Originally published on The Agonist
The non-state actor. That’s what he was called in the 1990s, before he became universally known as a mass murderer. Academics used it as a euphemistic term for an individual who took on state power, before they came up with the phrase ‘asymmetric warfare.” Osama Bin Laden was, if not the inventor of asymmetric warfare, the master of the technique, the man who single-handedly took on the world’s hyperpower.
How much more asymmetric could you get by spending $200,000 to bring down the globe’s colossus? In one terrifying morning Osama Bin Laden killed nearly 3,000 Americans, some of them tortured to death - forced to choose between being burnt alive or jumping to their death from 96 stories. In the process, he sent the United States on a path of self-destruction, as the nation lost its way between two schizophrenic and conflicting impulses: living in perpetual fear of terrorists, or strutting about the world stage with military bravado, killing hundreds of thousands of invisible, innocent men, women, and children because they were Muslims.
How ironic that they weren’t even Osama Bin Laden’s sort of Muslims. He had no use for modern Sunni Islamic practices of tolerance; he had even less use for the heretical doctrines of Shi’ite Islam, even though this is the branch of Islam that glorifies the jihadist martyrdom that Bin Laden always expected, quite correctly, to be his fate. His was an irredentist longing for Islam of the 13th century, when the West was still slumbering in medieval torpor, while Baghdad, Cairo and Damascus were powerful forces in a vast empire run with stern moral rectitude.
Flawed Notion of History
Scholars always said that Bin Laden’s image of Islam under the Caliphs was romantically flawed. The Islamic empire thrived because it was as much secular as religious. Caliphs ruled in hedonistic splendor, while Jews kept the finances flowing and the accounting accurate. Bin Laden imagined a very different world, one similar to what the Taliban imposed when they conquered Afghanistan and gave shelter to this refugee of the earlier war against the Soviet Union. Women stayed at home under the Taliban and were afforded no education. Adult males were required to grow unkempt beards. Music in electronic form was forbidden, as were movies. Infractions were punished with the lash or the loss of an arm, and civil law ceased to exist. All jurisprudence was handed down by Muslim scholars working under the arbitrary laws of Sharia.
Afghanistan quickly found itself back in the 13th century, and living conditions sunk to the subsistence level, except for someone like Bin Laden, who had millions of dollars inherited from his wealthy Saudi family, and who had his own empire to run, which he called al Qaeda. To his compound outside of Kabul, he invited young jihadists to join his movement and receive training in the arts of asymmetric warfare. The Taliban gave these men free movement in and out of the country, and they gave Bin Laden the luxury to plot his next attack on Western interests.
This one, he promised some of his trusted associates, was going to be something big. That it involved the World Trade Center surprised no one; Bin Laden had been obsessed by these symbols of American capitalism for at least a decade when he began low-scale bombings on the structures. This was something on an altogether different scale: the use of passenger aircraft as guided bombs, flown directly into the buildings by al Qaeda warriors chosen for their willingness to become martyrs for the cause.
According to some reports, even Bin Laden was taken by surprise by the success of the attack. Neither he nor his lieutenants had enough engineering background to expect that both towers would collapse in a fearsome and drawn-out inferno, dooming even the firefighters who braved the buildings’ staircases in order to evacuate as many as possible. It was the single most deadly and devastating attack on American soil ever.
Bin Laden reveled in the attention as senior members of the jihadist movement came to Afghanistan to pay homage to the mastermind of such a blow to United States prestige and morale. These visits quickly came to an end. Bin Laden was now a hunted man, and was supposedly offered up by the Taliban to prevent an American invasion of their country. He fled east, across the border to Pakistan, avoiding narrowly an attack by the Americans at Tora Bora, a small border village.
He was described by President Bush as a man constantly on the go, trusting no one, living in caves in desperate circumstances. This did not correspond to what the West knew about him: that he had a large entourage of family and supporters with him, and most importantly, that he relied on a dialysis machine to stay alive. In practical terms, this was a non-state actor who needed state support to keep himself and his movement operating.
This was one of the great paradoxes of Bin Laden’s career – the non-state actor who required and found state succor at critical moments of his life. At first it was the Taliban as rulers of Afghanistan, but then it was the Pakistani government, the regime which consistently supported the Taliban for its own strategic reasons. Possibly from 2005 on, but at least sometime after that date, Osama Bin Laden found safety and comfort in a large compound located in a upper-class retirement community for Pakistani military officers. He was less than 800 yards from Pakistan’s premier military officers school.
Someone high up in Pakistani military and/or government circles had to know about Bin Laden’s residence in such a secure location. Someone high up had to provide him with a sufficient amount of security that the man could live in one place for a long period of time, surfacing now and then only in the form of cryptic video statements that showed he was well aware of global political developments, despite the fact his compound was not wired for telephone or internet service.
It is important to get to the facts, though we may never shall, as to who or which Pakistani institutions comforted Bin Laden, because it will answer the question why there have been no other non-state actors like him. Perhaps the whole meme needs to be rethought. Either Osama Bin Laden will go down in history as an extraordinary individual who single-handedly waged spectacularly successful attacks on the United States, or he was some government’s tool, provided safe haven and access to resources (especially to his bank account) for the purpose of exercising terrorism in furtherance ultimately of that government’s policies.
Another telling argument against viewing Osama Bin Laden as a brilliant non-state actor was the nature of the 9/11 attacks themselves. They had a certain tactical genius to them, but were strategically deeply flawed. Their success was due in part to Bin Laden’s organization finding a way to train two or three men each to commandeer and then pilot complex modern commercial airplanes into very specific targets, as if they were guided missiles. But the chief element of success was the use of surprise; passengers could not have contemplated that these hijackers were on a suicide mission and that everyone was doomed. When, through the use of cell phones the passengers on the fourth plane found out the true nature of their fate, they attacked the cockpit because they had nothing to lose. They lost their lives anyway, but in a farm field in Pennsylvania rather than as a missile aimed at the Capitol dome.
This was a strategic failure of the first magnitude. Bin Laden used the principal weapon of the terrorist movement – the airplane hijacking – in a unique and unexpected way. It was also doomed to be a one-off event, depriving the jihadist movement of a valuable tool, because henceforth all passengers and flight crew would assume a hijacking had to be ended by they themselves in flight if they had any hope of surviving.
There have been no successful airplane hijackings since 9/11. For that matter, the use of suicide jihadists has died out too. Hamas has ceased to use this tactic against Israel, perhaps because as the evidence has shown, the people willing to blow themselves up aren’t really doing so for the cause, but because of personal circumstances such as depression or psychological disorder. Hamas, it should be said, is the only large political organization to laud Bin Laden as a martyr, but Hamas is at least a quasi state actor which aspires to lead the Palestinians in a recognized national government.
In the fullness of time historians may look back at Osama Bin Laden’s career as marking the end of the modern terrorist era, or at least of terrorism as practiced by Islamic jihadist extremists. It will be a very fortunate thing if Bin Laden has taken the strategy to its logical but ultimately self-defeating conclusion. The modern world can get back to air travel without the current intense security intrusions, and countries may be able to cede back to their people some of the freedoms lost during the terrorist decades (though it is probably too late for the United States government to give up the police state it has now installed).
Whatever the ultimate conclusions about Osama Bin Laden as a non-state actor, the fundamental fact remains that the world was very lucky that he was not a state actor – a man in charge of the power and tools of modern government. Bin Laden had the absolute confidence in the rightness of his thinking and his actions, and he had a psychopathic and ruthless disdain for the lives he was taking, that he might have become a Hitler or a Stalin, or perhaps a Pol Pot willing to murder his own citizens for the purpose of ideological purity.
No doubt Osama Bin Laden rehearsed in his mind many times his final scene, so that when US special forces invaded his bedroom with weapons raised, Bin Laden chose to fight, confident that in his martyrdom the pure of heart would be motivated by anger and revenge to rise up and restore the 13th century Caliphate to the Islamic world. Fanatics like Bin Laden always go to their grave holding fast to the illusions that propelled them in their adult lives to take radical measures. The world, meanwhile, goes on, rarely choosing to believe in the fanatical vision unless it somehow offers immediate answers to pressing questions of food, shelter, and clothing.
Osama Bin Laden offered none of these things. He offered asceticism and ultimate martyrdom to the men who followed him, and to the women he offered far less: a world of permanent subservience to the men in their lives. And to give the world these things, he chose mass murder and fear as his signature weapons. And this is how the world will remember him.