commentary

(The Providence Journal)

June 1, 2011

Osama a Wizard of Illusion and Rhetoric

by Brian Michael Jenkins

In "The Wizard of Oz," Dorothy thought the wizard "a great head."

"A terrible beast," said the Tin Woodsman.

"A ball of fire," exclaimed the Lion. When the screen was pulled aside to reveal the great and terrible Wizard, he turned out to be an ordinary man.

So, too, did Osama bin Laden at his compound in Abbottabad. Like the Wizard, he was a skilled magician and propagandist preoccupied with his own image. One can imagine his asking himself: Should I wear the plain white robe when I threaten infidels with death and destruction, or the white robe with gold? Should I wear my beard long and gray or dyed the black of a virile warrior's?

But bin Laden was no ordinary humbug. He was a man who planned and reveled in the deaths of thousands, a man who aspired to kill millions, a man who spent his days figuring just how to do that.

The compound in Abbottabad was bin Laden's hideout, not al-Qaida's headquarters. He lived there with three wives and his servants. This was no fantastical villain's lair. There were no helicopter pads, no map-covered walls — not even an Internet hookup.

Bin Laden sat at the center of a tiny universe whose horizon was a high wall just a few feet way. Isolated except for the occasional courier and infrequent visitors, he apparently did not discuss his professional pursuits with his wives. Bin Laden, we are learning, worried greatly about his security as he pursued his violent obsessions. Anxiety and aggression are the pathology of isolation.

And what of the action — if any — that emerged from this isolation? A contradictory picture emerges. News reports from Washington suggest that bin Laden was in command of al-Qaida. Yet, although only a fraction of the material taken from his compound has been released, no document thus far shows him directly connected with any recent terrorist attacks. Before his death, experts speculated that he was informed of some attacks yet to come. His role may have been to develop the appropriate propaganda themes, but that is not yet publicly confirmed.

Terrorist hideouts often reveal catalogs of unrealized plans. A terrorist campaign has much down time in which to perfect plots on paper. Bin Laden's journal shows him pitching new ideas for future attacks, but these notes are well short of operational plans. Nothing in his journal seems to have led to specific attacks that can yet be identified.

Some sources report that a few of bin Laden's trusted lieutenants visited him at the compound. Face-to-face meetings would have been risky. We have no confirmed record of meetings with his field commanders. Security risks would have discouraged any meeting with al-Qaida's general command.

It still isn't clear how much bin Laden participated in al-Qaida's internal affairs — whether he appointed commanders and settled internal disputes. For years it has been reported that bin Laden controlled the list of rich Mideastern contributors who secretly bankrolled al-Qaida's campaign, and that he met with some key funders at Abbottabad. If that is true, his hold on finances would be a function hard to replace.

The picture that emerges so far is of a remote voice, a spiritual force, a source of inspiration, a man who was more cajoler-in-chief than commander-in-chief. Bin Laden was chairman of the board, not CEO, using his moral authority to urge his tiny army forward, pointing out new ways to kill Americans, encouraging followers to think outside the typical terrorist playbook.

Given this, it's not hard to understand why bin Laden, the entrepreneur of mayhem, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the audacious architect of 9/11, got on well together. But Khalid Sheikh Mohammad languished in Guantánamo while bin Laden dreamed of an even bigger 9/11 — a metric-driven manager as he calculated the number of Americans al-Qaida needed to kill to drive them out of the Mideast.

Unable to effect the new large-scale slaughter he sought, confined to his quarters because of concerns about his own security, bin Laden increasingly relied on illusion and rhetoric — his visage, his voice — to drive the terrorist enterprise. The video of him watching a video of himself — the "wizard" laid bare — symbolizes his reduced role.


Brian Michael Jenkins is a senior adviser at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization, and the author of "Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?" (2008, Prometheus Books).

This commentary originally appeared in The Providence Journal on June 1, 2011.