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One Last Battle: Spinning Bin Laden's Legacy

A still image from video footage released by the U.S. Department of Defense shows Osama bin Laden watching himself on TV.
Rex Features
A still image from video footage released by the U.S. Department of Defense shows Osama bin Laden watching himself on TV.

The operation against Osama bin Laden was more than just a military raid. It was also an opportunity to attack bin Laden's image and ideology.

The war on al-Qaida is in part a propaganda struggle, fought with the aim of changing attitudes in the Muslim world.

Finding and killing bin Laden was not enough. Almost as important was what came afterward: the work of telling the story of the operation in such a way as to advance U.S. interests.

The Bin Laden Narrative

In the time since bin Laden was killed, each day has brought a little more news about the operation. This week, we learned that a bin Laden diary found in his house showed he had differences with his followers over what targets should be hit. U.S. officials also anonymously told Reuters that pornography was found in bin Laden's compound.

Were those details leaked by U.S. officials anxious to discredit bin Laden's al-Qaida movement in the Muslim world? If so, it would be an example of what's called strategic communication: putting out news that furthers your cause.

"Strategic communication is a huge part of the bin Laden killing. Taking advantage of that, getting the message out, framing it in the right way to get some benefit from it," says Christopher Paul of the RAND Corp.

If before his death bin Laden had lost some control over his followers, the al-Qaida movement could be in real turmoil now. Michael Doran, who served as the Pentagon's strategic communications specialist under President George W. Bush, says he'd be emphasizing that point if he were still in his old job.

"There's one main message that you want to hammer home at every opportunity, and that's basically: al-Qaida is on the ropes, the organization is going down," Doran says.

The White House has in fact been making that point.

Paul, who studies strategic communication efforts, says administration officials have generally risen to the occasion in talking about bin Laden's death.

"They got a solid B or B+. They planned ahead. They did a lot of things right. They grappled with some hard issues, and there were a few things that didn't go perfectly," Paul says.

The most notable faux pas was on the day after the bin Laden raid, when White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan suggested that bin Laden, the jihadi hero, resided in a mansion and used a woman as a shield when Navy SEALs came after him.

"Here is bin Laden, living in this million-dollar-plus compound in an area that is far removed from the front, hiding behind women who were put in front of him as a shield. I think it really just speaks to just how false his narrative has been over the years," Brennan said.

U.S. officials later corrected their own narrative, saying bin Laden did not use a woman as a human shield. They did later put out a video of bin Laden sitting on his floor, wrapped in a blanket, watching himself on television, The idea there may have been to portray him as vain and obsessed with his own image. But some pious Muslims may actually have seen him as appearing humble, and Doran points out that bin Laden's residence appeared a bit shabby.

"It didn't look like a mansion. The pictures of him, the video of him in front of the television, didn't look like he was living in luxury. If you're inclined to follow bin Laden and to respect him, I don't think anything you saw there is going to make you not respect him," Doran says.

Managing The Message

When government spokesmen exaggerate in their eagerness to score a propaganda point, their credibility suffers.

Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communication, says the Obama administration knows that, and he points out that any administration misstatements about the bin Laden raid were quickly corrected.

"What was important in those initial days was getting the facts out and then insofar as they needed to be corrected, very forthrightly and immediately coming forward and saying, 'We've learned additional information. Here's what we understand the facts to be,'" Rhodes says.

Propaganda and spin are generally seen as efforts to manipulate or even deceive people. But in this media age, there is little disputing the notion that any organization — from al-Qaida to the U.S. presidency — needs to have a message and put it out clearly. Rhodes says a strategic communications goal of the Obama administration has long been to challenge the al-Qaida argument that the United States is at war with Islam or the Muslim world.

"Around his death, I think we saw it as an important opportunity to say Osama bin Laden in many ways had already become irrelevant in parts of the region," Rhodes says. "His narrative of violent resistance and violent change had actually been eclipsed by the peaceful protests that we see in many parts of the Arab world."

And that strategic message is one we'll likely hear next week, when President Obama makes a speech about recent developments in the Middle East.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.