Steve Coll is the author of Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. “Osama bin Laden was a distinctly charismatic communicator, and his gentle style made him a more plausible leader than the argumentative style of [Qaida deputy Ayman] al-Zawahiri,” Coll said. “He also gained a lot of credibility by presiding over the largest terrorist attack in history and surviving to tell about it and to continue communicating his message for so long. And while his thinking and worldview were slightly muddled, bin Laden had a vision for what he was trying to accomplish and a matching narrative for how the news of the day fit into that story. His wasn’t a political theory you’ll be reading a decade from now, but it had a coherent narrative.”
Bin Laden achieved maximum popularity after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, an operation that played into his depiction of the United States as a nation that coveted Muslim lands and oil. In 2004, a Pew Research Center poll reported that the Qaida leader had a 65 percent favorability rating in Pakistan, for instance. As late as 2008, a survey of opinion in the Muslim world found that in countries as disparate as Indonesia, Jordan, Morocco, and Turkey, bin Laden inspired more “confidence” than President Bush—and by significant margins.
“After the invasion of Iraq, bin Laden came to be seen as the most viable symbol of anti-Americanism, because he was the one Muslim who had dared to stick a finger in the eye of the much-loathed superpower,” said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center in Washington. Then, as Qaida-inspired terrorism spread across the Muslim world, with bombings of nightclubs in Indonesia, wedding parties in Jordan, embassies in Turkey, and mosques in Iraq, support for bin Laden specifically and terrorism generally started to decline dramatically, Kohut said. “By the time of his death, polls showed that the majority of Muslims no longer viewed him as the Islamic warrior standing up to the loathed superpower,” he said. “Bin Laden was already widely discredited.”
In retrospect, bin Laden made two fundamental, strategic miscalculations. The events of recent days and months exposed both, with fatal results not only for the archterrorist but also for his cause.
First, he badly misjudged his adversary. His experiences as a mujahedeen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan convinced bin Laden that a relative handful of holy warriors could topple a superpower and that the United States was ripe for a fall. Studying the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Beirut in 1983 (after a suicide bombing killed 241 U.S. service members) and from Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1991 (after 19 U.S. soldiers died in a firefight), he concluded that the United States was a “paper tiger.”
Based on such anecdotal evidence, the cloistered bin Laden launched his war against the United States. He failed to understand that Beirut and Mogadishu represented a peacekeeping and a humanitarian mission, respectively, with limited national interests at stake. Nor did he anticipate the national rage that an attack on the homeland of the magnitude of 9/11 would provoke, or that the U.S. response would be to invade Afghanistan, topple his benefactors, the Taliban, and send al-Qaida scurrying across the mountains. He likewise misjudged the effectiveness of the armed drone strikes that across 10 years and two U.S. administrations continued to reach into supposed sanctuaries in Pakistan and methodically shrink bin Laden’s circle of friends and trusted lieutenants. SEAL Team Six delivered the final lesson about America’s long memory and will to fight.
“Bin Laden pushed this story that al-Qaida could strike the ‘paper tiger’ of America with impunity. And the fact that 10 years later we got him destroys that narrative and sends the very useful message to terrorists that you can run and hide, but you can’t wait the United States out,” said Michael Swetnam, chairman of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies and a coeditor of Usama bin Laden’s al-Qaida: Profile of a Terrorist Network. “I think his death will help turn al-Qaida back into the fringe terrorist group it was in the 1980s, before it became a popular movement.”
Perhaps even more inexcusable than misjudging his enemy, bin Laden ultimately failed to understand his own people. He correctly read the underlying sense of humiliation and seething anger at the stilted existence in many autocratic Muslim societies, and he tried to tap into it with a vision of nihilistic violence and a return to a 7th-century Islamic fundamentalism. When the Arab Spring erupted, al-Qaida was all but struck mute by a spectacle suggesting that the masses really wanted freedom.
“The challenge the United States confronted in dealing with al-Qaida initially was that its narrative had greater appeal to potential Muslim recruits than the U.S. narrative,” said Martin Indyk, a Middle East expert and the director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “Bin Laden’s narrative was that only violence and terror would topple Arab autocrats and redeem Muslim dignity and rights. That narrative has been dealt a serious blow by those responsible for the Arab Spring, because they have toppled regimes and redeemed Arab dignity but in a way that is exactly opposite of what bin Laden preached. That fact, coupled with the killing of bin Laden by U.S. forces, has created a crisis of both leadership and narrative for al-Qaida.”
The marginalization of al-Qaida will not bring an end to the terrorist threat or free the United States from the need for constant vigilance. A major terrorist attack on U.S. soil or the successful hijacking of a people’s revolution that brings Islamist extremists to power in an Arab state could well shift the narrative again. But the revolutionary vanguard that Osama bin Laden envisioned leading, with its inexhaustible legions of recruits bent on endless jihad against the West—that fevered dream has been extinguished. The “war on terror” is over.
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This article appears in the May 7, 2011, edition of National Journal.