In Covering Bin Laden, editors Susan Jeffords and Fahed Yahya Al-Sumait collect perspectives from global scholars exploring a startling premise: that media depictions of Bin Laden not only diverge but often contradict each other, depending on the media provider and format, the place in which the depiction is presented, and the viewer's political and cultural background. The contributors analyze the representations of the many Bin Ladens, ranging from Al Jazeera broadcasts to video games. They examine the media's dominant role in shaping our understanding of terrorists and why/how they should be feared, and they engage with the ways the mosaic of Bin Laden images and narratives have influenced policies and actions around the world.
Contributors include Fahed Al-Sumait, Saranaz Barforoush, Aditi Bhatia, Purnima Bose, Ryan Croken, Simon Ferrari, Andrew Hill, Richard Jackson, Susan Jeffords, Joanna Margueritte-Giecewicz, Noha Mellor, Susan Moeller, Brigitte Nacos, Courtney C. Radsch, and Alexander Spencer.
|Publisher:||University of Illinois Press|
|Edition description:||1st Edition|
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Covering bin Laden
Global Media and the World's Most Wanted Man
By Susan Jeffords, Fahed Al-Sumait
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
Bin Laden's Ghost and the Epistemological Crises of Counterterrorism
As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown
The ones we don't know
We don't know.
—Donald Rumsfeld, February 12, 2002
Osama bin Laden remains one of the most recognized figures of this century. At the height of the war on terror, he received more media coverage than his opponent, President George W. Bush, and likely more than any other single newsmaker over the past ten years. At the same time, the United States government invested billions of dollars and vast human and material resources in the attempt to bring him to justice, arguing that as the mastermind, symbolic leader, and financier of the global jihadist movement and the individual most directly responsible for the 9/11 attacks, his death or capture was critical to winning the Global War on Terrorism. Given the intensity of this focus on the figure of Osama bin Laden, it is not surprising that the global media went into overdrive when he was killed by U.S. Special Forces in Pakistan in May 2011. Since then, a vast number of news stories, commentaries, articles, documentaries, books, comics, children's books, and even a feature film have been produced that describe and speculate on the meaning surrounding his death and its aftermath.
In this chapter, I argue that despite all the media attention, punditry, scholarly analysis, and official commentary, Osama bin Laden's death remains an essentially meaningless (non-)event or what Jean Baudrillard calls a simulacrum. That is, it is an event that at first appears to be a real, meaningful moment in world politics, whereas, in fact, closer analysis reveals that it is merely a symbolic imitation of a meaningful event—notwithstanding the "real" people killed and affected. This is evident, in part, in the way the events played out as a kind of espionage movie that the administration viewed like a regular film audience, while the global media in turn viewed the administration viewing the events. In what follows, I argue that Osama bin Laden's death is meaningless or without consequence in two main senses of the word.
First, it is most obviously meaningless in real-world strategic and material terms. For example, as a direct consequence of bin Laden's death, no counterterrorism programs have been scaled back or ended, counterterrorism laws repealed, military or security funding reduced, security agencies scaled down or closed, foreign training programs ended, overseas military forces withdrawn, or military bases closed. Instead, the global counterterrorism effort remains completely unchanged by his death and continues on as it has for the past ten years. It could even be argued that, if anything, the War on Terror continues to expand and intensify. Certainly, the secret drone program aimed at eliminating terrorists has grown over the past few years, new counterterrorism laws are regularly passed, surveillance programs and counterradicalization programs continue, security measures are rolled out into ever more areas of social life, and levels of spending on counterterrorism remain extremely high.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, I argue that bin Laden's death has, among other things, generated so many divergent meanings that it has been rendered ultimately meaningless in terms of its analytical consequences, symbolism, and epistemological significance. Popularly, it is frequently asserted that events speak for themselves and that their meanings are obvious. The reality, however, at least in this case, is that no one knows what bin Laden's death at the hands of U.S. Special Forces really means. Does it signal the destruction of Al Qaeda and the jihadist movement? Does it mean the War on Terror has finally been won? Does it represent the administration of justice for the 9/11 victims? Is it a strategic blow for Al Qaeda and its allies, or merely a symbolic blow? Or, alternately, does it mean that the jihadist movement now has a potent new symbolic martyr to inspire it? Does it signal that Al Qaeda has morphed into a new form and is as deadly as ever? What does it say about Pakistan's role as an ally in the war on extremism?
The uncertainty surrounding the interpretation of bin Laden's death—as well as the not insignificant uncertainty about the manner of his death—can be seen in the often ambivalent or even contradictory statements about what it really means for the ongoing struggle against terrorism and, more broadly, the Obama administration's handling of national security issues. For example, not long after bin Laden's death, an official report stated that "U.S. counterterrorism officials are increasingly convinced that the killing of Osama bin Laden and the toll of seven years of CIA drone strikes have pushed al Qaeda to the brink of collapse." However, the same report concluded that "al-Qaeda might yet rally and that even its demise would not end the terrorist threat." In other words, officials are fundamentally unsure whether bin Laden's death is a significant blow to the group or, even if it is, whether this means that the threat of terrorism will decrease.
Of course, this argument does not negate the numerous ways in which politicians and security officials have attempted to exploit the death of the Al Qaeda leader for political—particularly, electoral—capital or the way many U.S. citizens chose to interpret it as a kind of moral victory. From this perspective, the death of bin Laden has been enormously significant for political elites and sections of the public, and reflects a genuine desire to construct the events as meaningful. However, as I suggest below, efforts to construct the event as important and meaningful do not necessarily resolve the deeper epistemological crises the events inevitably demonstrate.
This puzzle—why there is little consensus on the meaning and significance of bin Laden's death, how it can be claimed to be both significant and insignificant at the same time, and the political struggle to imbue it with meaning—provides the analytical focus of this chapter. It is my contention that this profound ontological uncertainty, and the essential meaninglessness of Osama bin Laden's physical death in any material or strategic sense, were inevitable or at least highly probable. This is because the particular counterterrorism paradigm constructed and institutionalized after 9/11 made real knowledge and meaning about Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden impossible. The central reasons for this are that bin Laden's death occurred in the midst of two key epistemological crises: first, the epistemological crisis surrounding Al Qaeda and the figure of Osama bin Laden himself; and second, the deeper and more pervasive epistemological crisis affecting counterterrorism more generally. In other words, I am arguing that in a context in which we do not really know what Al Qaeda is or signifies and, more importantly, what terrorism itself is or signifies, it was therefore always going to be impossible to know what the death of the world's most famous terrorist meant or signified.
Unknowing Al Qaeda
As Christina Hellmich has incisively demonstrated, there has never been a clear consensus on what Al Qaeda actually is at the ontological level—what its nature and threat actually consist of. Is it a structured organization, a diffused network, a franchise, an ideology, or a figment of the Western imagination? Does it pose an existential threat, a strategic threat, or is it really little more than an irritant? Is it driven by religious extremism, nationalism, or political grievances? In other words, officials, security practitioners, and terrorism experts have never been able to agree on what the term "Al Qaeda" represents or means in real-world material, strategic, or political terms, and they have put forward ontologically opposing descriptions and explanations of this thing called "Al Qaeda." For example, government officials in many countries, especially the United States, as well as terrorism experts like Rohan Gunaratna and Bruce Hoffman, have put forward the view that Al Qaeda consists of a hierarchically organized inner core leadership, surrounded by a second level of loyal cadres and a wider network of supporters and links to other groups. In this view, Al Qaeda is an organization in the traditional understanding of the term, and Osama bin Laden was its charismatic leader.
A second perspective comes from terrorism experts like Jeffrey Cozzens and Magnus Ranstorp, who argue that Al Qaeda is not a hierarchically organized group, but rather a diffused and amorphous functional network with numerous nodal points and genuine adaptability. Marc Sageman's notion of "leaderless jihad" is a variant of this perspective, suggesting that Al Qaeda primarily consists of self-motivated individuals and small cells linked largely by ideology and aims. These scholars point to the spread of Al Qaeda branches around the world and the growing number of plots perpetrated by self-radicalized individuals. Ontologically, a diffused network or leaderless resistance is something quite different to a formal organization. Within this perspective, Osama bin Laden played a relatively insignificant role in the actions and continued existence of Al Qaeda, and therefore his death is probably of minor significance.
A third perspective from terrorism experts such as Peter Bergen and Fawaz Gerges views Al Qaeda as one branch of a much broader international jihadist movement, but suggests that it is by now a spent force within that wider movement. While it may have once been quite influential and effective, it is today largely irrelevant and impotent, regardless of its real form or actual capabilities. This viewpoint is based on the observation that the group has failed to launch or claim any major attacks for several years now and presently appears to rely solely on amateurish plots by lone self-radicalizers such as Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Detroit Christmas Day bomber. It is also based on an analysis of the so-called Arab Spring in which it has been noted that Al Qaeda and jihadist groups like it have played virtually no role and have been politically marginalized.
A fourth perspective shared by a few experts such as Jason Burke and Christina Hellmich views Al Qaeda as part of a broader pan-Islamist movement upon which it is parasitic, and which it tries to inspire and lead, to greater or lesser effect. From this perspective, Al Qaeda is more of an ideological framework and source of inspiration, rather than a structured and materially embedded organization or network.
Other crucial areas of disagreement among experts include the nature of Al Qaeda's ideological drivers and its broader aims and goals. Most officials and a great many scholars and terrorism experts argue that Al Qaeda is a religiously motivated, anti-modern, extremist actor with essentially otherworldly goals and aspirations related to converting the world to Islam and reestablishing the Caliphate. Others suggest that it is a completely modernist project and is driven primarily by concrete political grievances related to Western foreign policy. Similarly, while many scholars and officials still consider Al Qaeda to be a significant threat to Western society, others argue that recent terrorist plots demonstrate that jihadists are, for the most part, "incompetent, ineffective, unintelligent, idiotic, ignorant, unorganized, misguided, muddled, amateurish, dopey, unrealistic, moronic, irrational and foolish," and that Al Qaeda "has only a handful of individuals capable of planning, organizing and leading a terrorist organization," and "its capabilities are far inferior to its desires."
The key point is that these different perspectives deploy different data and evidence to support their claims and, more importantly, rely on competing ontological conceptions of what Al Qaeda actually is. Moreover, such radically divergent understandings of Al Qaeda clearly have profound consequences for counterterrorism policy: if Al Qaeda is a diffused nodal network with genuine capabilities to cause destruction, for example, it will require completely different counterterrorism strategies than if it is a broader ideology without a central material organization or the capability to launch physical attacks. Such differences are also consequential for assessing the impact of bin Laden's death: if he is the leader of a functional organization, for example, his death will be of greater significance than if he is only a symbolic figurehead in a dispersed global network.
In the end, these divergent explanations and understandings of one of the most studied and targeted groups in the world provide clear evidence that there is an epistemological crisis regarding Al Qaeda. It is, despite all the research and study by all the experts and special agents assigned to countering it, an essentially unknown entity. In the words of Donald Rumsfeld quoted at the start of this chapter, Al Qaeda is one of the "known unknowns" of the current terrorist threat: we know it exists, but we do not know exactly how dangerous it is or what they really want. This is the first epistemological crisis that makes the death of Osama bin Laden a non-event and essentially meaningless. If experts and counterterrorism officials do not know what Al Qaeda really is, then they cannot know what role bin Laden played in the organization/network/ franchise/ideology; and if they do not know what role he played, then they cannot know what significance or meaning his death has.
The Epistemological Crisis of Counterterrorism
It could be argued that the inability of terrorism experts and officials to determine what role Osama bin Laden played in Al Qaeda and what his death signifies is simply normal intellectual disagreement about actors and a phenomenon that is shrouded in secrecy and a lack of hard data and information. However, the sheer volume of analysis on Al Qaeda over the past ten years and the profound ontological basis of the disagreement would appear to throw doubt on such a simplistic explanation. Instead, I argue that this lack of consensus is, together with a range of other examples of profound uncertainty and unknowing about terrorists and the threat they pose, emblematic of the broader counterterrorism paradigm that has been in operation since the 9/11 attacks. This is the second epistemological crisis within which the death of Osama bin Laden occurred, and it further helps to explain why his death remains essentially meaningless.
In addition to the uncertainty of officials and experts about Al Qaeda's nature described above, the prevalence of fantasy in counterterrorism thought and practice is another indicator of the current epistemological crisis of terrorism. As a number of scholars have recently shown, fantasy, exaggeration, hypercaution and even forms of magical realism are now central themes in counterterrorism and security practice, and bizarre fantasy-imbued behavior by security officials seems to occur on a daily basis. For example, in addition to examples of security officials at airports searching very elderly passengers and babies' diapers, and re-x-raying any book considered suspicious, serious discussions have taken place about the possibility that terrorists could introduce biological weapons into the water supply through fire hydrants, that they might use hang gliders to deliver suicide bombs into urban areas, that candy machines might be vulnerable to terrorists, and that hundreds of American amusement and water parks are all vulnerable to terrorist attack. What these and many other cases illustrate is the key role of fantasy in counterterrorism; that is, officials imagining unrealistic—or at least exaggerated or reality-enhanced—possible terrorist scenarios and then treating them as real threats requiring a material response from officials.
Excerpted from Covering bin Laden by Susan Jeffords, Fahed Al-Sumait. Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: After bin Laden Susan Jeffords Fahed Al-Sumait vii
Part I Defining Political Actors
1 Bin Ladens Ghost and the Epistemological Crises of Counterterrorism Richard Jackson 3
2 The Discursive Portrayals of Osama bin Laden Aditi Bhatia 20
3 The bin Laden Tapes Andrew Hill 35
Part II Comparing Global News Media
4 Words and War: Al Jazeera and Al Qaeda Courtney C. Radsch 55
5 Metaphorizing Terrorism: Al Qaeda in German and British Tabloids Alexander Spencer 73
6 The Myth of the Terrorist as a Lover: Competing Regional Media Frames Noha Mellor 95
7 Images of Our Dead Enemies: Visual Representations of bin Laden, Hussein, and el-Qaddafi Susan Moeller Joanna Nurmis Saranaz Barforoush 112
Part III Engaging Popular Cultures
8 Without Osama: Tere bin Laden and the Critique of the War on Terror Purnima Bose 143
9 Obama bin Laden [sic]: How to Win the War on Terror #likeaboss Ryan Croken 161
10 Congratulations! You Have Killed Osama bin Laden!! Simon Ferrari 183
11 Muslims in America and the Post-9/11 Terrorism Debates: Media and Public Opinion Brigitte L. Nacos 211
Epilogue: After bin Laden: Zero Dark Thirty Susan Jeffords Fahed Al-Sumait 235