The Osama bin Laden of video image is a dashing, romantic figure. In his turban, military-camouflage garb, flowing Saudi robe, and rough leather sandals, he prances gracefully across the rugged Afghan mountains, a Kalashnikov at his side. He stares almost wistfully into the camera, a man at peace with himself even as he wreaks slaughter and misery on innocents—the ostensible soul of humility, composure, and compassion. He is a simple soldier for the jihad, he says again and again. Since a famous interview in late 1998, he had spoken of welcoming death and becoming a martyr. His goal, he said, was to have even greater resonance in death than in life. His martyrdom at the hands of the infidels, he predicted, would create many more bin Ladens.
It was all a lie. In remarks at a White House briefing Monday afternoon, chief counterterrorism advisor John Brennan presented a much different image of bin Laden’s last days. He was not the solitary, fearless warrior for God, hiding in caves and tents, shunning earthly pleasures as he yearned for the death to which he sent so many of his credulous young Muslim followers. His hideout, in fact, was a $1 million compound in Abbottabad, an hour’s drive north of the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, home to many wealthy, well-connected members of Pakistan’s military. And though precise details about his death in a firefight with an elite band of Navy SEALS have not been confirmed, Brennan said that the great warrior’s young wife had served as his human shield.
So much for welcoming death and martyrdom: hide behind the woman and let her take the bullet first.*
Great care had obviously been taken to ensure the would-be martyr’s survival in protected luxury in this garrison town. The house that he shared with two trusted couriers, built in 2005, resembled a “fortress” more than a home, Brennan said. Eight times larger than any dwelling in the surrounding area, the house had 12- to 18-foot walls topped with barbed wire. An “internal wall sectioned off different portions of the compound to provide extra privacy,” said another senior official at a late-night briefing on the raid. Access to the compound was restricted by two security gates, and unlike other residents of the town, who put out their trash for collection, residents of the Villa bin Laden burned their own trash. The house apparently had no Internet or telephone lines—not to save connection fees, but to ensure that its inhabitants would go undetected.
Clearly, bin Laden and his fellow travelers took great pains to avoid detection and live to kill another day. Brennan said Monday that bin Laden was killed in a firefight with the Americans, but it’s unclear if he managed even to pull out a gun. Today, bin Laden has garnered the headlines and network news coverage he so desperately craved. But his American pursuers ensured that there will be no earthly remnants of him, no grave to visit. His body was dumped at sea, and within 24 hours of his death—in accordance with Muslim tradition, Brennan was quick to add. Whether and for how long his memory will endure is open to question. In perhaps the final blow to the heroic narrative he so desperately sought, the uprisings of the Arab Spring now grip the Arab media and popular imagination. The street protests for democracy, tolerance, and secularism have denied al-Qaida the attention and murderous glory its adherents have relished for so long.
“Bin Laden’s propagandists did not count on having to compete with the biggest news story in the Arab world in decades,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. “Burnishing his reputation and heralding his martyrdom won’t give them the space, time, and bandwidth they would have gotten only six months ago.”
So bin Laden is dead, if not yet al-Qaida. But tomorrow, young Muslims may well come to see both of them as yesterday’s news.
* Since Brennan’s press conference, the White House has changed its account of how bin Laden was killed and retracted the assertion that a woman was used to shield bin Laden. “Two al-Qaeda couriers were killed along with a woman who was killed in cross-fire,” the White House now asserts. “In the room with bin Laden, a woman—bin Laden’s wife—rushed the U.S. assaulter and was shot in the leg but not killed. Bin Laden was then shot and killed.” The White House said that bin Laden resisted capture, but it didn’t explain how. U.S. military personnel, spokesman Jay Carney said, were “engaged in a firefight throughout the operation,” which lasted 40 minutes.