In three recent colums for the Washington Post, David Ignatius reveals bits of two letters found in Osama bin Laden’s compound after the raid that killed him. One is a 48 page letter from bin Laden to Ilyas Kashmiri, a senior al Qaeda operative since killed in a drone strike. In the letter, bin Laden dispenses advice and dreams up potential terrorist acts, including a suggestion that al Qaeda teams shoot down planes carrying President Obama or General Petraeus, then the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Ignatius is doing some excellent reporting here, providing insight in bin Laden’s last days. But he inflates bin Laden’s stature, calling him a “terrorist CEO” and his feckless hope to kill Obama a “plot” that we should find “chilling.”
As I wrote in a letter published in Wednesday’s Post, Ignatius’s article reveals something closer to a fantasy than a “plot.” Ignatius notes that al Qaeda probably lacks the weapons to down standard military aircraft, let alone Air Force One. Additionally, it’s not clear that Kashmiri had the men to pull off the plan. We should not assume that he took these suggestions seriously rather than simply listening to bin Laden with strained patience, as with a cranky uncle. Perhaps the most absurd element of the letter is bin Laden’s political analysis. He argues that elevating Joe Biden to the presidency would somehow lead the U.S. into crisis rather than creating a massive rally-around-the-flag-effect.
This is a happy reminder of al Qaeda’s incompetence, not a chilling one. As John Mueller recently noted, the materials revealed about al Qaeda since bin Laden’s death are more evidence that the cunning, disciplined al Qaeda of popular imagination is a myth. Al Qaeda consists of disjointed groups of guys dodging drones and desperately trying to live up to their inflated reputation to terrorize. There is no true central command. That is clearly true today, and was likely the case even the al Qaeda’s 1990s heyday. That disorganization helps explain why most terrorism, even al Qaeda terrorism, is homegrown—mostly organized by small groups of people in the country where it occurs with little help from abroad. That gets you awful tragedies, as we saw this week in France, but hardly the apocalyptic nightmares we’ve been told to expect.
On April 13, Cato is holding a morning conference to explore homegrown terrorism, with one panel focusing on the United States and one on other western states. The panelists (including Mueller, Risa Brooks, Brian Jenkins, Glenn Carle, Michael Kenney and Mitchell Silber) will discuss, among other things, how al Qaeda’s lack of hierarchy affects its capacity to kill and terrorize. You can sign up here.