Listen to most chat-show pundits and you'd get the idea that Osama bin Laden was some real-life version of a Hollywood criminal mastermind, sitting in an Afghan redoubt, calmly issuing orders for mayhem and destruction around the globe.
But this chilling image has obscured an active debate among intelligence officials and area experts over just what degree of control or direction bin Laden exercises over far-flung groupings of militant Islamist terrorists stretching from North Africa to the Philippines, and indeed into Europe and North America. Is bin Laden really a criminal mastermind coordinating and controlling these atrocities or more of a first among equals?
Either way, many believe, the United States played a unique role in bolstering his global power.
To Ken Katzman, a counter-terrorism expert at the Congressional Research Service, there is little question that bin Laden has ultimate control over most of the high-profile terrorist events attributed to him over recent years. But even Katzman is uncertain about how much operational control and direction bin Laden exercises.
"I think the only difference of opinion now is how much direction and supervision he provides," Katzman told Salon on Thursday. "Does he design the plots? Does he dream [them] up? Does he hatch them? Or are they just presented to him for approval or disapproval? We're not sure. We're not sure about the depth of his control. Is he briefed at all stages or is he only being notified once [people] are convinced [they] can do it? Is he shutting down plots or constantly shifting resources from one to another? We don't know. [But] as far as I'm concerned, if he decides that a plot will be turned off he has the ultimate decision."
Other experts are considerably more skeptical, believing that bin Laden acts as a first among equals, whose influence is sustained by a quickly growing, charismatic, cult-like following and access to vast funds based on his family wealth. According to two high-ranking former intelligence officials with close knowledge of the regions in question, bin Laden's ability to control events may be considerably more limited than we imagine.
"It's almost certainly not a case where he sits there and directs these operations," says one former high-ranking intelligence official. "It's more of a scholarship fund of international terrorism. Afghanistan is not an easy place from which to conduct international business." Even if bin Laden once exercised such control, this former official argues, his freedom of action may now be much more constrained. "It could all just be on autopilot. However much freedom of action he has pretty much doesn't matter now. It could very well be that this is all continuing to operate without needing direct ties to him."
Another former intelligence official expressed even greater skepticism about whether bin Laden's terror organization, al Qaeda ("the base"), is really as robust and integrated an operation as we've been led to believe. "I think al-Qaeda may be a bit of a red herring. These guys are like their Woodstock generation. There may not be any more real firm linkage than that."
One point of agreement between these maximalist and minimalist interpreters of bin Laden is that the United States' growing focus on him since 1996 and our unsuccessful strike on him in 1998 have vastly elevated his position in the world of militant Islam, allowing him to cast himself as an heroic holdout against a vast American power. "It was back around 1996 when our focus on him began elevating him in the mind of the Arab world. Then he ends up in Afghanistan. Then you've got the 1998 bombings in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam," says the second former intelligence official. "Then he becomes a real cult hero and then we fire on him and miss.
"That's when you get parents [in Muslim countries] naming their children Osama," he says.
Many of the former government officials with this more skeptical take on the scope of bin Laden's influence were closely involved with past American activities in the Arab world and Central Asia. And thus their views must be seen through a particular prism -- one that both validates and challenges their interpretations. On the one hand these former officials have extremely detailed knowledge of the people and places involved. On the other hand, their own previous involvement arguably makes them resistant to interpretations of current events in which they might somehow be implicated in the unanticipated results of previous American policy.
"The idea [that international terrorism is now centered in Afghanistan] is abhorrent to us," one former intelligence official told Salon on Thursday. "Because that might mean we bear some measure of responsibility for it, which we would."
The bin Laden organization, with its mix of archaic fanaticism and modern technology, is every bit as much a part of globalism as the America he and his followers so despise. Like the Internet, which was designed with an almost infinite decentralization to avoid being knocked out by a nuclear attack, bin Laden's network may be too diffuse and decentralized to be taken out with any single blow. In fact, Bin Laden's expertise in the use of military technology has perhaps been outdone by his deft manipulation of his own image on the world media stage, alternately issuing blood-curdling threats against America and the West and then sending out vague denials when actual atrocities occur.
None of the experts interviewed for this article mean to exonerate bin Laden, only to warn that there may be more than one of him -- perhaps many more. And that a single-minded focus on him may detract attention from equally dangerous figures.