Courtesy Reuters

The Leaderless Jihad’s Leader

Why Osama Bin Laden Mattered

The headlines splashed across papers worldwide this past week said it all. The New York Times shouted that “Data From Raid Shows Bin Laden Plotted Attacks;” on Reuters, the news read “Bin Laden remained active in targeting U.S;” and El Pais asked "¿Quién dijo jihad sin líder?" (Who Said Leaderless Jihad?). Information confirming bin Laden’s active role in al Qaeda continues to emerge, painting the portrait of a “micro-manager,” as an unidentified U.S. official quoted in ProPublica, called him. “He was down in the weeds [determining] best operatives, best targets, best timing.” And U.S. intelligence analysts pouring over bin Laden’s personal diary have concluded that he was involved in “every recent major al Qaeda threat.” He also remained involved in planning future attacks and urged his followers to recruit non-Muslims and minorities -- especially African Americans and Latinos -- for attacks on New York City, Los Angeles, and smaller cities on significant dates such as July 4 and September 11. As the world’s foremost expert on bin Laden, Peter Bergen, summed up, “OBL was the leader of the leaderless jihad!”

Yet, until the documents seized in the May 2 U.S. commando raid on bin Laden's hide-out in Abbottabad were leaked a week after the raid, the conventional wisdom was that bin Laden was an irrelevant figurehead, especially given al Qaeda's declining fortunes. Indeed, many U.S. government officials and terrorism analysts went so far as to argue that al Qaeda had ceased to exist in any meaningful operational sense. Al Qaeda maven Leah Farrall wrote* in Foreign Affairs that the organization was a "devolved network hierarchy, in which levels of command authority are not always clear."  The 7 May 2011 issue of The Economist (which went to press before any of the bin Laden documents were revealed) carried an article arguing that "the core leadership is largely relieved of direct operational responsibilities, which devolve to the branches and franchises." In this view, if al Qaeda was no

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