Osama bin Laden was more alive to me the week after he died, ironically, than at any time tracking his grisly life. I first heard his name in the 1990s in one of the Capitol Hill offices of the Task Force on Terrorism where I learned that the mujahideen the United States had armed and supported against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan had turned on us.
Years later I traveled in Sudan with a group of aid workers and passed just south of a recently abandoned bin Laden camp, where the al-Qaeda leader had a large farming enterprise in addition to training ground for foreign fighters. One of our guides warned us away from the area: It contained landmines and other menaces.
Months later I returned to Africa, this time to interview victims of the August 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi. The shattered building stood, shrouded in tarps where windows once were. Everywhere in the streets shards of glass still could be found. Sidewalk vendors used them to hold down stacks of daily papers. The bomb's percussive explosions sent innocents to sidewalks or windows at the sound of the first "boom" only to be caught in a rain of glass and debris by the second, larger blast. The bodies of at least 50 of the over 200 killed were found outside the building-some as far as three blocks away-and more than 5,000 were injured. All were a testament to bin Laden's cunning.
In 2002 I interviewed several detained al-Qaeda members at a jail in northern Iraq. Kurdish security forces detained them crossing the border from Iran. Presumably they had arrived to link arms with Ansar al-Islam, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq with among its 800 jihadists about 150 so-called "Arab Afghans"-fighters trained in bin Laden's Afghan camps. Haqi Ismail, one of the jailed fighters I spoke to, had a map on him showing an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan known as al-Farouk, and another map showing the way to a guesthouse used by bin Laden in Kabul.
Those incidents revealed a bin Laden at the forefront of a massive, marching terrorist movement, yet somehow offstage, illusory. Video appearances, even after 9/11, only made him more the hologram.
And then there he was, in a video confiscated from his compound, hunched and fiddling with the remote, watching himself on TV, modems and power cords running everywhere. Suddenly he was like your recluse up the street, idling away a weekday afternoon. The way of the treacherous is their ruin (Proverbs 13:15).
The United States and its allies will err in this long war against jihadist terrorism if, at the critical moment following bin Laden's death, they make too much of bin Laden the legend and too little of his mortality.
Bin Laden "globalized the jihad," religious freedom expert Elizabeth Kendal told me. His death will not change that: "Al Shabaab will continue its campaign of systematic extermination of Somali Christians. Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Qaeda in Iraq, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb, and all other al-Qaeda affiliates will continue their terror without bin Laden." But one al-Qaeda member in Yemen last week called his death "a catastrophe," and its core is failing. At a recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, experts argued over whether there were 50 al-Qaeda operatives left in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, or 500. Either number boasts not success but near extinction.
And this is what happens to ideological movements crafted by mere mortals. They disintegrate, often pathetically. Think of Hitler in his bunker that spring of 1945. His apparent suicide, along with that of his No. 2 man, the chief propagandist Joseph Goebbels, plus others, brought an end to the global menace of Nazism. The United States and its allies should not fail to see the value in going after al-Qaeda's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Nos. 3, 4, and on-to 50 or to 500. Having dealt with bin Laden, we should deal decisively with his legacy. What most pundits speak of as impossible-as impossible as finding and killing Osama bin Laden-could be within reach. Al-Qaeda, at least its ideological core, one day can be successfully and decisively eliminated.