[12 September 2010]
Following September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden became a near-mythical figure, his image multiplying to infinity around the world. Then he vanished. As former C.I.A. field officer Robert Baer puts it in ID Investigates: Why Is Bin Laden Alive?, “How does the most famous man in the world completely fall off the side of the earth?” The program’s answers to this question are prosaic, unsurprising to anyone with an interest in the topic. Yet, Why Is Bin Laden Alive? also reveals that its titular question is irrelevant, as bin Laden the mortal man matters less than bin Laden the media icon. Alive or dead, for whatever reasons, bin Laden retains his symbolic potency.
The documentary opens by comparing bin Laden to Adolf Eichmann, Radovan Karadžić, and Ted Kaczynski, all the targets of long-running manhunts. This unifying element elides their differences, however: Eichmann and Karadžić functioned within state apparatuses dedicated to war crimes and genocide, while Kaczynski waged a sporadic one-man terror campaign. The loose equivalence among the four suggests little concern for historical precision. Rather, the documentary offer three representative “bad guys”—never mind the differences in their crimes—and includes bin Laden as an equally indefensible figure.
Thus, here Eichmann stands in for Nazi atrocities and bin Laden represents al-Qaeda atrocities. This elevation—one man representing a movement, a cause—is precisely the source of bin Laden’s global appeal. As commentator “Dalton Fury” (an anonymous Delta Force commander) explains, al-Qaeda operatives in Tora Bora, Afghanistan crowded around their radios to hear bin Laden’s voice. As Fury described it, “Everybody gathered around like a rock star’s on television.”
Fury and his Delta Force squad failed to capture or kill bin Laden in Tora Bora, due in part to misplaced reliance on corrupt Afghan warlords. At the time, the C.I.A. knew these warlords had earlier ties to bin Laden. Despite paying millions of dollars to the Afghanis, U.S. forces lost out to bin Laden’s cultural cachet. He had a strong history in the region, while the U.S.—its highest civilian leadership, especially—stumbled through terra incognita.
This sense of unknowing runs through Why Is Bin Laden Alive? Afghanistan appears as an impassable desert, a place of tribal customs and communities impenetrable to outsiders. These very real geographic and cultural elements make it easier for bin Laden to avoid detection. He can rely on traditions of hospitality and sanctuary, and disappear into the rugged terrain. Baer says, “That part of the world—Afghanistan and Pakistan—is a black hole of information.”
The reference to “information” is revealing. Unlike certain types of intelligence or knowledge, information can be codified, rendered into databases. The response to not knowing in Why Is Bin Laden Alive? is repeatedly couched in terms of information-gathering. Where bin Laden has already won the hearts and minds of the indigenous culture, American intelligence looks for ever more impressive technological solutions. This sophistication gets confused with omniscience and omnipotence, even as commentators admit how little they know of bin Laden’s environs. On the crucial point of bin Laden’s ontology, an exasperated Baer says, “I talked to people at the C.I.A. and asked them the question whether he’s alive or dead… Roughly half of them said, ‘He’s dead, of course.’” The other half disagreed.
In pursuit of an answer to this question, Why Is Bin Laden Alive? engages in a bit of C.S.I.-style video analysis. Many audio- and videotapes have emerged since bin Laden’s last verified appearance in 2001. Michael Scheuer, former CIA officer and author of Through Our Enemies’ Eyes and Imperial Hubris, explains the detailed analysis each recording has undergone, including geologists identifying rocks and ornithologists identifying bird calls. As illustration, the documentary features an expert video analyst, who testifies using computer-comparison images. He declares the tapes genuine, thus proving that bin Laden is alive.
But even if he is alive, bin Laden still exists primarily as a media phenomenon, through the bearded image circling the globe as an ideological representative. As Hamid Gul, formerly of the Pakistani Intelligence Service, concludes, “In any case, al-Qaeda is now a franchise. It’s a global franchise, and whether Osama bin Laden is dead or alive really doesn’t matter.” Bin Laden’s image, and the ideology it represents, have already shaded into myth, beyond dead or alive.