Commentary: Osama Bin Laden's rebranding of al-Qaida

Osama bin Laden is seen in this screen grab from Al-Jazeera's satellite channel a day before the second anniversary of the September 11 attacks.
Osama bin Laden is seen in this screen grab from Al-Jazeera's satellite channel a day before the second anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Balkis Press/Abaca Press/MCT

One thinks of that scene from "The Wizard of Oz" where Toto pulls back the curtain and the "great and powerful Oz" is revealed to be only an old man manipulating a smoke and fire machine. "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!" bellows the Wizard as the man tries to pull the covering back into place.

One suspects that if he were not reposing in a watery grave just now, Osama bin Laden would be doing something very similar. After all, in the two months since he was killed in a raid by Navy SEALs, American officials have released a series of revelations deeply unflattering to his image as a terrorist mastermind.

There's the unseemly vanity of him dyeing his beard when he recorded the video manifestoes through which he spoke to the world. There's the captured video in which he comes across as an old man — though he was only 54 — huddled beneath a blanket watching himself on television.

There's the report that the raid on the home of this supposedly ascetic, strictly observant Muslim turned up a cache of pornography.

But in some ways, arguably the most telling revelation is the most recent. U.S. officials poring over bin Laden's writings say the world's No. 1 terrorist had concluded that he — or, more accurately, al-Qaida — had an image problem.

Having killed too many Muslims, the group had, he thought, alienated much of the Muslim world. Murdering your customer base will tend to have that effect.

So bin Laden, who loudly scorned American ideals, proposed a very American solution. Call it an extremist makeover. Like Philip Morris and ValuJet when those names became tarnished, like Kentucky Fried Chicken and Gatorade when they wanted to add some zazz to ancient corporate logos, bin Laden wanted to rename al-Qaida. Something like Taifat al-Tawhed Wal-Jihad, he wrote. Or Jama'at I'Adat al-Khilafat al-Rashida. Something snazzy like that.

It suggests the United States was doing better in the battle for Muslim hearts and minds than most of us thought. And taken together, the revelations also suggest a rather Don Draper-like cynicism lurking at the heart of religious extremism.

The reference is to the troubled 1960s advertising exec who is the protagonist of AMC's popular drama, "Mad Men." You get the flavor of him from something he told a woman in an early episode: "What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons." Similarly, what some frustrated Muslims call devotion to faith was invented by guys like bin Laden to sell mass murder. If we are lucky, that lesson will not be lost on them.

There are two particularly effective methods for manipulating people.

The first is to create fear. Fearful people — the last decade of American history proves this — are easily stampeded. The second method is to create an image that moves people to act in a desired way.

Bin Laden had mastered both. In a sense, he put on a show, one that enjoyed a regrettably long run before the SEALs closed it for good. If we of the Western world were the intended audience for his performance, one hopes, now that the curtain has been pulled back and the wizard revealed, the disaffected Muslims he used as cannon fodder and pawns will see the obvious: They were, too.


Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.