David Ignatius' Friday column, in which he starts to chew over the contents of recently declassified documents seized from Osama bin Laden's Abbottabad compound during the now-celebrated May 2, 2011, raid that claimed the al Qaeda chief's life, is likely to garner the lion's share of attention for its description of an ornate, never-carried-out plan to shoot down "the aircraft of President Obama and Gen. David H. Petraeus." Bin Laden's aim, in that instance, was apparently to get Vice President Joe Biden installed as president.
"Biden," bin Laden reckoned, "is totally unprepared for that post, which will lead the U.S. into a crisis." That's a pretty interesting take, considering that a President Biden would have likely supported a swift end to the United States' counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, which is currently chewing up resources that might be put to better use against the threat of al Qaeda's terrorist death-cult.
But you really must read beyond the column's lede in order to get to the real meat of Ignatius' effort, a lengthy and often vertigo-inducing reminder of the banality of evil.
Al Qaeda, boy howdy, back in the day, they had big plans. Once a scrappy upstart in the terrorist game, under the leadership of Osama bin Laden, they'd grown into a network capable of striking existential fear in the mightiest of nations. But it seems like at some point, success and infamy bred nothing but ennui in their visionary leader, who spent the last days of his life in Pakistan, "dreaming" of "spectacular" attacks, but dictating "garbled" memos to his wives and basically trying to manage his organization's global operations -- the self-styled terrorist mastermind stuck in the role of branch manager. Ignatius writes:
The bin Laden who emerges from these communications is a terrorist CEO in an isolated compound, brooding that his organization has ruined its reputation by killing too many Muslims in its jihad against America. He writes of the many departed "brothers" who have been lost to U.S. drone attacks. But he's far from the battlefield himself in his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where he seems to spend considerable time watching television.
What had bin Laden's life become? Ignatius writes that he spent his days applying a "managerial focus," working from an al Qaeda org-chart, worrying about messaging problems, and growing especially concerned about al Qaeda's "brand." As Ignatius relates, the al Qaeda brand had suffered significant damage because ... well, because of all the aforementioned Muslims he'd brutally murdered, as you might imagine. And that problem was further compounded by the fact that the Obama administration had "largely stopped using the phrase 'the war on terror' in the context of not wanting to provoke Muslims," opting instead to promote "a war against al-Qaeda."
Bin Laden actually undertook a rebranding exercise, proposing a list of alternative organizational names "that would not easily be shortened to a word that does not represent us." There's precedent actually for changing your brand identity after killing innocent people. It's called "pulling a Blackwater."
Ignatius says violent intl network considered changing its name after killing civilians in Iraq damaged brand. Xe was taken, though.
— Ryan Grim (@ryangrim) March 16, 2012
One obviously wonders what else remains to be discovered from this cache of corporate memoranda. What did bin Laden think about his organization's mostly ridiculed foray into print media? Did he consider applying Lean Six Sigma to his operation to promote efficiencies? Who was al Qaeda's "social media consultant," and when will he be speaking at the annual TED conference?
Perhaps one day we'll know the answers to these questions. In the meantime, I think we can all take away an important lesson here. As it turns out, working in the shadows to bring about the destruction of society isn't too terribly fulfilling. I imagine Greg Smith would agree.
READ THE WHOLE THING:
The bin Laden plot to kill President Obama [David Ignatius @ WaPo]
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