A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, May 2, 2011

Bin Laden: The Celebrity Terrorist

So much is going to be written about Usama bin Laden today and all week that I plan to restrain myself: my firar impressions last night, plus this post, may be most of what I have to say.

Everyone, at least everyone who would read this blog, knew what Bin Laden looked like. Before 9/11 he gave interviews to Al Jazeera, to CNN's Peter Bergen, and to others; after 9/11 he had to rely on videotapes or, eventually, audiotapes, but he was still a familiar face. He was a celebrity terrorist.

Contrast this with the earlier generation of international terrorists. Carlos (llyich Ramirez Sanchez) was a faceless figure, with only one old passport photo on the wanted posters. (Until he was captured and tried, of course.) Abu Nidal (Sabri Khalil al-Banna) was similarly known only from old, blurry photos from his pre-underground days. The same was formerly  true of‘Imad Mughniyya, though since his death Hizbullah has canonized him and his face has become familiar.

But Bin Laden has long been familiar. So is his stand-in and presumed next in line, Ayman al-Zawahiri. The only previous example that even cames close would be Che Guevara, but he was a government official and guerrilla leader, rather than an underground terrorist. (And while there are many pictures of Guevara, everyone under 50 reading this immediately thought of only one, the iconic portrait most remember him by.)

In the end, the spontaneous celebrations last night at the White House and at Ground Zero would have been less likely had he been an anonymous figure. He made himself the face of Al-Qa‘ida. Though he probably has had little operational role lately, he made himself a familiar symbol, and so gave the US a symbolic target.

No comments: