Osama’s trademark quietness is a mask suitable for a person with low blood pressure. He lost his temper talking to Al Jazzeera TV about the possibility of him using nuclear weapons, and has lost it on other occasions. Edward Giradet described Osama in the 1980s as an “arrogant Saudi.” Calmness is extremely uncommon among extroverted urban Arabs, and certainly not to be expected in a spoiled Saudi kid-turned-worldwide-fugitive.
Osama is fundamentally a civilian, and admires hardened combatants—thus his dependence on Al Zawahiri. Anxious to prove himself to the Afghan mujahedeen, Osama reportedly drove bulldozers under Soviet fire—an unlikely, but illustrative account. Osama buys influence with money and obtains goodwill by being nice and honest, but he cannot steer militant groups.

Osama’s famed long-term planning is a function of his inability to act. He could easily launch a guerrilla war against Israeli and American soft targets abroad, such as tourists and businesses. Instead of blowing up hotels, Al Qaeda could keep killing individuals and achieve a significant terror effect. The only explanation for his failure to do this is that Osama lacks the resources for even such limited actions. He repeatedly called for attacks against American targets to force the US to release the Blind Sheikh, but he failed to actually stage any; IG staged some shootings on its own regardless of Osama’s pronouncements.

Osama failed on numerous occasions in his attempts to reconcile warring Afghan armies or hostile Egyptian groups. All groups in Afghanistan, the from Taliban to the Northern Alliance, welcomed Osama specifically because he was an honored guest without a political agenda in Afghanistan. In fact, the Northern Alliance’s Masood welcomed Osama upon his eviction from Sudan, even though Arab guerrillas in Afghanistan had joined the Taliban in fighting the Northern Alliance shortly before; Masood evidently did not strongly connect Osama with the Arab Afghans. Then Arab Afghans fought the Northern Alliance again in 2000, though Osama could not possibly attack his friend and host. Osama exerted little influence on the Arab Afghans.

Osama failed to persuade various domestic terrorist groups to adopt his “America-first” approach. Only after countries like Egypt mounted pressure on local terrorists did a few militant groups subscribe to Osama’s strategy of targeting America before turning on local dictators. Osama’s anti-Americanism is a function of his inability to act on a micro-level. He lacks the expertise and infrastructure to wage a terrorist war against any meaningful Islamic dictator, and waging war on America is much simpler. America cannot secure its far-flung assets worldwide or effectively pursue terrorists who find refuge in failed states. America’s only option to stop attracting terrorists is to transform Muslim states into similarly soft targets. That already happened in Iraq. If America succeeds in democratizing Egypt, the weakened Egypt will again attract terrorists who find local operations cheaper and more convenient.

Osama bin Laden: patient or indecisive?