There was a theatrical air about Osama bin Laden. He cultivated mystique. For example, he relished inviting selected international journalists–some known for their own theatricality–to meet him in dangerous or shadowy circumstances that facilitated dramatic storytelling. I had a minor part in bringing Bin Laden to the world stage in 1996 when I interviewed him in Khartoum for a TIME magazine story headlined “The Paladin of Jihad.” Bin Laden’s enemies added to the hype. George W. Bush, the gun-slinging president from Texas, responded to September 11 with a line straight out of Hollywood: “I want justice. And there’s an old poster out West I recall, that said, ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive.'”
Bin Laden was a villain, but he was a man not a superman. Because of the spectacular crime he pulled off on 9/11, American politicians and a mass media fanning the good-versus-evil story line elevated Bin Laden to heights of influence that had little to do with reality. Somehow Bin Laden suddenly seemed to speak for all Muslims. His radicalism was inherent in Islam, a religion that was now provoking nothing less than a Clash of Civilizations. America, in this false narrative, seemed at the point of being overwhelmed by Muslim armies. (Reeling from 9/11, Bush himself had spoken of the need for a “crusade” in response.) The Bush administration created a new Office of the Director of National Intelligence, a new Department of Homeland Security, and launched two new invasions of Muslim countries, Afghanistan and Iraq–all against the background of containing Bin Laden’s rising “Islamic threat.
His inevitable “High Noon” demise in Abbottabad illustrates a rather more quixotic story of Osama bin Laden. When the end came, he had conspicuously failed in his global jihad against the United States and “infidel” powers. Throughout the Arab world, his fellow Muslims rejected his radical ideology and terrorist methods. He was unable to find or lead a mass following anywhere, including his native Saudi Arabia. He had already lost his last foothold in the Arab world a few months after I met him when the Sudanese government—Islamist allies–betrayed him and Bin Laden skulked out of Khartoum in the dead of night. Fifteen years later, he was a fugitive on the run, holed up in a villa without Internet in northern Pakistan. He had become a man without adequate protection from bodyguards, much less a commander of a glorious Muslim army marching on Jerusalem.
Bin Laden has no glory to show for his deeds, mainly just blood on his hands. He played a small and even heroic role as a young, idealistic mujahideen fighting the Soviet army in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Afterwards, he used his millions—the Bin Ladens are a wealthy construction family close to the ruling royals in Saudi Arabia–to underwrite Islamic militants from Pakistan to Algeria. It wasn’t until he formed a partnership with the politically savvier Egyptian Islamist, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, that he put Al-Qaeda on the map. Certainly, Bin Laden succeeded in attracting some radicals to his global jihad; Al-Qaeda and its imitators have carried out numerous deadly terrorist attacks in addition to the ones on 9/11. But apart from exacerbating tensions between the West and Muslim world, Bin Laden couldn’t point to any “achievements” at the moment of his death.
The Facebook revolutions in the Middle East this year nicely exposed to the world what Bin Laden had effectively become: a freak show, albeit a very murderous one. When Arabs by the millions summoned their collective strength and overthrew despotic rulers, they did so in the name of freedom, democracy and opportunity, not in the name of Bin Laden’s cause. In Tahrir Square, I heard nobody chanting for Al-Qaeda; to the extent the young protesters spoke about their heroes, Nobel Prize-winning scientists like Mohamed ElBaradei and Ahmed Zewail were the names that came off their lips. Amr Khaled, a gentle Muslim preacher whose slogan is something like “Islam for development” may be the single most popular Muslim leader in Egypt today.
No doubt some of the Egyptian protesters had cheered Bin Laden 10 years ago after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. One of Bin Laden’s tactics was tapping into the huge reservoir of Muslim resentment toward the West–for example, over American’s support for Arab dictators and bias toward Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The cruel torture of Islamists in Arab prisons has helped create some of the extremists within Al-Qaeda, Al-Zawahiri among them. Whatever popularity Al-Qaeda continues to enjoy is largely based on that sympathy for the underdog championing their cause, rather than on Bin Laden’s quest to re-establish an Islamic Caliphate or his fight against the American way of life.
The Western narrative has too often misrepresented that misguided sentiment as evidence of Bin Laden’s loyal following, and of Islam’s incompatibility with Western values. Indeed, as time passed, and as Muslim victims of Al-Qaeda’s terrorism piled in the morgues, Bin Laden’s “popularity” steadily waned rather than gained in the Middle East. In the Pew Global Attitudes surveys between 2003 and 2010, “confidence” in Bin Laden dropped from 56 percent to 14 percent in Jordan, from 27 percent to 19 percent in Egypt, and from 19 percent to 0 percent in Lebanon. Bin Laden seems destined for the dustbin of history, along with such radical group precursors of Al-Qaeda as the Baader-Meinhof Gang and the Red Brigades.
The killing of Bin Laden is no time for triumphal posturing in the U.S. As the fight against terrorism continues, it is a moment to finally bring down the curtain on Bin Laden’s perverse act. The West as well as the Arab world must put his legacy into its proper perspective. He is no Saladin, as a former CIA Bin Laden-watcher once described him. Exaggerating Bin Laden’s stature has always exaggerated the strength of radical Islam. That, in turn, exaggerates the differences between Islam and the West. Neither Bin Laden nor his crimes represent the more than 1 billion Muslims in the world.
An apt measure of the man was conveyed to me a few years ago when I discussed Bin Laden with Hazem Mansour, a leader of Egypt’s then-banned Muslim Brotherhood. Radical experiments have been rejected by Muslim societies, he told me in his office in Shobra El-Kheima, one of Cairo’s most densely populated districts. “A bomb in New York is fighting America?” Mansour asked me with open disdain for Bin Laden. He added: “September 11 was a bad thing condemned and rejected by all moderate Muslim people as a faulty application of Islam.
(This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post.)
Scott MacLeod is managing editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs and is a professor in the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo.