"Bin Laden Was a Homicidal Maniac."
Yes and no. Al Qaeda's No. 1 certainly departed this world with plenty of blood on his hands. There were the thousands of Americans killed on 9/11, of course, and thousands more Muslims killed throughout the Middle East and Central and South Asia in the terrorist attacks and al Qaeda-affiliated insurgencies of the following decade. In 1998, bin Laden declared that killing "Americans and their allies -- civilians and military -- is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it."
This killer, however, often confounded those who met him. Many terrorist leaders foster a cult of personality -- Velupillai Prabhakaran, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam's leader until his death in combat two years ago, was known for making his followers drink his bathwater. Bin Laden, by contrast, was by all accounts a humble and modest man. He lived an ascetic existence and assumed he would be killed -- or, as he saw it, achieve martyrdom -- long before he met his fate on Sunday. His mixture of idealism, bravery, and charisma inspired many young Muslims to take up arms and risk their lives for the ideas he championed. Perhaps the best measure of bin Laden's influence is the respect he enjoyed not only within jihadist circles, but outside of them. His status as a defiant anti-American hero extended beyond the Muslim world to Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
The al Qaeda leader's piety and humility, however, should not be mistaken for naivete. Bin Laden embraced the proverb that advised, "Trust in God -- but tie your camel tight." His public statements and directives to his organization revealed a man who was as much shrewd politician as ascetic martyr-in-waiting. Within the jihadist movement, bin Laden often pushed back against the tendency toward slaughter that manifested itself in Iraq and Algeria in the mid-1990s. In such countries, so-called taqfiris -- hardliners who saw Muslims who did not adhere to their extreme views as apostates -- made war on their own societies, making the killing of civilians as much a priority as striking U.S. or local regime targets. Bin Laden counseled against this tendency and tried to use his influence to focus fighters on the United States and its allies -- although he didn't let his personal preferences stop him from embracing genuine homicidal maniacs like Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who ignored bin Laden's advice and butchered far more Iraqi Shiites than Westerners.