May 9, 2011

Bin Laden Videos a Double-edged Sword

The “special federal task force” designated to comb the mountain of data seized from Osama bin Laden’s hideout expects long, sleepless nights ahead. As for the U.S. public, a controlled trickle is more likely to reveal advantageous glimpses of his final years. White House National Security Adviser Tom Donilon told NBC’s “Meet The Press” on Sunday, “This is the largest cache of intelligence derived from the scene of any single terrorist. It’s about the size, the CIA tells us, of a small college library.”

While the information spree is expected to yield actionable intelligence on al-Qaeda’s remaining senior commanders, the White House also believes it discovered a clever loophole to proving bin Laden’s death and dispelling his aura. Caught in the controversy over his body’s burial, the Obama administration subsequently declined to release photographic evidence of his grisly death. The graphic images of his face posed a threat to U.S. national security, Pentagon officials advised President Barack Obama, and held the possibility of inspiring his followers.

Rather than pop their bubble once and for all, Obama argued that bin Laden’s sudden drop in the ocean would provide a more draining closure.

The unsettled fate of bin Laden’s body continues to feed the skepticism and conspiracy theories of those already disinclined to believe the U.S. government. Only one version of bin Laden’s death has been told, they argue, and it doesn’t come from a reputable source. But the Obama administration clearly based its decision on the trove of data stripped from bin Laden’s compound. Thinking it held the footage to discredit bin Laden and validate his death at the same time, the White House released five videos on Saturday in order to, as CNN’s headline blared, “erase bin Laden’s mystique.”

Although the tapes do possess a chance at eroding bin Laden’s image, they’re liable to cut America’s hands in the process.

In revealing a graying, narcissistic man obsessed with his physical appearance and younger days, the Obama administration has painted a vain portrait of bin Laden’s final years as al-Qaeda chieftain. A worn bin Laden is shown watching footage of past travels through Afghanistan, rehearsing (and sometimes forgetting) the lines of his next propaganda videos, and dyeing his beard to conceal the aging process. News subsequently leaked that Pakistani authorities found “herbal Viagra” in his medicine chest, part of an orchestrated campaign to morally discredit bin Laden (after his “human shield” of a wife turned out to be a loyal assailant).

"The first image that we were talking about is trying to say, 'Look, this isn't the guy that you think he is. He isn't the leader. He doesn't look young. He doesn't look vibrant,’” says Jack Cloonan, who served on the FBI's Osama Bin Laden unit for 6 years. “And if we were trying to encourage recruitment, given what's happened in the so-called Arab Spring, I don't think that is the image that would entice people to join, frankly."

Except the Obama administration isn’t satisfied with this perception. Bent on manipulating bin Laden’s data for all of its worth, U.S. officials are countering their own message by swinging to the opposite extreme. Instead of an isolated figurehead that had lost control of al-Qaeda’s branches, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and other intelligence officials stressed in a series of press interviews, "He was engaged, not just as a symbolic leader; he was engaged in operational leadership.”

"The materials reviewed over the past several days clearly show that bin Laden remained an active leader in al Qaeda, providing strategic, operational and tactical instructions to the group," added an anonymous intelligence official. "Though separated from many al Qaeda members who are located in more remote areas of the region, he was far from a figurehead. He was an active player making the recent operation even more essential for our nation's security."

This juxtaposition hasn’t gone unnoticed by those already on guard against propaganda and disinformation - and that was before bin Laden’s disorienting aftermath. The image of an active chief grinds against the Pakistani narrative that he died broke and irrelevant, marginalized by the larger faction of Ayman al-Zawahiri. But it reverberates both ways too. In flipping two sides of bin Laden, the Obama administration may be doubling up the possibilities of his followers.

An active but secluded bin Laden could empower his aura rather than dispel it.

Some Muslims willing to believe bin Laden’s death find common ground with certain Israeli officials: that U.S. forces took too long and missed too many opportunities. That he was found in Abottabad reinforced the opinion that he should have been taken down sooner; his location and length of surveillance spawned immediate questions of his death’s timing. Highlighting bin Laden’s capabilities plays into this narrative, one where he was able to cunningly evade U.S. forces for over five years.

Although bin Laden’s self-obsessed side may turn off some of his followers, the isolation he endured similarly builds upon his legend. Inspired by an radicalizing Muslim world and striving to distance himself from his wealth, bin Laden cultivated an image of moderation and restraint during his college years. ABC’s Christiane Amanpour traced over these experiences during a fictionalized account of bin Laden’s upbringing. In preparation for the wider war against the West, one that soon landed him in Afghanistan, bin Laden’s associates speak of him testing himself in the desert, both to harden a real ascetic lifestyle and cultivate the image of it.

Walling oneself up in a small compound suggests a relatively isolated and feeble commander, but also one who is willing to endure personal sacrifice for the greater good.

The Obama administration faces a dilemma in spinning bin Laden’s death in too many directions. One consistent story offers the quickest way to bury him; two or more and the story begins to rip apart, widening the information vacuum and keeping bin Laden’s myth alive. Others will continue to believe that Washington is twisting the facts, and possibly point to what has been labeled bin Laden’s last video: "America will not be able to dream of security until we live in security in Palestine. It is unfair that you live in peace while our brothers in Gaza live in insecurity."

It’s true that most Palestinians, in line with the general Muslim trend, have rejected bin Laden’s ideology. It’s also true that Palestine remains a crucial weakness in U.S. foreign policy.

Flipping bin Laden’s persona should further alarm those already suspecting the CIA of playing both sides - his creation and destruction. Washington likes to have its cake and eat it too, and the manipulation of bin Laden’s final years serves up the latest example. The Obama administration is speaking as though it wishes to simultaneously end and prolong the war against al-Qaeda, no coincidence given the circumstances.

While proving bin Laden’s death may have been a success, his ghost feels more alive than ever.


  1. I'm reminded in the hype around OBL's demise of that around the killing of Al Zarqawi in Iraq in 2006. Milked for all the propaganda it could be but, despite Al Zarqawi being an active operational leader of AQ, unlike OBL, his death was irrelevant in itself. His ghost lived, and continues to live to judge by the daily news from Iraq.


  3. Yes, it's amusing that Musharraf is denying a secret deal when that was part of the deal. Not sure what the point of that is.