Pulling down the bin Laden myth – and brand

It's not always about whose army wins. It's also about whose story wins.

Markus Schreiber/AP
People pass newspapers front pages with the report of Osama bin Laden's death, at a newsstand in Berlin, on Tuesday, May 3.

Killing bin Laden does not end terrorism. In the short run, it may even lead to a spurt of decentralized revenge attacks, but in the longer term it deals Al Qaeda a severe blow. Over the past decade, Al Qaeda became a loose network, almost a franchise, where much of the activity was developed by local terrorist entrepreneurs. Now the value of the brand name is diminished, and that makes the franchise less valuable.

As I describe in The Future of Power, terrorism is not about military strength or military victory. In an information age, it is not always whose army wins, but also whose story wins.

Terrorists are always weaker on the military dimension. Terrorism is about drama, myth, and a narrative designed to capture media attention and set the agenda of world politics. That is something that bin Laden accomplished brilliantly after 9/11. He appeared to be the strong horse (in his words), and his survival fostered the myth of invincibility that added value to the Al Qaeda franchise. His demise punctures that myth. It is not the end of terrorism, but it is an important milestone.

This comment first appeared on the Power & Policy blog at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

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