This time it’s for real, almost. On December 17, 2006, officials announced that ‘Laden’, as he was known, was killed by sharpshooters in the northeastern state of Assam, India. ‘Laden’, a 10-foot tall killer bull elephant named after Osama bin Laden by fearful villagers, was responsible for 14 deaths in the area and had evaded two previous assassination attempts. Surprisingly, neither conspiracy theorists nor the Bush administration attempted to use the event to sell books/videos or for political gain. It would have been a hard sell: ‘Laden’ was in India, not Afghanistan; and 10-foot tall pachyderms are not prone to suicide bombings and crashing planes into buildings. Nevertheless, the real Bin Laden has been sold before to the U.S. public, either as the commander-in-chief of a worldwide army of terrorists or as an impotent terrorist hiding in his cave.
Over the past five years, Bin Laden has been killed and resurrected on numerous occasions. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, American politicians, mistaking cowboy movies for reality, proclaimed Bin Laden wanted ‘Dead or Alive’ and depicted him as the commander-in-chief of a highly lethal worldwide army of terrorists. Subsequently, after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan succeeded in toppling the Taliban and destroying Al Qaeda’s infrastructure, this contradictory image – commander-in-chief/impotent cave dwelling fugitive – has swung back and forth, according to the release of his communiqués, Al Qaeda attacks, political agendas, or media ratings.
Not only has Bin Laden’s image varied, but he has been reported dead, then alive, and then dead again. For those who speculated on his demise, his communiqués had obviously been faked. For those who posited that he was still alive, he was, again, hiding out impotently in his cave, far removed from the real “War on Terror” in Iraq, or the real mastermind behind it all.
So, what is to be made of this image pendulum? Is Bin Laden a harmless fugitive or the commander-in-chief? Is he a real threat or merely a political pawn used by nefarious politicians? Is he alive or dead, and does it matter?
True, Bin Laden still personally participates in directing Al Qaeda operations, but Al Qaeda is not an army. It is a clandestine organization, now numbering around 50,000 devout adherents according to the latest U.S. intelligence estimates, but most operations are conducted independently, without direct orders from Bin Laden. This is hardly an army that threatens to destroy Western civilization all by itself.
No matter how politically manipulated Bin Laden’s image, the threat is real, but it does not center around one man. It comes from both the devout adherents and the many like-minded organizations that have developed over the years from Southeast Asia to Europe. All of this is linked together by one thing – ideology. While not agreeing with every point Bin Laden has made in his speeches, the organizations/adherents are anti-Western, anti-Israel, and anti any Muslim who doesn’t agree with their agenda. They favor driving the Western foreign presence/influence from their regions and establishing an Islamic government.
Within this reality, Bin Laden is neither commander-in-chief nor fugitive. He is a symbol – a hero in the eyes of a growing jihadist movement. When he dies, his followers will most assuredly announce his death, for in their eyes he will have become a martyr to their cause.
One thing is predictable in our contemporary, unpredictable world. The next Bin Laden communiqué will produce another politically expedient rollercoaster ride. He will be elevated, deprecated, and relegated back to his cave. If the communiqué coincides with a major Al Qaeda attack, he will be the commander-in-chief, again. Few will bother to ask the key question, why has the ideology he espouses become popular? Here in the United States, the answers to this question do not fit the worldview of our political/media elites, so the pendulum will continue to produce a worldview that is dangerously removed from reality.
Brad K. Berner
Brad K. Berner teaches at Arizona State University and Estrella Mountain Community College. He is the author of The World according to Al Qaeda (2006), Jihad: Bin Laden in His Own Words (2006), and Quotations from Osama Bin Laden (2006). Available from Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, New Delhi, India