By Michael Burleigh
The idealistic portrait of the guerilla leader secluded in his lair turns out to be an illusion. Footage of Osama Bin Laden’s life inside his shabby Abbottabad compound might have come from a care home in Hastings.
There he sits, in a woolly cap and brown blanket, silently rocking to and fro in front of a small TV.
He is not watching a shopping channel on daytime TV, but old footage of his younger self – waving an AK-47 assault rifle in the Afghani hills, or acting with faux presidential grandeur in one of his jihadist broadcasts.
The new footage reveals that before taping his broadcasts, he used dye on his beard and hair to achieve the impression of virility.
The unkempt figure hunched before the TV seems much older than his 54 years. Occasionally, he can be seen forgetting his lines in otherwise well-crafted propaganda broadcasts.
The release of the videos – recovered from Bin Laden’s compound – by U.S. intelligence officials is clearly designed to expose the Bin Laden myth as a carefully manufactured fraud: the godfather of terror reduced to a doddery old man with nothing to do but watch videos of himself.
For years, Bin Laden’s grainy videos and audio broadcasts have been a sort of ominous counterpoint to the major speeches on global terrorism made by U.S. presidents from Clinton to Obama via Bush.
Now the boot is on the other foot. By showing this new footage, and humbling the supreme Al Qaeda leader, the Americans are directly contradicting the message he used to put out and trying to extract maximum gain from their coup in Abbottabad.
The U.S. military machine has devoted huge resources into studying Al Qaeda propaganda and how to counteract it. Carefully honed pictures of Bin Laden were central to the myth – the young Saudi who abandoned a wealthy lifestyle to live in scorpion-infested caves on a diet of water and vegetable stews.
He encouraged his followers to call him ‘the Sheikh’, part warlord, part religious guru, the mysterious and elusive leader of a global terrorist organisation whose word had the status of holy writ.
By releasing these latest pictures of Bin Laden, the U.S. hopes to shatter the myth.
Yet at the same time as the Americans released these videos – with the sound muffled in case they contained coded messages to his followers – there were claims emanating from different parts of the U.S. administration that Bin Laden was clearly still active, on a strategic and tactical level, as leader of Al Qaeda.
Far from being a marginal, symbolic figurehead, they say, he was still very much the man in charge.
Furthermore, America claims, the intelligence proves the compound was operating as the global headquarters for Al Qaeda.
It’s hard not to be cynical. The Americans can’t have it both ways. The idea that Bin Laden was this half-demented and tragic figure simply does not chime with such claims.
Why then, if they are portraying Bin Laden as a fraud, are they also insisting that he was still head of Al Qaeda operationally? Well, the Americans claim they have captured a treasure trove of highly important materials, from computer hard drives to a dozen mobile phones, some of which Bin Laden’s couriers drove 90 minutes away to use without attracting attention to his hideout.
Of course none of us know exactly what they have found, but the number of mobile phones alone – and the fact that they could not be used near to the compound – suggests that Bin Laden was in fact sending messages out to the world via his couriers.
Already there is evidence that Al Qaeda was hoping to derail passenger trains on the anniversary of 9/11, which would conform with Bin Laden’s obsession with transport systems and their infrastructure.
But there is another reason, too, for the American suggestion that this was the hub of Al Qaeda.
Such a disclosure, U.S. intelligence hopes, will sow discord and panic among Al Qaeda’s global network, none of whose members can be entirely sure that their location or phone numbers are not in that mountain of data.
In their panic, they may make mistakes and become vulnerable to arrest or deadly attack. Either way, the initiative is with the U.S..
Nothing Al Qaeda can do will regain the ground they lost last week, shown up as they have been by a vain and weary old man rocking in a shabby room.