Osama Bin Laden: At al-Qaeda's helm in Abbottabad?

By Jonathan Marcus
BBC diplomatic correspondent

image captionThe US says Bin Laden's Abbottabad compound was a command and control centre

The death of Osama Bin Laden at the hands of an elite US Navy Seal team who stormed his compound in Abbottabad prompted a deluge of instant analysis.

Much of it inevitably focused on the impact his demise would have upon the organisation, and how far it might hinder the spread of jihadist extremism.

Opinion was inevitably divided. Many analysts sought to differentiate between what you might call the ideological battlefield and the practical struggle on the ground.

Conventional wisdom suggested that the planning of attacks had largely been sub-contracted to regional offshoots or franchises of the organisation, like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in the lawless territories of Yemen, or al-Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb, which may well have been behind the recent bomb attack in Marrakesh.

In this light, Bin Laden himself was seen a founding father, an inspirational figure, probably cut off from day-to-day events, especially since he was suspected of being holed up in the border badlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

There was considerable surprise therefore when in the wake of the helicopter-borne raid in Pakistan, US officials suggested that, contrary to the prevailing view, Bin Laden still had a much greater role in coordinating al-Qaeda operations than anyone had imagined.

The US Navy Seals seized a large quantity of computer files and other material at the house in Abbottabad which intelligence experts swooped upon with urgency. It is the initial review of this material which seems to have prompted the re-assessment of Bin Laden's role.

image captionOsama Bin Laden was was far from being cut off from events

US Attorney General Eric Holder has told the BBC that the material seized indicated that Bin Laden was operationally involved with al-Qaeda, and that he was pushing al-Qaeda to engage in more plots, in more areas of the world and on specific dates.

Bruce Riedel, a terrorism expert at the Brookings Institution, says that he is not surprised at all by this turn of events.

"Al-Qaeda said that he was in charge, he took credit for attacks (like that over Detroit); he was not in a cave or some remote area but in a major town where couriers came and went," he says.

"The conventional wisdom was just plain wrong and based on wishful thinking."

Referring to Ayman al-Zawahiri, whom many regard as effectively Bin Laden's number two, Mr Riedel says that "he is also very active and if he is not found soon, will recreate the same central command post".

'Off the mark'

Opinions though are divided. Another former intelligence officer, Paul Pillar, now at Georgetown University, says that none of the material taken during the raid, nor the exploitation of it that has become public knowledge so far, "does anything to refute the prior mainstream view of Bin Laden as primarily a source of ideology and inspiration, and relatively detached in recent years from operational direction and control".

He adds that commentary to the contrary has been "off the mark, motivated in part by an official desire to underscore the importance of eliminating this one terrorist".

So how to square these apparent contradictions? Well until more of the information taken in the raid is released, and that could take some time, it's very hard to make a definitive judgement.

But one answer may well lie in defining the exact sense in which Bin Laden may have still been in command. US officials have been quoted as saying that his directions tended to be big-picture in nature, focusing more on broader objectives than on granular operational details.

"I wouldn't call it command and control," one senior US intelligence official is quoted as saying in the Washington Post newspaper.

Nonetheless the suggestion is that he did have contacts with elements of his organisation. And he was far from being cut off from events.

One of the most intriguing images of Bin Laden in his Abbottabad villa was of the al-Qaeda leader watching the television news, and quite possibly also listening to the BBC World Service.

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