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Since 9/11, two schools of thought have emerged about Osama bin Laden’s role in al Qaeda. The first holds that after 2001 he was largely a symbolic and isolated figurehead. The other posits that he was the organization’s key inspirational and ideological leader. Yet the Pentagon’s initial leaks about the information found on the computers confiscated by Navy SEALs during their May 1 raid on bin Laden’s compound strongly suggest that he had attempted a more hands-on approach than both schools assumed -- whether the rest of al Qaeda paid attention is another matter.
On May 6, a U.S. government official told CNN that bin Laden “worked at the operational and even tactical levels. . . . He was clearly issuing directions at all levels.” From his strategically placed compound, with couriers and assistants to help, he was also apparently overseeing the details of a planned attack on U.S. public rail transportation to coincide with the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Furthermore, the huge trove of computers, storage devices, and cell phones that the Navy SEALs retrieved from his villa shattered the myth that he was isolated thanks to a supposed aversion to electronic devices. Bin Laden was more able to communicate with and direct the broader al Qaeda organization than anyone had realized.
This should not have come as a surprise. Those who argue that bin Laden was completely isolated tended to ignore his public speeches, which he often used to issue orders. In late 2004, he ordered attacks on Western oil supply lines, especially in the Gulf region. In 2006 and again in 2008, he offered instructions for the al Qaeda response to the caricature of Muhammad first published in Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten. In 2007 and 2009, he released statements calling for al Qaeda to send fighters and assistance to Islamists in Somalia. Finally, this January, he released an audio message offering conditions for the release of French hostages that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is still holding. In the coming days, more instructions are sure to follow; shortly before his death, bin Laden reportedly recorded a speech on this spring’s Arab revolutions.
Yet although bin Laden continued to release statements, in truth he was no longer the dominating voice in the jihadi narrative. His leadership was at times controversial within al Qaeda. Critics, such as Abu Musab al-Suri, an al Qaeda theorist, accused him of being authoritarian -- of failing to practice the Islamic injunction of consultation. Moreover, his rhetorical gifts were good, but not outstanding; one of his media advisers forbade visiting journalists to record their interviews with bin Laden, fearing that he might misquote Koranic verses and other Islamic texts. In short, he was not, and was not seen as, an infallible leader.
Added to this is the fact that, in recent years, bin Laden’s ability to incite and inspire followers was limited. Unlike Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the Tamil Tigers, who personally met with every suicide commando team prior to their final mission, bin Laden is not known to have met with followers after 2002. In his absence, other mid-level leaders filled the gap, persuading throngs of young men (and women) to volunteer for al Qaeda’s suicide missions.
Moreover, bin Laden’s speeches since 9/11 were relatively few and far between, and were mostly recorded as audio and released to Arab media outlets and posted on jihadi Web sites. They represented a tiny fraction of the rapidly expanding stream of jihadi propaganda and were somewhat old-fashioned besides. Jihadi communications had undergone a revolution in the past decade: a large range of new genres and formats, such as video animations, documentaries, and “jihadi cool” rap, had become more popular; access had gotten much easier; far more of the material was translated into languages besides Arabic; and other jihadi audio-visual products had become more sophisticated.
Bin Laden’s relative absence in this mass of information suggests that his supposed inspirational role is misunderstood. True, jihadi sympathizers have often adopted as their own bin Laden’s simplistic slogans, such as “America is at war with Islam” and “America will not enjoy safety and security until we live it in Palestine.” But bin Laden was never the jihadis’ primary reference point for ideological and religious thought or coherent strategy. The most cited ideologues in jihadi literature are not bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s number two, but Salafist scholars, such as the Jordanian cleric Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, who are virtually unheard of in the West. Even more telling, the most popular items on jihadi forums are not bin Laden’s speeches but propaganda items from which bin Laden is absent or only briefly referred to.
The front-page banners that decorate most jihadi web forums are useful illustrations of bin Laden’s fading importance. Last week, one popular jihadi forum, Ansar AlJihad Network, ran nine such banners, most of which had been created by al-Sahab, al Qaeda’s most prestigious and authoritative media bureau. Three of the banners were educational lectures in Arabic and Urdu, and one was an audiotaped theological treatise by al-Maqdisi. The five others were video productions, containing footage of mujahideen training and operating in the field in Afghanistan, North Africa, and Iraq; detailed hagiographies of recent martyrs; interviews with rank-and-file jihadis; and excerpts from statements by several al Qaeda leaders.
In all of these films, each of which lasts more than half an hour, bin Laden had only a minute or so of total air time. Apparently, instead of endlessly rehashing bin Laden’s rhetoric, jihadi producers prefer to profile fellow jihadis, presumably because it is a better marketing strategy. More than bin Laden, recruits seem to be attracted to the adventurism and drama of faraway battlefields, and to the intense media attention that terrorism generates. Moreover, they are driven by grandiose beliefs that they are making history.
Bin Laden was not a cult leader with disciples who obeyed him blindly. When assessing his leadership role, one should bear in mind that al Qaeda was not only his organization -- many felt ownership over it and its global jihad project. The movement places emphasis on ideological purity rather than charismatic leadership and, over the years, has fully adapted to the reality that jihadis at all levels are replaceable. Slogans such as “the path to victory is soaked with blood of the martyrs” are not empty words but are practiced every day, from the conflict zones in Afghanistan and Pakistan to Iraq and North Africa. Jihadi Web sites devote enormous attention to the virtues and joys of martyrdom and the coming paradise.
In this huge caravan of martyrs, bin Laden’s own death may well become an afterthought and pass into history, even if it enjoys much prominence on jihadi Web sites at the moment. Future attacks will most certainly be dedicated to bin Laden’s memory, and al Qaeda is already trying to use his martyrdom for recruitment purposes. However, to assume that his memory will play a decisive role in shaping al Qaeda strategy and thought for years to come confuses jihadis’ celebration of martyrdom with the worship of dead men. Unlike Shias, whose belief system includes a martyrology, Sunni jihadis have no official hierarchy for the dead, and they vehemently abhor the traditional Sufi practice of visiting the burial sites of holy men; this would be the sin of quburiyya, or grave worshiping. On the face of it, then, the idea that bin Laden’s grave would somehow have become a memorial for radicals had his body not been dropped in the sea seems almost ludicrous.
To be sure, bin Laden’s success in eluding capture and assassination for so many years earned him an aura of invincibility, which was certainly inspirational. But that aura is now broken, and the information he left in his compound and on his computers will inflict significant damage on al Qaeda. Still, the larger ideological movement that bin Laden left behind is by no means broken and will continue to thrive. The majority of jihadis are motivated by grievances such as Western military interventions and interference in the Islamic world, and they still have those grievances. Bin Laden’s death has done nothing to change terrorism’s underlying conditions.
As more information from documents in bin Laden’s hideout becomes available, the history of al Qaeda will have to be revised. The assumption that Osama bin Laden had been reduced to a symbolic figurehead devoid of operative relevance is false, and so is the claim that he remained the most important inspirational source for global jihadis. Bin Laden was respected and obeyed as emir, the commander in chief of al Qaeda, but now others will fill this role. The United States would be well advised not to rush into an accelerated campaign to kill remaining al Qaeda leaders. Instead, it is time to pay attention to the nuances of jihadi leadership, authority, and inspiration in order to undermine them.