Our studies led us to conclude several years go that Osama bin Laden has played little role in directing the operations of al Qaeda since being driven from Afghanistan by the U.S military. Now we have learned, perhaps it would be better to say – now we have been told – there were no telephone or cable connections between his modest home in Pakistan and the outside world. Cell phones were banned from existence anywhere in the compound. Further we have been told, bin Laden had never ventured outside of the house in more than five years.
Directing a vast organization like al Qaeda requires constant communication. It cannot be run by carrier pigeon or an occasional courier. Furthermore, should a friend or rival seek to wrest control, it would be impossible to prevent while confined to sitting in an armchair at home.
Ayman al Zawahiri is a clever operator who usurped power from a partner before he joined Osama’s al Qaeda. He has proven himself to be a wise director of clandestine terrorist operations. He is quite unlike Osama, who was was a softly spoken, albeit very radical, Islamist with a lot of money. Osama was born into one of the wealthiest and most respected families in the Arab world. However, His primary contribution to al Qaeda was as a fundraiser. His personal wealth was limited when compared to what he was able to raise from others.
When Osama was still in his teens, his radicalism became a concern within his own family and to some in the ruling Saudi family as well. As his activities grew he became persona non grata in his homeland, in Egypt and the Sudan. He had become a “hot potato” that no one nation wanted, not even President Clinton when the Sudanese offered him up. That was before 911, of course. He finally found acceptance in a country run by an equally radical leader, Muhammad Omar, head of the Taliban and in control of Afghanistan at the time.
But bin Laden’s money was running out and so was his effectiveness as a fundraiser. His greatest value to the terrorist organization he founded was always his wealth and his fame. By the time he was driven from Afghanistan, by the U.S. military, all that was left was his fame. Al Zawahiri went from de facto leader of al Qaeda to absolute leader in fact. Bin Laden’s name and mystique were preserved with an occasional release of a video tape. Also, judging by the glimpse we’ve had of the furnishings of his home for the last several years, it appears he was no longer given much respect even by his one-time second in command.