Osama bin Laden, the visual icon of terrorism in our fear-driven age, is gone. No one can replace him.
Jihadists will doubtless commit new outrages and hatch new conspiracies. But warriors committed to sacrificing their lives for his murderous cause are a wasting resource unless they can draw new recruits into their ranks. And while Bin Laden may or may not have been the mastermind behind the attacks launched by Al Qaeda and its imitators, he was unquestionably their master recruiter.
Any number of studies have analyzed the intricate pathways by which a young computer programmer here, an out-of-work immigrant there, or the raped widow of a suicide bomber somewhere else have found their way into jihadist cells in a score of countries. Mosque-based activists nurture some, family networks ensnare others, and a few develop overwhelming feelings of outrage or victimization just by reading the news or watching videotapes.
But Osama bin Laden spoke to everyone, including many millions of Muslims who admired his analysis of world affairs but never themselves developed the courage and commitment to follow his logic to its lethal end. He inspired both the suicide bomber and the armchair critic of American and Israeli imperialism.
In 2003 the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project reported that 59 percent of Indonesians, 46 percent of Pakistanis, and 56 percent of Jordanians expressed confidence that Bin Laden would “do the right thing in world affairs.”
By 2009, however, Bin Laden’s popularity in these representative countries had fallen steeply to 25 percent in Indonesia, 18 percent in Pakistan, and 28 percent in Jordan. Though these numbers are still distressingly high, Bin Laden’s decline as the symbol of resistance to what he called “Crusaders and Jews” was unquestionable.
What largely accounted for this decline was a near total eclipse of his video image. Though the media or jihadist Web sites aired at least 21 Bin Laden tapes between 2003 and 2009, they included scarcely five minutes of live video footage. The leader who had stirred global fascination as a visual icon had been reduced to a sporadic voice of often uncertain identity.
If one looks back now at the two-hour Bin Laden recruitment video that became publicly available in the aftermath of 9/11, the power of his screen presence is unmistakable, particularly in comparison with other jihadist leaders who show up on the same tape. A tall, bearded, austere-looking man with an impressively calm demeanor, he recites poetry, rides a horse, and fires a Kalashnikov. He delivers a sermon dressed in white robe and headdress, he holds an interview wearing military camo and a white turban, he sits on a rocky hillside wearing the vest and rolled-edge Nuristani hat of the Afghan Taliban.
Most impressive are the clips showing Bin Laden giving an open-air sermon. The camera looks up at him reverently from below as if the cameraman is among the audience. The voices of children are heard in the background. The impression is of Bin Laden explaining to a group of ordinary people the problems they face in the world and the reasons behind them. “Muslims must examine Allah’s Book — the Koran — in order to understand their predicament and the causes of their illnesses so that they may find a way out of their entrapment.”
Compared with the two-dozen jihadist videotapes I analyzed in connection with police investigations in 2002-2003, Bin Laden’s propaganda stands out. Not only does it present a plausible argument for jihad against the West, but his visual presence and calm voiceovers convey an aura of authority and leadership even though his name is never mentioned.
His screen presence also far outshadows that of other jihadist leaders. Where they are strident, or ranting, or dull, he is calm and articulate. Where they come across as one-note preachers or pedantic classroom teachers, he appears as a fully formed individual. Comfortable in the mosque, on the battlefield, at the training camp, or in a poetry recital.
One cannot mourn the death of a man who planned or inspired so many atrocities. But we should recognize that his bigger-than-life iconic presence was the heart and soul of jihadist Islam. When U.S. pressure forced him away from the television cameras, his ideology lost momentum. And now that the dogged determination of American counter-terrorism forces has silenced him for good, there is no one who can replace him.
Richard Bulliet , professor of history at Columbia University and author of Islam: The View from the Edge and The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization.