DAVID FARMER

Creating and destroying a bogeyman

Posted July 06, 2011, at 6:24 p.m.
Last modified July 07, 2011, at 8:15 p.m.

I lived in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001.

I had just driven past the Pentagon on my way to my office in Alexandria, Va. I was getting out of my truck when I heard the plane hit.

I suspect that most of us can remember the details of that morning, and the events that unfolded over the next several days.

A lot of things happened with the attack, but one of the biggest was the creation of a bogeyman.

I’m not trying to be flip, and the word bogeyman doesn’t really do justice to the feelings projected upon Osama bin Laden.

For a decade, this terrorist slipped through the fingers of the most sophisticated and comprehensive intelligence gathering network that has ever existed.

On May 1, and with great relief, we learned from President Barack Obama that bin Laden was dead, killed by a team of Navy SEALs in his Pakistani hideout.

Even today, more than two months later, there are a lot of questions that remain unanswered around how bin Laden had managed to remain hidden for so long and whether high-ranking members of the Pakistani government or military were aware of his location or even helping him.

While death certainly demystified this bogyman, making him once and for all human, the information that was collected at his lair has done even more.

The Navy SEALs that took the compound recovered more than just bin Laden’s body. They also captured more than 15 computers and hundreds of storage devices, according to The Washington Post.

A task force was assembled in Northern Virginia, and over the course of six weeks, hundreds of intelligence reports were created.

Through the materials they have begun to construct a portrait of bin Laden and his network of killers that is more nuanced — and in some ways comforting — than the image that had grown in my mind.

Consider nothing more than a child who is afraid of the dark. It’s not so much the dark, but the unknown that is frightening.

Through time, bin Laden had taken on the qualities of a ghost. Scary, uncatchable, unstoppable.

Now we know he was none of those things, and that the organization that he was leading, al-Qaida, faces many of the same struggles that any company or nonprofit might face — with a few added twists of predator drones, spies and hit squads.

Bin Laden, according to reports, remained focused on attacking the United States, reliving his moment of notorious attack. But many in his organization had competing goals that he struggled to contain and redirect.

This internal struggle to stay focused on a common goal occurs in almost any large, decentralized operation. Maintaining control was made even more difficult by the extent that bin Laden had to go to communicate without being found.

The reports also show that bin Laden was rightfully weary of U.S. efforts to find him and bring him to justice. He created a counterintelligence unit to look for spies and root out informants.

Despite the importance of this job — bin Laden’s life depended on it — the unit’s leader complained of being underfunded and not having the resources to do its job appropriately.

Good.

It seems that there were times when bin Laden had cash flow problems and was looking for new ways to raise money for his evil enterprise.

And, as the CIA closed in on him, they had agents living in a house near his compound. While they couldn’t be sure that it was bin Laden, there was a tall man they called “The Pacer” because he would pace around the complex.

If he was pacing with worry, anxiety and fear, all the better. All the more human.

While his death brought great relief, it is the further understanding of his humanity — that he was a person with evil intent, not a wraith or specter — that is more comforting. That he struggled with organizational problems, with maintaining focus in his organization, with raising money and with communications.

Osama bin Laden was a murderer and terrorist. But he was no bogeyman.

David Farmer is a political and media consultant. He was formerly deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci and a longtime journalist. He was the governor’s representative on the Maine Homeland Security Advisory Council. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @dfarmer14.

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