Why Bin Laden Lost
Al Qaeda’s leader died because he was outgunned. He lost because he was wrong
The United States has no purpose. That is perhaps its greatest achievement. America’s founding document, its Declaration of Independence, allows that a state exists only to secure life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
That’s it. There’s a curious lack of ambition in those words. The United States was not founded for the greater glory of anything, or as the necessary outcome of history, but for the freedom to collect figurines, to join a clogging troupe, to take a road trip. Yet these words, which carry no ideology whatsoever, are the ones that keep winning. This is the lesson of the past 10 years, and one Osama bin Laden, a man animated by a grandiose vision of restoring a 7th century Muslim empire, never grasped. The most successful organizing principle the world has ever known is a simple guarantee that we can buy and do things that have no point greater than the satisfaction of our own happiness.
The world did not feel so simple as we brushed the ash off our clothes and filed across the East River into a new century. In 2001, bin Laden appeared to be a force, a rider at the head of a storm of death. We feared him as a leader, read opinion polls from the Middle East, and marveled at the size of his following. But did those numbers reflect approval of his ideas, or of his performance?
On Twitter on May 2 a Bahraini named Mubarak Mattar, in a translation from the Arabic by Global Voices, wrote, “With all our differences with al Qaeda, we are proud of the death of a Muslim man who was able to shake the world at a time all the Arab armies united couldn’t do that. … You are the only one who said ‘No’ in an era where the Arabs said ‘Yes.’ ”
In a spectacular, bloody way, Osama bin Laden said, simply, “no.” This is not the philosophy of a new prophet in a clash of civilizations; it’s the word of a nihilist. We feared the compelling power of his ideology, but what actually resonated was his raised fist. That’s why it gives him too much to call him a monster. Remember him as a thug and murderer, but also as a self-obsessed diva with a gift for timing and spectacle. Bin Laden was a trust-funder who took up performance art.
Again, this is easier to understand when we are not numb with rage. You don’t have to be an Arabist to see that “no” is not an idea that can outlive its youth. It’s not a governing principle, nor is it an economic strategy that could deal with jobless rates that have averaged about 12 percent in the oil-free states of the Maghreb and the Mashreq. It’s a pose.
It’s through this lens that bin Laden and his al Qaeda followers make the most sense. Four of the men who formed the core of the Sept. 11 plot sat and watched videos of bin Laden speeches together before they ever met the man. All four became radicalized in Hamburg; contact with the West created them, as it had created many Muslim radicals—Sayyid Qutb, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—who came before. Hamburg is a cruel city for the lost. It feels no shame for its sex kinos. It offers the worst combination of liberties, those of an international port and a six-university town. And it was not until Hamburg, among the students and the East European prostitutes, that four young men from Egypt, Yemen, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates grew out their beards and became unfamiliar to their families back home.
Was bin Laden a religious figure to these men watching videos in the apartment they shared near the harbor? Or was he a rock star, in an idiom they could accept? The young want fame, glory, and meaning, and few professions offer these in greater abundance than rock god or terrorist. In October 2001 a folk myth flourished in New York that suicide bombers had planned attacks in malls around the city. What we didn’t understand then is that a mall strike isn’t worth dying for. Ultimately, terrorists aren’t into tactics, or politics, or the poor and oppressed. They’re into glory. And for those watching on TV, the single-minded pursuit of glory can grow tedious
Whether we’re safe now or not, there’s no question that bin Laden changed us. The prospect of another attack, this time with nuclear or biological weapons, has profoundly altered U.S. foreign policy and the very nature of American democracy. We didn’t know why they hated us—or even who they were—but we were sure they did hate us. That pervasive, inchoate fear opened us to decisions we wouldn’t have imagined before. A war of choice. Torture.
And like any self-respecting artist who works in manure, Osama bin Laden knew how to push our buttons. John Kerry, 2004’s tepid Democratic challenger, believed that a video message from bin Laden—well-timed for the closing cycle of the election—sank his campaign. Bin Laden created two wars, stretched the Treasury’s financial resources well before the 2008-09 financial crisis, and launched a brand-new Cabinet-level department.
But what did he ever do for the Middle East? Since 2003 the Pew Research Center has been tracking public opinion in eight Muslim countries. In the U.S., coverage of the yearly releases of this data has tended to focus on America’s image in the world, and the answer has not been encouraging. The U.S. favorability rating either hovered or dropped. (And lest we think President George W. Bush was the problem, the Obama bounce happened only in Indonesia.)
In 2005 the Center for Strategic Studies in Amman published a study of public opinion in the Mashreq—Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and the Palestinian territories. In broad strokes, the data agreed with Pew’s; those countries held negative views of the West in general, and of the U.S. in particular. But the U.S. emerged as a desirable destination for work-related training, immigration, and working abroad, and the study dismissed the idea that Arabs interpreted tension with the West as a clash of culture or religion. The study concluded, in so many words, that they don’t hate us. (It did point out that they hate what we do.)
So maybe the question—why do they hate us?—was the wrong one. Since Pew began its surveys, every country polled has thought less of bin Laden, almost every year. In 2006, the year after al Qaeda visited hotels in Amman, killing nearly 60, including about 30 wedding guests, bin Laden’s support dropped in Jordan from 60 percent to just below 25 percent. By 2011 he had sunk from 46 percent to below 20 percent in Pakistan; in the Palestinian territories, from 72 percent to 34 percent. By the time he died, the emptiness of bin Laden’s idea had revealed itself. The U.S. wasn’t winning the fight to sway public opinion in the Middle East, but Osama was definitely losing it. He changed the world, once, then all he had to offer was more Kalashnikov videotapes. As they got to spend some time with him, Muslims discovered they didn’t like him very much. They were looking for something else, something that didn’t show up in the polling data.
It showed up this spring. “All those people on the street,” says an activist who asked that we withhold her name and location for fear of government reprisal, “they don’t want democracy, they want to live, to live with dignity. They want something tangible, not an idea.” Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian who set himself on fire after repeated run-ins with local authorities, wanted to support his family with a fruit stand.
Bouazizi’s dream lacked the grandeur of a caliphate. He asked no one to die but himself. “In Egypt,” says the activist, “the tangible dream is to walk on the street without being harassed by a policeman. In Bahrain, it’s to live your life without being discriminated against. In Tunisia, the dream was to work.” She dismisses even the news of bin Laden’s death. “It doesn’t mean anything,” she says, “because he’s been dead and gone and disappeared for years.”
History swings on hinges of brass, not gold. In 1989, miners in the Soviet Union went on strike. They weren’t asking for better pay or safer mines or, God forbid, democracy. They wanted soap, a basic consumer good, one their government could no longer consistently provide. “All will be well,” offered the East German government to its citizens. Yes, countered a joke popular in the country in the 1980s, but nothing gets better.
We humans follow base and pedestrian needs. We need narratives for our lives, and we look to the speechmakers, the prisoners of conscience, to write them for us. These narratives render our desires into abstract phrases. Freedom. Self-determination. Democracy. All of which are means to an end. For us humans, the end is almost always just a house and some quiet to raise our daughters. Some friends, and a measure of something fermented. Someone to love. Enough soap to rinse off the coal dust. A fruit stand.
A 2010 International Monetary Fund report on economies in the Middle East and North Africa separated out the region’s oil importers: Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria, and Tunisia. These countries all have total unemployment and youth unemployment far above global averages. To change any of this, writes the IMF, together they will need to create some 18.5 million full-time jobs by 2020. The report blames bloated public sectors, restrictive regulation, and education that fails to match training to jobs; it reads as if it had been written to validate Mohamed Bouazizi’s despair. Bin Laden had no answer for it. That doomed him long before the Navy SEALs arrived at his compound.
What I’d like to be able to say to myself, 10 years younger, is that Osama bin Laden will lose because nobody actually wants to live in a cave. Even bin Laden didn’t want to live in a cave. As Bloomberg News reported, in Abbottabad he sent runners out for equal amounts of Coke and Pepsi, for Nestlé milk and the good-quality shampoos. The societies that make these things do not turn up their noses at the consumer and his whims, the needs that lack any justification larger than the personal.
There’s been much discussion, since the evening his death was announced, of the appropriate way to celebrate the end of Osama bin Laden. You might consider embracing what defeated him. Do something private and ridiculous, something that answers to no creed.
Greeley is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek.