Of all the things I read about Osama bin Laden in the days after his death, I think this piece by Steve Coll at the New Yorker was the most interesting (it’s only available in full online to subscribers, sorry). Coll tries to understand bin Laden’s legacy (beyond, of course, the many lives he is responsible for ending in the United States and around the world) and paints him as a bit of a peculiar revolutionary who left behind little in the way of ideas. Coll writes that, “Other leaders claiming to be vanguards of revolution, such as Lenin and Castro, remade their homelands and altered global affairs. Al Qaeda never acquired a state, and its territorial influence has been limited to ungoverned backwaters such as Somalia and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan.”
Coll argues that bin Laden’s most revolutionary trait was his understanding of media:
The standard caricature of bin Laden places him in a cave, stroking his untrimmed beard, plotting to drag the world backward in time. But a better way to understand his significance might be as a singular and peculiar talent in asymmetric communication and marketing strategies. His career as a terrorist signalled changes in the structure of dissent, violent and otherwise, in the Arab and Muslim worlds, particularly involving the role of transnational media. He grasped the disruptive potential of border-hopping technologies even before many Western media executives and Arab dictators did. … Bin Laden was to Arab violence and dissent in the digital age what Adam Osborne was to laptop computers or Excite was to the search-engine business. He lacked the unifying ideas and insights required to build a sustainable community of followers, but, in some ways, he was ahead of his time.