“Since the end of the last civil war, the colonel had done nothing else but wait. October was one of the few things which arrived.” At least, it arrived for the aging military commander whose life is described in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s story “Nobody Writes to the Colonel Any More”. For Osama bin Laden, this year, the Navy SEALs arrived before October did. And despite all the breathless hype of the past two days from Administration officials claiming that a diary and emails seized at the Abbottabad compound show bin Laden as very much still in operational command of al-Qaeda, the revelations beginning to dribble out about the contents of the diary and emails suggest, in fact, that like Marquez’s fictitious colonel, bin Laden, for the best part of a decade, had nothing else to do but wait.
Wait for the courier to return from a distant internet cafe with a thumbdrive, containing responses to his missives and advice. Wait – largely in vain – for news of new atrocities inflicted by his supporters on the cities of the West. Wait for responses from key lieutenants, only to learn that they had been killed by his enemies. Wait to see anyone respond to his exhortation that they bomb Los Angeles or kill President Obama. Wait with dwindling hope for the Arab masses to take up his call to jihad, only to discover that when they did finally rise up against their Western-backed regimes, they wanted nothing to with him. Wait to see dated images of himself to appear on TV, and wonder why they were becoming increasingly few and far between. Wait, and while waiting, jot down his increasingly muddled ideas — “strategic musings” rather than operational plans, as one U.S. intelligence operative put it, and wait some more. Wait, in vain, for the Muslim world to treat him with the same importance that the Americans did. Wait for the thumb drive. Wait for October.
The diary and the thumb drives that recorded his email traffic show, Administration officials have stressed, that bin Laden was in contact with a wide number of followers and was pushing his network “to engage in more plots, in more areas of the world and on specific dates.”
Well, yes. No question he’d have liked more attacks, and to have killed thousands more Americans. But that doesn’t change the fact that most of this has not happened, regardless of bin Laden’s urgings. It’s all very well for bin Laden to be emailing his acolytes to urge them to attack U.S. cities, bomb trains, kill leaders and generally unleash mayhem on American soil. But that starts to sound like telling them to acquire nuclear weapons and cruise missiles on which to carry them — aspirations entirely unmoored from the bounds of the plausible.
As former CIA man Paul Pillar told the BBC, the claims of bin Laden playing a command and control role in al-Qaeda, which he sees as overblown, have been “motivated in part by an official desire to underscore the importance of eliminating this one terrorist”.
Some of the material leaked so far is simply bizarre: Bin Laden angrily rejects a proposal, carried in the glossy magazine of al-Qaeda’s Yemen-based affiliate, to fit a tractor with rotating blades to use to “mow down the enemies of Allah”. Well, yes, that’s an adolescent comic book fantasy. And the magazine in which it was touted appears to be the brainchild of U.S.-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlakki, whom bin Laden clearly doesn’t particularly like or trust (as his negative reaction to a proposal that Awlakki be made head of al-Qaeda’s local chapter suggests). But bin Laden’s reason for rejecting the daft killer tractor plan is an eye opener: He angrily castigates those who advocate al-Qaeda engaging in “indiscriminate slaughter”. But indiscriminate mass casualty terror attacks are al-Qaeda’s operation signature, so you could hardly fault the eager beavers in Yemen for letting their imaginations run wild — or from wondering when the Sheikh had gone soft on infidel civilians.
Elsewhere, bin Laden is recorded calculating how many Americans he’d have to kill to get the U.S. out of the Middle East, and concluding it would take another 9/11 scale attack. Diabolical? Or just remarkably bloody stupid? The United States responded to the events of 9/11 by invading two Muslim countries, where it has lost more of its people in the resulting insurgencies than it did in the 9/11 attacks. Telling his followers that the only way to get the US out of the region is another 9/11 scale bloodbath on American soil simply reveals the workings of a mind whose take on the way the world works is shaped by an exclusive reliance on chatterbox television.
And it’s hard to take at face value his exhortation for more mass casualty attacks on U.S. soil. Would if they could, wouldn’t they? As resistant as I am to likening every bad guy who crosses the U.S. path to Hitler, I can’t help being reminded of the much parodied scene from the German movie Downfall, in which Hitler, in desperation to stop the Red Army’s advance on Berlin, is hunched over a map moving around divisions that no longer exist.
Sure, al-Qaeda maintains a few hundred men who are capable of occasionally blowing stuff up and killing a good number of people — although, mercifully, thanks to police and intelligence work since the 2001 Afghanistan invasion chased it out of its sanctuaries there, the trend in al-Qaeda inspired terror attacks has been one of diminishing returns.
In his fantasy about his own historic significance, bin Laden had embraced death and assumed it would catch up with him sooner or later. But by the time he died, he may have been unsettlingly aware that history had already meted out what in his mind would have been a harsher sentence – oblivion.