Paul Pillar

The Inspirational and Aspirational Bin Ladin

The saturation media coverage of the big story coming out of Abbottabad this week, coupled with government officials being anxious to show some leg and to elaborate on the most prominent good news story Americans have had in quite a while, has not always been conducive to public understanding of the subject at hand. There was the rushing out by the White House counterterrorist adviser of details of the raid in Pakistan acquired in the fog of war, only to require some of those details to be corrected in later renderings. Then there is a tendency, in the rush to derive lessons and implications, to oversimplify and to overinterpret.

We see some of the latter tendency in the first reports based on exploitation of that “treasure trove” of material seized in the raid. The lede of the New York Times story on this subject is that U.S. intelligence analysts have concluded that bin Ladin “played a direct role for years in plotting terror attacks from his hideout.” The implication is that this refutes an earlier view of “many intelligence analysts and terror experts” that bin Ladin “had been relegated to an inspirational figure with little role in current and future al-Qaeda operations.” I don't know what intelligence analysts were thinking before this week, and purported “terror experts” don't all speak with one voice. But I don't know anyone who subscribed to either end of the continuum of possible roles bin Ladin was playing in his hideout: either that he was directing a bevy of terrorist operations around the world, or that he was nothing but a figurehead. The initial dribble from the trove seems entirely consistent with what was a mainstream pre-May 1st expert view: that although bin Ladin had not gotten out of operational matters his preeminent roles in recent years were as a source of ideology and a symbol for a larger movement, that he provided inspiration to that movement in the form of strategy as well as ideology, and that he was not personally directing most operations around the globe that acquired the al-Qaeda label.

The one item that evidently inspired the Times story is a handwritten entry in a notebook, dating from February of last year, discussing an idea for tampering with railroad tracks to derail a train on a bridge. In elaborating on the warning that inevitably was stimulated by this item, an official at the Department of Homeland Security said, “It looks very, very aspirational, and we have no evidence that it developed beyond the initial discussion.” This puts the idea in the same category as countless other musings, by would-be terrorist peons here in the United States and elsewhere, that never make it as far as becoming an actual terrorist plot.

In assessing the relevance of any discovery for counterterrorism, for the terrorist threat to the United States, and for the challenges in combating that threat, what matters most is not the musings—even from higher-ups, not just the peons—but where the initiative for attacks or attempted attacks comes from. Most evidence in recent years indicates that most of the initiative is coming from people on the periphery of the movement, even if they have “links” pointing toward the center. We will have to wait and see if anything from the new trove contradicts that evidence.

In the meantime, amid all the excitement of the big story, let's take a deep breath and not be too quick to jump to new conclusions.