Though it was initially called a mansion, Osama Bin Laden’s safe house décor might better be described as Meth Lab Chic. (Not that I’m all that familiar with meth lab interiors, natch.) Rather than a set from 24, it's more the kind of place only Vibe magazine would choose for a shoot, no pun intended.
His particleboard furniture looks like it was salvaged from a rural roadside free pile; a power strip is bolted arbitrarily to the wall; wires are strung higgledy-piggledy as if by an adolescent hobbyist; and this former heir to a multimillion Saudi fortune gets relegated to watching standard def video on a TV you couldn’t get $5 for on Craigslist. It seems only a matter of time before we’re told they found porn on his computer.
All kidding aside: Our mythologies about the superpowerful and insanely devious OBL stem from the trauma of the 9/11 attacks. It just wouldn’t do for the culprits to be mere mortal miscreants; we had to build them up into a hydra-headed syndicate.
But from the moment I first heard that Bin Laden and something called Al-Qaida had been fingered for the 9/11 attacks, my instinct was that the devastation of those attacks was more a stroke of luck on their part than evidence of cunning planning or unlimited funds. The attacks were classically asymmetrical, and run on a shoestring. For OBL and his very small group, it was like going into a poker hand with a weak pair and winding up with a full house: it'll only happen maybe once in 100 tries.
From their perspective, everything went far more smoothly and perfectly than it ever should have. Their agents got into the country without any trouble, though some were on watch lists; they were not detected taking flight classes, or else the authorities missed the warnings; they wired necessary funds around without detection; they all got on their planes; only one of their hijackings was (partially) foiled; they were not shot down; all but one plane hit its target; and the luckiest strike of all, the crashes evidently caused both of the Towers to collapse in spectacularly macabre and scarifying fashion. They pulled the casino lever and hit their jackpot—eighteen cherries.
Despite this long, improbable and catastrophic series of breaks, I’m not among those who believe that 9/11 was an inside job—though the staggering incompetence and negligence of the Bush administration gives plenty of ammunition to those advocating the LIHOP theory, that the government Let It Happen On Purpose... Instead, I believe that Bin Laden’s network was far more of an ad hoc, improvised, half-baked group than we thought, one which got damnably lucky one horrible September day.
In the public mind, Al-Qaida’s grotesque one-day “success” built up a half-assed and plodding wannabe organization into a vast international web of criminal masterminds.
But now when you see the recent videos and still photos, and consider how totally unprepared this supposed mastermind was for last Sunday’s assault, you’re reminded of how shabby and improvisational and yes, banal these “evildoers” were, in W’s cartoonish, hamfisted phraseology.
OBL’s grubby lair would have been far more impressive if it had really turned out to be a cave in the mountains, as we’d been conditioned to expect. At least then he would live up to our need to imagine him as a demonic but ingenius survivalist, of the caliber necessary to evade our all-seeing intelligence apparatus for so many years in the wilderness. But as it happened he wasn’t living on mountain goats he’d strangled with his bare hands, or even on nuts and berries; instead, he had his own private FreshDirect service.
And where were the booby traps, the tunnels, the bodyguards, the surveillance equipment, and the safe rooms which are the staple of Hollywood thrillers and Jack Bauer missions? At Osama’s actual hideout, an outdated Playstation, a bag of Cheet-Os, and a spilled dimestore spittoon would fit right in. Among the tidbits which have emerged is that the Grand Enemy of Western Imperialism had gallons and gallons of Pepsi and Coke delivered every week... Your average locavore/foodie has more ideological discipline than that.
The only impressive thing is how he managed to remain undetected for so long. One again tends to attribute that evasion more to our Elmer Fudd-like efforts to find him than the cleverness of his arrangements. Probably OBL woke up every day thinking, “I can’t believe those Keystone Kops haven’t burst in here yet; I must be the luckiest bastard on Earth.” His evident lack of preparedness for the inevitable day of reckoning, coupled with his choice of hiding-in-plain-sight in Abbottabad, suggests either strong assurances from the Pakistani ISI that he wouldn’t be bothered, or a complacency developed from 10 years of extended life, or just an absence of competence and moolah. Or maybe all of the above.
In the end, the crumminess of his final surroundings and feebleness of his ultimate demise were pathetically mismatched with the overreaction and misdirection of the U.S.’s response. Inciting such a response was one of his stated central goals, and economist Joseph Stiglitz has pegged its cost to our nation alone at something like $3 trillion.
To that extent, Bin Laden may have felt he’d already succeeded. The only thing he could still kill was time: watching tube, smoking weed, drinking American soft drinks, taking herbal Viagra, popping out a few more kids, and keeping up public appearances as best he could with crappy quarterly video releases. On some level he probably knew that he’d never pull off anything like 9/11 again. Indeed the half-baked followup schemes found on his captured thumbdrives point to both a lack of original new plans for AQ, and a paucity of organizational capacity.
The operation to get him was dramatic, but nothing else about Bin Laden had been compelling for those several thousand days since Bush let him slip away at Tora Bora. A sudden end, with no long imprisonment or Milosevic-style trial harangues or other public and private humiliations may have been a relief to him—a dénouement swifter, easier, and more strangely elevating of his importance than he deserved.