News / Asia

Bin Laden’s Operational Role Debated

Osama bin Laden is shown watching himself on television in this video image released by the U.S. Pentagon, May 7, 2011
Osama bin Laden is shown watching himself on television in this video image released by the U.S. Pentagon, May 7, 2011

It is widely agreed that the plot to mount terrorist attacks in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001 sprung from the mind of Osama bin Laden. But less certain is his role after U.S. forces routed bin Laden and his followers from their sanctuaries in Afghanistan later that year. In the intervening years since 9-11, U.S. and Western intelligence agencies took the view that al-Qaida worldwide had become less centralized and more of a “franchise” operation. In this view, bin Laden was more of an inspirational than operational figure.

But some of the material gathered in the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, seems, at least at first glance, to challenge that view. Reports have surfaced of plots to blow up rail lines and exhortations by bin Laden to his followers to aggressively attack American targets. Some American officials were quoted as calling the compound a “command and control center”.

Footage shot by VOA Urdu service of the scene outside the compound where bin Laden was killed.

Re-evaluation

Shaun Gregory, director of the Pakistan Security Research Unit at the University of Bradford in England, says there is a re-evaluation going on inside Western intelligence agencies of what they know - or thought they knew - about bin Laden and al-Qaida.

"If I’ve heard one pretty consistent thing from colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic it is the creeping evidence that he was rather more, if you like, in the loop than people had suspected for many years," said Gregory.

But, he adds, the original view that bin Laden was not directly managing terrorist operations seems to be reinforced.   

"But then I’m now hearing a back current saying that he may have, if you like, been in greater contact with people, but he’s not a strategic mastermind, he’s not a military planner in that sense, and maybe his role is a bit closer in a sense to [Mullah] Omar’s role with respect to the Afghan Taliban," Gregory said.

Not a hands-on leader

Analysts say closer evaluation of the material that has surfaced so far in fact confirms the long-held view that bin Laden was in fact not a hands-on operational leader. Paul Pillar, a longtime CIA veteran and former National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, says bin Laden had plenty of ideas but they did not reach the plotting stage.

"If you look really closely at what has come out so far, I don’t think that it changes the overall perception of the role that bin Laden had been playing over the last few years - a perception shared by most experts - and that would be one in which he was not out of the operational business entirely by any means, but his principal role was one of publicist, ideologist, source of ideology, symbol," Pillar said.

A soldier's memorial and photos are seen during a Remembrance Ceremony commemorating the one-year anniversary of the worst mass shooting on a U.S. military base, where 13 people were killed and dozens wounded, Friday, Nov. 5, 2010, in Fort Hood. (AP Photo
A soldier's memorial and photos are seen during a Remembrance Ceremony commemorating the one-year anniversary of the worst mass shooting on a U.S. military base, where 13 people were killed and dozens wounded, Friday, Nov. 5, 2010, in Fort Hood. (AP Photo

Analysts say counterterrorism operations had squeezed al-Qaida by arresting or killing mid-level leaders and monitoring their communications. Moreover, Pillar points out, many of the post-9-11 terrorist incidents or plots, such as the Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, and the Fort Hood shooter, Major Nidal Hassan, were plotted outside of what intelligence officers have come to call “Al-Qaida Central.”

"It’s not just a theory but a fact that’s been accumulating over the last few years that most of the initiative and the direction and the planning and the training have taken place away from the al-Qaida Central and on the periphery," Pillar said.

Ayman al-Zawahri: Osama's successor?

The leading candidate to replace bin Laden is his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri. But analysts say he is expected to face opposition. Al-Qaida, with its franchises in Yemen and elsewhere, is not a monolithic organization. Jeremy Binnie, a terrorism analyst with IHS Jane’s, says that without bin Laden, al-Qaida franchises may increasingly focus on local goals than the global goals espoused by their late leader.

"There are these people with a different vision of al-Qaida," said Binnie. "Zawahri is going to have to try to step in there. His ability to fill bin Laden’s shoes as sort of a figure that everyone defers to and refers to as the ‘great sheik’ and has that kind of gravitas [eminence] - it’s going to be very difficult to replace him [bin Laden] in that respect.

As Paul Pillar points out, the death of bin Laden does bring a kind of catharsis to Americans for the 9-11 attacks, but it is far from being a death blow to al-Qaida or jihadist terrorism.

You May Like

How to Safeguard Your Mobile Privacy

As the digital world becomes more mobile, so too do concerns about eroding privacy and increased hacking More

'Desert Dancer' Chronicles Iranian Underground Dance Troupe

Film by Richard Raymond is based on true story of Afshin Ghaffarian and his friends More

Audio Top 5 Songs for Week Ending May 23

This week's lineup can be summed up like this: 'It's The Same Old Song' - but they're great songs - featuring Walk The Moon, The Weeknd, Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmakingi
X
Bernard Shusman
May 24, 2015 2:55 PM
According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.
Video

Video Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmaking

According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.
Video

Video Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam War

For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Millions Flock to Ethiopia Polls

Millions of Ethiopians cast their votes Sunday in the first national election since the 2012 death of longtime leader Meles Zenawi. Mr. Meles' party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, is almost certain of victory again. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Addis Ababa.
Video

Video Scientists Testing Space Propulsion by Light

Can the sun - the heart of our solar system - power a spacecraft to the edge of our solar system? The answer may come from a just-launched small satellite designed to test the efficiency of solar sail propulsion. Once deployed, its large sail will catch the so-called solar wind and slowly reach what scientists hope to be substantial speed. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video FIFA Trains Somali Referees

As stability returns to the once lawless nation of Somalia, the world football governing body, FIFA, is helping to rebuild the country’s sport sector by training referees as well as its young footballers. Abdulaziz Billow has more from Mogadishu.
Video

Video With US Child Obesity Rates on the Rise, Program Promotes Health Eating

In its fifth year, FoodCorps puts more than 180 young Americans into 500 schools across the United States, where they focus on teaching students about nutrition, engaging them with hands-on activities, and improving their access to healthy foods whether in the cafeteria or the greater community. Aru Pande has more.
Video

Video Virginia Neighborhood Draws People to Nostalgic Main Street

In the U.S., people used to grow up in small towns with a main street lined by family-owned shops and restaurants. Today, however, many main streets are worn down and empty because shoppers have been lured away by shopping malls. But in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia, main street is thriving. VOA’s Deborah Block reports it has a nostalgic feel with its small restaurants and unique stores.
Video

Video Effort Underway to Limit Damage from California Oil Spill

Cleanup crews are working around the clock to remove oil from the waters off the coastal city of Santa Barbara, in California. About 380,000 liters of oil may have leaked out before a rupture in an onshore, underground pipeline was discovered Tuesday. The environmental disaster hit the popular West Coast resort area before the Memorial Day weekend. VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports investigators have yet to determine what caused the incident.

VOA Blogs