Sunday, May 8, 2011

Osama bin Laden, this was your life

The Special Forces May 1 takedown of the world’s foremost terrorist in Afghanistan has reportedly yielded the United States and its allies a bounty of intelligence: documents, hard drives, DVDs and other info that’s sure to be useful against any reconfigured al-Qaida (AQ 2.0?) in the war on terrorism.

One piece of this intel, just released to the public, stands out. It’s arresting the first time you see it: a home video of Osama bin Laden sitting in a drab room, shrouded under a blanket, one hand on a remote control and watching a woefully small, bargain-basement, rabbit ears-era television set hooked up via various cables to a satellite hookup. Osama sits watching news footage of his own exploits and travels, quietly regarding the impact and consequences of his own handiwork on Sept. 11, 2001.

It’s a meta- media moment — Osama observes Osama — with precursors in the wider culture. Seeing it, you can’t help but think of Norma Desmond rattling around in her own private Elba in “Sunset Boulevard,” watching herself in her silent-era heyday on the dropdown wall of an in-home screening room — “I’m still big, it’s the pictures that got small!”

Or maybe you think of Warren Beatty’s fictional but compelling interpretation of mobster and Las Vegas entrepreneur Bugsy Siegel being murdered by nine shots from an unknown assailant in Beverly Hills in June 1947, while watching a projection of himself reading movie lines. Bugsy Siegel, this was your life.

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While it’s to be somewhat expected — criminals are known for watching the news to observe reaction to the crimes they’ve just committed — the Osama video is both ironic and almost comic. This most elusive and publicity-allergic terrorist on the planet sits watching Arabic-language news feeds of his own distant or recent past.

Without the necessary context of this silent video, Osama could be anyone — an actor in his trailer watching the video playback of a scene he just shot for a movie; an everyday man watching the news with one hand on the remote and the other deep in the popcorn; an armed robber looking at the surveillance feed of his own crime.

The White House and the Pentagon will be poring over the collection gathered during the Abbottabad raid for months. You can bet there’s actionable intelligence that the United States and its allies will eventually find useful.

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Al-Qaida has released other videos, of course, updates, mission statements, opportunities to gloat from a secret undisclosed location. As U.S. officials look at Obama’s self-referential home video— another meta moment: them watching Osama watch Osama — they’ll be watching intel into the al-Qaida of the past, and the mind and psyche of the operational leader and spiritual sparkplug of the world’s pre-eminent terrorist organization.

But that video’s also a likely glimpse into the behavioral patterns into the al-Qaida of the future: a brain trust not heroically sequestered in caves but comfortably ensconced in houses and compounds; not indifferent to the media’s perception of the organization, but very much attuned to it, after all these years, as avid students of the very Western media they purport to abhor.

Image credits: Bin Laden: Department of Defense via ABC News. Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard: © Paramount Pictures.

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