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Bin Laden’s Legacy

So, Osama bin Laden was, by any measure, a murderous son of a bitch who got exactly what was coming to him.  Although the thought of incinerating him with a missile strike is attractive in a eye-for-and-eye kind of way, the thought of him cowering in the dark as vengeance in the form of Navy SEALs methodically hunted him room by room is oddly satisfying.  I enjoy knowing that the last moments of his pitiful life were filled with fear.

So it is done.  Now what?

Aside from the strategic implications, to which I may devote a future entry, there has been some discussion on bin Laden’s legacy.  Specifically, does he take his place among the most influential strategists/theorists of history?  Did he invent/perfect/introduce a “Jihadist” way of war?

Some say yes.  For example, Bruce Berkowitz, in his book The New Face of War: How War Will Be Fought in the 21st Century, claims that bin Laden and Al Qaeda pioneered a new method of war called Network Warfare.  Berkowitz claims that Al Qaeda was a new type of organization – a “fighting network” – in which interconnected cells operated independently but within the strategic intent of Al Qaeda central.

Berkowitz originally wrote the book in 2003; a time when Al Qaeda look a helluva lot more threatening that it does today.  Eight years on, I’d contend Berkowitz was wrong.

Bin Laden’s way of war was a bad impression of Maoist insurgency. Substitute ‘Wahabi Islam’ for ‘Politics’ and Mao describes bin Laden’s approach pretty well.  Al Qaeda is less a network than it is a brand or a franchise.  The advantage of this structure is that it is decentralized and hard to kill in a few swift blows.  However, this disadvantage is that the various cells in the network are virtually autonomous.  AQ central has no QC to ensure everyone stays on the strategic path to victory.

Think of McDonalds.  Even though your local McD’s might be independently owned, if you have a bad experience you will be unlikely to go back to McD’s in a neighboring town.  You assume the McD central is controlling the quality of its brand – an you’d be right.  AQ, on the other hand, cannot control its brand.  Local AQ franchises were run by local thugs, doing whatever they wanted in the name of Al Qaeda, and alienating local populations in the process. Or, as Mao would say, poisoning the water (people) in which the fish (insurgents) must swim.

No, bin Laden was nothing new. He was a flash in the pan who caught the U.S. with its pants down. Aside from that, he is a case study in how NOT to conduct a guerrilla war.

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