Reading Bin Laden in Abbottabad

A fast look at Bin Laden’s bookshelf reveals why the dead Al Qaeda leader continues to fascinate me and so many others. Some of the books present a conspiratorial view of American foreign policy that seems more at home on a left-wing professor’s bookshelf than in a compound in Pakistan. Others are serious looks at the problem of terrorism, insurgency, and warfare in general with notable authors such as C. Christine Fair and Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown and Brookings’ own Michael O’Hanlon. Bin Laden also appeared to follow the more serious foreign policy journals. Taken together, the readings show a man trying to understand his adversary and, in so doing, tailor his own strategy to exploit its weaknesses.

This set of readings meshes well with what we already known from many of Bin Laden’s public talks and private remarks attributed to him. Many of Al Qaeda’s terrorist attacks were intended to undermine American public support for U.S. government policies in the Middle East. Bin Laden understood that the United States was not a monolith and often tried to pitch his deeds to sway or intimidate the American people: in addition to threatening endless attacks, his speeches cited climate change as well as U.S. support for Israel, and he would even reference arcana like the size of the American supplemental budget. It’s hard to imagine another jihadist leader like the Islamic State’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi displaying a similar curiosity.

Yet at the same time the letters reveal what we all now know: the movement was moving beyond him and outside of Al Qaeda’s control. Bin Laden cautioned against creating an Islamic state, called for a focus on the United States, warned against excessive brutality against other Muslims, and otherwise emphasized an agenda that has less resonance among today’s jihadists.

In the end, of course, Bin Laden failed fundamentally to drive the United States out of the Middle East, perhaps because he misread public opinion and believed too much in conspiracy. The violence he perpetrated worked against him, making Americans determined to crush his movement even if it meant expanding the U.S. role in the Middle East.