Osama bin Laden Was a Geek

The myth of Osama in the Cave pervades American terror culture. Before we found him in a house, we imagined him in a cave, as a West-hating hermit. But Osama was no luddite—tech helped shape his terror.

The New Yorker's recent profile of Bin Laden—as a child, a father, a murderous mastermind—all share a thread. The man, from tyke to terrorist, was glued to screens. Think back to his death—his rathole compound had only one link to the outside world: a satellite dish to accommodate bin Laden's obsessive TV watching. The New Yorker's Steve Coll notes that the Pakistani abode bore a striking resemblance to the Saudi two-story home Bin Laden was raised in, and spent his boyhood incessantly watching TV news. It was also a boyhood spent showered with the latest gadgets, imported by the planeload through his brother Salem, who scooped them up en masse during trips to Manhattan. He quickly understood the power of tech to spread a message.

Bin Laden, having been gripped by broadcasts of hijackings as a child, used the mass media of his adulthood to reshape the way terror terrorizes. He was an early adopter. Long before social networking was even a concept, Osama used the internet to share and bolster his cause. Videos were recorded digitally and beamed to press outlets. Recruits were wrangled and organized online. He even procured satellite phones from Long Island to ensure communications in tough conditions. His message of murder and destruction could be taken global. He demonstrated the savvy of a media executive—a vocation his son has since taken up.

Bin Laden was no Zuckerberg—not a visionary, just slightly (and effectively) beyond the curve. As his hiding continued, his influence waned, and he became more a consumer of terror media than a producer of it. Nonetheless, he changed the way his vile industry operates. As Coll puts it, Bin Laden was "Excite...to the search engine business. He lacked the unifying ideas and insights required to build a sustainable community of followers, but, in some ways, he was ahead of his time."