Revealed: Bin Laden wasn't running Al Qaeda anymore

The bad news: This marks yet another error about OBL foisted upon us by U.S. intel after his demise. Remember this story a few days after the raid describing his compound as “an active command and control center” from which he directed Al Qaeda? In reality, it was more like a far-flung shut-in issuing battlefield orders to people who no longer took him particularly seriously. File that away with the early reports of him living in a “mansion” or brandishing a weapon when the SEALs broke though his door.

The good news: This piece fills me with the warm, fuzzy sense of well-being that usually comes only from watching viral videos of kittens playing. What sweeter fate could there have been for this degenerate megalomaniac than to become an afterthought in his own jihadi mafia? He spent years locked in windowless rooms scribbling orders for people who apparently had no intention of acting on them. And he must have realized that at some point; he was watching TV so he knew that no one was launching any major attacks. Imagine the mindset of a guy who, within five years, went from the perverse glory of knocking down the World Trade Center and becoming the world’s most famous terrorist to being trapped in a house with his wives and kids, unable to get his own followers to return his calls. We did him a favor by killing him.

Contradicting the assertions of some American officials that bin Laden was running a “command and control” center from the walled compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, officials say that bin Laden clearly wasn’t in control of al Qaida, though he was trying to remain involved or at least influential.

“He was like the cranky old uncle that people weren’t listening to,” said a U.S. official, who’d been briefed on the evidence collected from the Abbottabad compound and who spoke only on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “The younger guys had never worked directly with him. They did not take everything he said as right.”…

The data provided no “smoking gun” that Pakistani intelligence or other Pakistani officials knew of bin Laden’s presence in the house. The computer records also lend credence to long-held beliefs that bin Laden’s longtime deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, who was named al Qaida’s leader earlier this month, had been much more involved and important to the group’s operations than bin Laden had been in the last several years.

“He wanted to stay involved,” the U.S. official said of bin Laden. “He was corresponding with a lot of senior (al Qaida) people, correcting perceptions, giving advice. He remained important as a symbol, sending out instructions, giving spiritual guidance.”

To repeat a question I asked after the raid, what exactly was this guy’s plan? Where did he think the long years of self-imposed house arrest in the compound would lead? If he wanted to stay involved in AQ, there was a path available to him: Rejoin the fight. Head to the tribal areas, make contact with jihadis along the border, and reassert yourself as a man willing to risk his life to be the tip of the Wahhabist spear. He didn’t do it. How come? Too gutless, or was he deep in the weeds of fantasy, thinking that Pakistan would crumble around him and the new jihadi government would give him a safe haven where he could move about? Why not at least start churning out lots more audio and (especially) video messages to remind the world that you’re alive and still in the mix? Rejoin the propaganda fight, at least. The fact that the SEALs found recordings in the compound that had never been aired by AQ makes me wonder if maybe he was trying to do just that and the new powers that be — Zawahiri or whoever else — were suppressing the tapes in order to keep Bin Laden offstage. In fact, journey back in time with me to September 2007, when Newsweek published a sensational but seemingly far-fetched account of a power struggle at the top of Al Qaeda. Bin Laden vs. Zawahiri, round one:

Lonely, marginalized and suddenly suspicious that he was losing his grip over the organization he helped create, Osama bin Laden finally decided that enough was enough. At least that’s the explanation sources close to him are giving for why, after three long years of silence, the Qaeda leader has released one video and two audiotapes in the past month, including last week’s audio message calling for a jihad against Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. According to Omar Farooqi, a Taliban liaison officer with Al Qaeda, bin Laden recently learned that a faction within his own organization had been conspiring to sideline him, insisting—unnecessarily, bin Laden now believes—that he remain secluded for security reasons. CIA officials told NEWSWEEK they could neither confirm nor reject the theory.

Bin Laden had long been chafing at this imposed gag order, says Farooqi, who learned from Sheik Saeed, Al Qaeda’s senior leader in Afghanistan, and other top operatives that bin Laden became “extremely upset” earlier this year when he discovered that some of his lieutenants feared he was dead…

Farooqi refused to say which faction bin Laden believes is responsible for the so-called conspiracy, though several Taliban sources pointed to Ayman Al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s deputy, suggesting that he might have been trying to solidify his own authority.

That’s remarkably consistent with the image of a sidelined Bin Laden provided by McClatchy today. One thing that gives me pause is that if OBL and Zawahiri were already this alienated four years ago, presumably one of them would have dropped a dime on the other at some point and let the U.S. eliminate his chief competition. Likewise, would AQ have named Zawahiri its new emir if he really was guilty of trying to push the famously charismatic Bin Laden into the background? Zawahiri’s known to be an abrasive jackass even by jihadi standards, so Newsweek’s old scoop may simply have been a smear aimed at him from Taliban types who didn’t like him, but if it’s true that he was on the outs with Bin Laden and Al Qaeda promoted him anyway, that’s the best evidence yet of how little loyalty remained to OBL inside the group.

Update: A great point in the comments from “Sgt Steve”:

Ponder this for a moment: If the timelines line up properly, his move toward irrelevance coincides with the step-up in violence against fellow Muslims by terrorists in Iraq and elsewhere.

So al Qaeda may have been taken over by thugs more vicious than ever bin Laden.

Could be, and it could also be that the battlespace for jihadis in Iraq (and Afghanistan) became so kinetic that it was impossible for OBL or any other remote leader to exercise much influence over it. Which is not to say that that’s necessarily a good thing — arguably a more diffuse, decentralized Al Qaeda is more dangerous than a tightly knit one — but it would help explain Bin Laden’s growing irrelevance.