Osama bin Laden’s welcome detection and death recall the capture of another terrorist leader: Abimael Guzmán of the Maoist Shining Path of Peru. Had it attained power (which looked quite possible at one point), Guzmán’s movement would have produced a Khmer Rouge–type catastrophe on a much larger scale than in Cambodia. Guzmán was captured in a comfortable house in the capital city, Lima, virtually under the eyes of the Peruvian military and government.
The two leaders remind us that it is not a lack of personal opportunity that drives men to found and lead large-scale terrorist movements that claim to be working toward the perfection of the world. Guzmán, true, was not the son of a billionaire, like bin Laden, but as a professor of philosophy he could hardly claim to have been one of his country’s downtrodden: rather, he was on the fringes of its elite. Guzmán’s movement was every bit as millenarian as bin Laden’s. More than any other factor, unbounded egotism drove both men, a fear of personal insignificance. You can’t inscribe yourself on world history by writing about Kant (Guzmán) or by continuing daddy’s construction business (bin Laden).
Of course, Guzmán was caught (and not killed) by the armed forces of the country where he was hiding, not by those of a foreign power. Nor was his millenarian movement in practice quite as multi-national as al-Qaida’s, though it had forged links with the PKK of Turkey and had ambitions every bit as great—and ridiculous—as al-Qaida’s. More importantly, the Shining Path’s collapse was almost total after Guzmán’s capture, thanks to the fanatical personality cult he had engendered and encouraged; no such collapse of al-Qaida, unfortunately, is likely now that bin Laden is dead.
But the parallels remain. Anyone who reads one of the formative intellectual influences on bin Laden, Sayyid Qutb, will be struck by how much he appears to be reading a mildly theologized Lenin or even Nechaev, the ruthless nineteenth-century Russian psychopath. Qutb is distinctly this-worldly, more exercised by politics than by the state of his, or anyone else’s, soul. He pours secular hatreds into a theological vessel; and in a way, bin Laden’s appearance bore this connection out. He was half Mohammed, half flak jacket and AK-47. It was a toxic combination.