It had been my intention to return to the development and exploration of the rock-paper-scissors model but the continuing news about Usama Bin Laden’s (UBL or OBL which appears to be the official spelling) death has me fascinated. After nearly a week’s passage, I’ve found several of the developments increasingly interesting and the number of issues at play continuously expanding. This is the first of two postings on the aftermath of the SEALs assault on UBL’s compound.
The Shifting Narrative of the Assault
First, the ever shifting narrative of the assault and killing of UBL is simultaneously reflective of the natural fog of war, policy, and media. While it is impossible to determine the extent to which the original and subsequent narratives were strictly the result of the normal confusion of the operation itself (including new reporting that the video feed to the White House was down for half of the operation), I’ve been troubled by the subtle implications of the changes to the initial story because they are suggestive of a larger information operation, which, in my opinion, is unnecessary and likely only jeopardizes our long-term credibility.
Early reports were that UBL had hid behind a woman and engaged in a firefight with US Navy SEALs in which he was killed. This essentially painted UBL’s final acts as those of a coward using his wife as a human shield. Subsequently, the story changed, revealing that UBL was unarmed. Then, additional details were added that revealed that UBL had reached for a rifle and/or rushed at the SEALs, and/or retreated back into the room, perhaps to grab a weapon. More recently, I saw a new report that suggested that only one of the men on the compound was armed during the SEAL’s raid.
Likewise, the characterization of the compound in which he resided was referred to some as a mansion suggesting that he was living a life of luxury. However, this description has largely faded, and I think the release of the UBL videos in which he watches himself on a small TV will dismiss any notion that the compound was anything but a sparse fortress primarily focused with protecting the identity of the resident that came to be known as ‘the pacer.’
Senator Kerry argued that people should stop questioning the SEALs operation and be content with its outcome. However, I don’t believe that people have a problem with the SEALs and their operation. I think the concerns really are over the changes in the story. Certainly some confusion is expected, but the rush to get the story out fast before getting it right is troubling. The consistency of the initial errors in the reporting, all skew towards discrediting UBL’s image, and suggest that policy has a hand in the story and that these errors may not simply be mistakes of confusion but a deliberate information campaign – a point that I believe Senator Lugar confirmed earlier on one of the Sunday talk shows.
This is troubling to me because at a time when UBL’s vision for the Middle East and the world is at all-time low, why embellish the narrative when things are already going our way? If we believe our actions are just, as I believe they were – UBL was a military target and an adversary that we were at war with – then the truth was already on our side. Simply put, information campaigns, propaganda, persuasion, etc. all rest on using credibility as a scarce resource. Why bother burning it now? Should anything be made of the seemingly irresistible temptation to spin events regardless of the need to do so?
A friend of mine pointed to the difference of what official sources are saying about events vs. how they are being covered. The media is as much an independent player in the developing narrative as the actors competing for control over it. At some point, I hope that there is a good accounting of how the media covered the assault, its aftermath, and their role (individually and collectively) in shaping its evolution.
Finally, the speed at which information is coming out regarding the assault, as well as the quantity of details is startling. Why the rush?
Various links on the shifting narrative and its reporting:
- White House changes story on Osama bin Laden raid
- Doubts grow on US version of strike against bin Laden
- Osama raid: only one gunman among dead, White House admits, blaming ‘fog of war’
- Osama Bin Laden Story Changes: No Weapon, Wife Human Shield? Death Photo Coming Soon
- White House changes Osama bin Laden Account
- How to Read the Bin Laden Coverage
- Osama bin Laden raid: Four fresh twists in the story
- Death of Osama bin Laden: Phone call pointed U.S. to compound – and to ‘the pacer’
- ‘Shut up and move on,’ Kerry says
- Osama bin Laden Largely Discredited Among Muslim Publics in Recent Years
- What the Arab Papers Say
- Bin Laden’s Death: While the Arab World Shrugs
Confirmation of UBL’s Death
An interesting, though not unexpected result of the SEALs operation is the emergence of the ‘deathers’ that believe that UBL is alive (or strangely, that he was dead long ago) and that this is part of a larger conspiracy. AQ’s posting announcing UBL’s death should reduce their numbers, drawing from their ranks those who don’t trust the US government but would trust AQ as a reliable source of information on the fate of its leaders (probably not a large audience in the US itself, but likely a substantial number of people globally). There are likely a handful of people that will believe that somehow the US and AQ are working together on creating a conspiracy, but only a few twisted minds would believe that both parties could mutually benefit and agree on promoting the myth that UBL is dead. For most sane people, UBL was believed dead the moment the president announced it. For the doubters, AQ’s confirmation of his death should put their skepticism to rest. For the few that still believe he is alive, nothing will persuade them otherwise.
On UBL’s death, the decision not to release the photographs appears wise. Conspiracy theorists may need proof but for the most part, those inclined to believe that he is alive will argue the photographs are fake as well. I suspect that at some point they will leak, allowing the official government position to be that we didn’t parade his body as a trophy, while at the same time, allowing visual proof to circulate. Again, it most likely means little for establishing the truth of the situation, but I would suspect that t-shirts and posters of his body would be big sellers.
A more interesting set of documentary evidence would be photographs and video of his burial at sea and the preparation of his body beforehand. If the reports about the handing of UBL’s body according to Islamic tradition are correct, it could be a meaningful piece that helps distinguish our war with a small group of violent extremists from a larger campaign against Islam that we have so frequently tried to disavow.
The confirmation of UBL’s death by AQ’s leadership raises a very interesting question. How exactly do we communicate with a covert, distributed adversary? At some point, this war will end and some form of war termination will need to occur. Likewise, UBL is likely not the last of its leadership that we will kill. How can we ensure rapid confirmation of our actions and intentions – lethal or otherwise? What if we had high-ranking AQ members from GITMO view the body and make a public statement confirming its identity? Would they have any credibility? Would we fear that the rising of an eyebrow on camera could mean the initiation of a secret plot secretly communicated to a watching audience? Would it be seen as parading prisoners as trophies and do more harm than good? Given the great deal of thought about what to do with UBL’s body, I suspect DOD/CIA planners gave this some consideration.
Various links on the confirmation of UBL’s death:
- The ‘birthers’ become the ‘deathers’: why some Americans refuse to trust Barack Obama
- Meet the Deathers: Andrew Brietbart Website Pushing Conspiracy Theory That Osama Might Not Be Dead
- 6 Wackiest Osama bin Laden Conspiracy Theories
- Obama Was Right to Censor the Osama bin Laden Photo
- Text: Al Qaeda statement confirming bin Laden’s death
- Al-Qaeda confirms Osama bin Laden’s death, vows retaliation
AQ’s Succession and War Termination
UBL’s death has also opened the question of who will succeed him as AQ’s leader. Of course, two critical points must be made. First, what was UBL’s precise role and does it need replacing? Second, does AQ even need a leader?
There has been a great deal of attention given to Ayman al-Zawahiri (AZ), and some sources have suggested that he has been the dominant figure in AQ’s operations for several years (largely predicated on the belief that UBL was less active than new intelligence might suggest). Here, personalities play an important role, as UBL was regarded as charismatic while AZ is seen as largely off-putting.
I did see a video of AZ speaking, and was surprised by the totally alien character of AQ’s narrative for the events in the Middle East. AZ claimed that the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia and Libya are consistent with AQ’s ideals and struggles and he praised the populations’ efforts to rid themselves of dictators. Likewise, he argued that the US reduction in forces and coming withdrawal in Iraq and Afghanistan (assuming the negotiated timelines hold) is a victory for AQ. From the perspective of audiences in the US, these views are strange because we see these events as democracy in action. This alternative view sounds like mere propaganda, attempting to co-opt the forces of history and cast a counternarrative to save a sinking ship of Islamic radicalism. However, it is worth considering that AQ’s message and interpretation may have broader appeal than we’d like to believe. Events in Egypt are suggestive of rising sectarian tensions in the nascent post-Mubarak government, and the Libyan rebels fighting Ghaddafi appear to be an eclectic mix with odd political views and goals that may only be organized around resisting the current regime.
Placing AQ’s succession into context is surprisingly difficult. The organization has always been an amalgamation of regional groups operating under a global umbrella, which means that a certain degree of local autonomy existed. Thus, many groups may simply continue operating according to the demands and desires of their local leaders. Moreover, reports have suggested that AQ is formally governed by committee, which may continue to operate despite the presence of a strong central leader. From the US perspective a civil war between factions would be a lovely result, but a conflict between groups that prove their worthiness by attacking the US and its allies would be a disappointing outcome and ironically fuel the perception that AQ is actually better organized and unified than it is – just as the competition between Stalin and Mao was interpreted as unified Communist monolith.
My belief is that UBL’s death and its impact on AQ’s evolution will largely be seen in the organization’s funding and recruitment. Smaller groups or franchises may step up their attacks, but if the central core is incapable of funding their most ambitious operations then the organization may whiter and fade away.
Some links on AQ’s Succession and Leadership: