him at sea," he said. "It was a strong strategic and political move."
During the White House press conference, Brennan indicated that senior administration officials had weighed these concerns heavily prior to the assault on bin Laden's compound.
"It was looked at from the standpoint of if we captured him, what will we do with him?" Brennan said. "Where would he go? If he was killed, what will we do with him, and where would he go? And it was determined that it was in the best interests of all involved that this burial take place, again, according to Islamic requirements, at sea."
Brennan stopped short of offering further details on whether bin Laden was wrapped in a weighted white sheet or if an imam was present as per Islamic tradition, saying only that the burial "was done appropriately with the appropriate people there."
(Margaret Talev and Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this article.)
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