Analysis: On the (ir)relevance of Osama bin Laden

by Zachary Justus

Bob Flourney, a city attorney from Texas swore that after 9/11 he would wear the same tie until Osama bin Laden was caught. Six years later, Bob is the proud owner of a smelly, ragged tie, held together with Velcro and passion.

A world away from Texas, troops in Lebanon have finally pushed out Fatah al-Islam soldiers. In spite of this success, the problem according to Time is that, “in the poorer Sunni areas of Lebanon, Osama bin Laden remains a symbol of popular defiance against the West and the United States in particular.”

Bob’s tie and the situation in Lebanon both point towards the enduring importance of Osama bin Laden. As head of al-Qaeda, bin Laden attained a certain amount of prominence due to orchestration of attacks on the USS Cole and a number of other operations. However, after the invasion of Afghanistan the structure of al-Qaeda was fractured and bin Laden no longer retained direct operational control of missions.

The ruptured al-Qaeda bureaucracy resulted in the evolution of the terrorist threat from a stable, hierarchical structure to a number of diffused, disconnected associations with loose ties to al-Qaeda. In the last few years, it has become increasingly popular to refer to this new threat as a social movement. Advocates of the social movement perspective tend to emphasize the potential for homegrown violence and disconnection from central resources. Thinking about al-Qaeda (or terrorism more broadly) as a social movement aids in understanding how the group functions, its potentials, and points of conflict that might be utilized to destabilize the movement. For instance, some social movements tend to be linked through ideology rather than operational control. The movement model helps to explain how groups, like the one in Lebanon, operate without money or resources from a central figure or group. They are self-motivated and, to some degree, self-sustaining.

Communication theorists have worked to differentiate movements based on communication patterns. Traditional social movements are united by identification with a strong personality. New social movements are characterized by diffuse communication patterns, overlapping networks, and a flattened hierarchy (Bennett, 2003). Within this framework, al-Qaeda exists as a new social movement, but bin Laden’s prominence suggests that the organization is somewhat traditional. The question then becomes, how has Osama bin Laden maintained this undue position of prominence?

Principles

The communication principle of “strategic ambiguity” (Eisenberg, 1984) aids in understanding the relevance of bin Laden. Goodall, Trethewey, and McDonald (2006) write,

Strategic ambiguity recognizes that a powerful vision for change among diverse constituents requires an ability to empower local interpretations of its meaning in order to build relationships to that vision without insisting on a fixed meaning for it or alienating potential allies because of it. (p. 2)

In this white paper, they are arguing for the relevance of strategic ambiguity to United States public diplomacy. One principle of note related to the phenomenon of bin Laden is what Eisenberg (1984) calls “unified diversity.” Goodall and colleagues appropriate this term, urging Washington to “recognize that shared meaning isn’t the only goal, but shared principles and goals are singularly meaningful” (p. 11).

Analysis

Six years after 9/11, bin Laden retains international currency through his extensive use of strategic ambiguity. The resounding theme of anti-American or anti-Western allows bin Laden to maintain the illusion of operational control over terrorist activities by altering his position(s) in response to emerging events.

The most obvious example of this tactic concerns bin Laden’s varied responses to the situation in Iraq. The issue of sectarian violence is an especially volatile one. Bin Laden has personally condemned such violence and sent private communication (which was intercepted) to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi calling for an end to Muslim-Muslim violence. However, when Zarqawi was killed by U. S. Forces, bin Laden was quick to capitalize on the media opportunity by publicly glorifying Zarqawi for his killing of Americans. Even though bin Laden disapproved of Zarqawi’s tactics, he was able to claim an alliance based on a mutual hatred of America. In this way, anti-Americanism provides the unified diversity for terrorists that Goodall and colleagues (2006) have encouraged the coalition to pursue.

The second use of strategic ambiguity by bin Laden concerns his appropriation and endorsement of operations carried out of self-sufficient cells. By most accounts the Madrid bombings and the London transit bombings were the product of homegrown terrorists with few, if any, concrete ties to al-Qaeda leadership. Yet, after the attacks were carried out bin Laden endorsed both Madrid and London due to their anti-Western outcome. These appropriations of any and all anti-American activity grant bin Laden the illusion that he maintains operational control over terrorist activities. Most recently, bin Laden released a tape commemorating the six year anniversary of 9/11 in another attempt to re-center his persona. He made his boldest play in this department when in early 2006 he proposed a truce with coalition forces which sent a powerful message that he was in a position to control Iraq. This slight-of-hand makes it appear as though al-Qaeda operates as a traditional social movement. This is doubly effective for bin Laden: He accomplishes the goal of maintaining some international currency while apparently doing very little other than releasing video and/or audio tapes. Additionally, his lack of involvement makes him more difficult to apprehend.

This analysis helps to explain why Osama bin Laden remains prominent, but at least two recommendations follow naturally. First, drawing attention to bin Laden’s inconsistencies, which are critical to his tactic of strategic ambiguity, reduces his credibility as a fundamentalist. Second, downplaying the significance of bin Laden as a terrorist leader should be public diplomacy strategy of the United States. Helping the public understand the insignificance of bin Laden will pay long term benefits, as reports of success will not be met with skeptical cries that “bin Laden is still out there.”

Bob Flourney has threatened to take off his tie soon, and let us hope he does. While bin Laden may still be alive, his relevance should be dying out.

Further Reading

  • Eisenberg, E. M. (1984). Ambiguity as strategy in organizational communication. Communication Monographs, 51, 227-242.
  • Bennett, W. (2003). Communicating global activism. Information, Communication & Society, 6, 143-1.

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  1. [...] Zach Justus said in a previous CSC blog, bin Laden seems to stir up new interest every time he releases a message, as if to say “hey, [...]

  2. [...] he was still alive, was his death an end to a figurehead who still had social resonance and “strategic ambiguity“? After all, a message he recorded a week before his death praised the Arab spring [...]