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 longer relevant, then neither was bin Laden. 

So why were so many people so wrong? For one, U.S. President George W. Bush and other government officials had consciously tried to downplay bin Laden’s importance. Many had criticized the way the administration portrayed bin Laden immediately after 9/11, claiming that the United States had inadvertently inflated the stature and prominence of this heinous criminal by attributing the attacks solely to him. Moreover, years of failure to fulfill Bush’s pledge to get bin Laden, “dead or alive,” had been embarrassing and frustrating, and so the administration tried to avoid the subject.

The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq also changed the war on terrorism and bin Laden’s place in it. If, as the Bush administration argued, the principle threat facing the United States had moved from South Asia to the Middle East, then it had also surely shifted from bin Laden to Saddam Hussein. As attention, intelligence resources, and special operations and conventional forces were transferred from one theater to the other, bin Laden’s importance was minimized.

Finally, some of the perennial dismissal and diminution of bin Laden’s role and al Qaeda’s strength was surely just wishful thinking. The clearest example is arguably a 2006 New York Times article titled, “Terrorism Experts Say Focus on Al Qaeda Misses a Broader Threat.” The article was about the arrest, days earlier, of nearly two dozen believed to have been involved in an ingenious plot to simultaneously blow up seven U.S. and Canadian passenger planes using liquefied home-made explosives concealed in ordinary fruit juice containers and detonated by rigged disposable cameras. Among those arrested was Rashid Rauf, a British Muslim of Pakistani heritage, who was the key player in the plot and a known al Qaeda liaison. Even so, the Times story concluded that any focus on al Qaeda would be misplaced, quoting one of the experts interviewed for the story, Marc Sageman, as saying “There is no such thing as Al Qaeda as it existed before we went to Afghanistan and destroyed it.”

Yet such claims were always based on a misreading of the terror threat. In “The Myth of Grass-Roots Terrorism: Why Osama bin Laden Still Matters” (May/June 2008), I addressed the accumulating evidence of al Qaeda and bin Laden’s oversight of the most consequential terrorist attacks and plots. Even then, it was clear that the organization’s reach was not fully appreciated. Since then, the evidence has only multiplied.

In September 2009, for example, the FBI and NYPD uncovered a plot to stage simultaneous suicide attacks on the New York City subway system to coincide with the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The ring-leader was Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan-born Green Card holder who lived in Queens. He and his two fellow conspirators had been trained in bomb making at an al Qaeda camp in Pakistan. Senior al Qaeda commanders had overseen and directed the operation, which was linked to another set of attacks planned for April 2009 in Manchester, England.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s indictment of Zazi and the two others, filed on July 7, 2010, unambiguously describes how this “American-based al-Qaeda cell” was commanded by “leaders of al-Qaeda’s external operations program dedicated to terrorist attacks in the United States and other Western countries.” It further describes how three longstanding senior al Qaeda operatives -- Saleh al-Somali, who is said to have participated in attacks on U.S. and coalition peacekeeping military forces in Somalia during 1993, Adnan El Shukrijumah, who was placed in 2003 on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list as a result of his growing role in al-Qaeda attack planning, and Rauf, who played a key role in two December 2003 assassination attempts on Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf -- oversaw the plot.

According to the indictment, Al-Somali and Shukrijumah were directly responsible for recruiting Zazi and his fellow conspirators and arranging their training at al Qaeda camps. Zazi pleaded guilty in February 2010 and Ahmedzay pleaded guilty the following April.

If al Qaeda was neither as powerless nor as irrelevant as many assumed, then it stands to reason that bin Laden was not nearly as unimportant or marginal to its operations as many also imagined. Indeed, the picture emerging from the trove of intelligence carried off by the Navy SEAL team illustrates the extent to which he was involved across a broad spectrum of al Qaeda activities. He now appears to have played an active role at every level of al Qaeda operations: from planning to targeting and from networking to propaganda.

Further disclosures gathered from the data in bin Laden’s Abbottabad lair may show that the al Qaeda leader himself influenced or even exercised some command over the New York City subway plot, too. Meanwhile, it is clear that bin Laden was more involved in al Qaeda operations than many officials and experts had previously imagined. Far from having become an operational anachronism, bin Laden remained a driving force behind al Qaeda’s undiminished terrorist ambitions.

*The original version of this article incorrectly attributed Leah Farrall's quotation to the 7 May 2011 issue of The Economist. In fact, the source of the quote was her March/April 2011 Foreign Affairs piece "How al Qaeda Works."

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  • BRUCE HOFFMAN is Director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University and a Senior Fellow at the U.S. Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center.
  • More By Bruce Hoffman