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The Outlaw

Osama bin Laden’s medieval aims and high-tech means.
May 16, 2011 |
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ABSTRACT: A REPORTER AT LARGE about the life and death of Osama bin Laden and bin Laden’s use of the media to expand his influence. Writer recalls travelling to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in 2005, where he saw the house in which bin Laden had come of age and also visited the offices of an advertising agency run by bin Laden’s eldest son, Abdullah. Comments on the similarities between the house in Jeddah and the house in Pakistan where bin Laden was killed. Bin Laden’s credibility as a political figure peaked around 2003, when, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, about half of the Muslim populations of large countries such as Indonesia, Pakistan, and Nigeria had confidence in his judgment. More recently, bin Laden’s standing with Muslim populations has declined; by last year, only eighteen per cent of Pakistanis supported him. In the West, he has seemed an increasingly inconsequential figure. Bin Laden espoused worldwide Islamic revolution, yet he never translated his fervor into political programs or change. When he died last week, at the age of fifty-three, he was hunkered down and cut off from Muslim societies. The standard caricature of bin Laden places him in a cave, stroking his untrimmed beard, plotting to drag the world backward in time. But a better way to understand his significance might be as a singular and peculiar talent in asymmetric communication and marketing strategies. His career as a terrorist signalled changes in the structure of dissent, violent and otherwise, in the Arab and Muslim worlds, particularly involving the role of transnational media. He grasped the disruptive potential of border-hopping technologies even before many Western media executives and Arab dictators did. Considers how bin Laden was influenced by the media coverage of airline hijackings and the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. When bin Laden formed Al Qaeda, in 1988, one of its four management committees was devoted solely to media strategy. During the nineteen-nineties, in addition to self-produced videos, bin Laden recorded underground lectures on audiocassette and distributed samizdat-style revolutionary essays in Saudi Arabia by fax machine. He was not an aesthetic or intellectual innovator, but he was determined to push his radical ideas across closed borders. He passed his authority down through loose networks, and he was willing to experiment and take risks. On January 21st, he issued his last known statement by audiotape, directed at French listeners. He was referring to four French civilians who were seized last year in Niger and held by Al Qaeda’s affiliate in North Africa. The statement amounted to the transmission of a lethal order. It was not, however, carried out, and the four hostages remain in Al Qaeda custody. Such was the great communicator’s final broadcast: he was a transparently diminished figure.

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