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Osama bin Laden: Past, Present, and Future
Steve Coll is President & CEO of New America Foundation, and a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine. Previously he spent 20 years as a foreign correspondent and senior editor at The Washington Post, serving as the paper's managing editor from 1998 to 2004. He is the author of six books, including The Deal of the Century: The Break Up of AT&T (1986); The Taking of Getty Oil (1987); Eagle on the Street, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the SEC's battle with Wall Street (with David A. Vise, 1991); On the Grand Trunk Road: A Journey into South Asia (1994), Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (2004); and The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century (2008).
Question: Who were Osama’s mentors?
Steve Coll: Immediately after his father’s death he sort of went to a day school, a prep school, in Jeddah, the only one to an international modern standard in the kingdom at the time and he was essentially recruited in to an Islamic group by a charismatic Syrian gym teacher at his prep school who mentored him and taught him and essentially indoctrinated him in to the Muslim brotherhood. And that was the beginning of a series of relationships with mentors, essentially professional mentors, that seemed also to have a sort of personal role in his life, Abdullah Assam, who was the collaborator and cofounder of the precursor organization to al Qaeda during the anti-Soviet war, Ayman al-Zawahiri, later the Egyptian who co-founded al-Qaeda with him. Though Zawahiri was his deputy, he was also in a sort of biographical sense also a mentor and a kind of a patron of Osama. The overall narrative is maybe not too surprising but worth just sketching, which is he’s a shy, privileged, wealthy young man who is recruited into international Islamic radicalism and is mentored and doted on primarily at first because of his money and his older, more ambitious mentors want access to what he has, not only his own deep pockets but also the fundraising world that he can open up in Saudi Arabia, but gradually as he ages and as he matures he either overthrows his mentors or slowly separates from them and develops his own ambition and his own very full, egotistical sense of his own capabilities. And I don’t think in the end he is a prisoner of his mentors. I think instead he sort of grows beyond them by and large, even Zawahiri.
Question: How do you think he perceives his role?
Steve Coll: Well, you can see he’s always- he’s often been a creature of media and has yearned to be heard and this-, particularly as he came in to his own and decided that he had a role to play in this narrative that he imagined he had been called in to by God and where he was drawn also for reasons of his own ambition. He had an intuition about brand building and about media that was really one of his core talents and one of his core insights and a source of much of his innovation and achievement, and after 9/11 he had to repress some of those instincts because it was too risky to go on television as often as he might like. You can see him when he comes forward. Even after periods of silence he comes forward with a video or he comes forward with an audio tape and if you read through the text of everything he’s been saying since 9/11 when he does surface to talk or you look at those videotapes you have the impression of someone who’s in hiding but has access to a lot of media. He’s reading-- He’s clearly reading books. He clearly has access to the news whether it’s on the internet or on satellite television and he’s- and you- sometimes you almost have the sense that he’s watching President Bush on television make a speech and he just gets- he gets, “I got to talk. I got to say something. Bring my media guy.” And then he goes and he makes a speech and he’s almost talking back to the global media. So I do think there’s- there is clearly an impulse that he has to be heard. That’s how he’s always conceived his role, as a vanguard, someone who stimulates and encourages others, not as someone who needs to control a political organization or be the boss but someone who inspires.
Question: Is Osama’s son preparing to take over?
Steve Coll: Yeah. It sort of confirms the little bits of information that were available about his family’s circumstances in this period of exile. Osama has had at least four or five wives. The wives that are known are- have all returned to their home countries. I believe almost all of his daughters if not all of his daughters have also returned home. He has perhaps a dozen or more sons and of those some have returned home and some were believed, like Hamza, to be in exile with him if- perhaps living with him, perhaps living near him. There was an exchange between Osama and his son, Hamza, on the- on Jihadi web sites in late 2001 where Osama essentially wrote a letter to Hamza in the form of a last will and testament. And so Hamza along with a couple of other sons have clearly been with him. They’ve appeared in videos before as young Jihadis even at ages nine and ten. By now Hamza I guess-- I don’t know what the video shows today but I would guess he is about 16 or 17 and so he would have been one of the three or four that you would have guessed was roughly wherever Osama’s hiding along the Pak-Afghan frontier that Hamza is out there, too. Probably Laden and Mohammed and a couple others are out there as well.
Question: What does he make of his portrayal in American media?
Steve Coll: He clearly reads accounts. He’s not interested in his own biography and in fact he- he’s frustrating as a subject because he won’t talk about himself even- but as a political figure, as a militant, he’s very interested in his international reputation and he often mocks those who he thinks misinterprets him. So an example that I’m sympathetic to is that the cliché version of him and his leadership and his movement wants to locate him in a cave in a place where he is- he’s just completely looking backward and is isolated from globalization and from modern technology. And an expression of this has been the theory that maybe he was sending coded messages when he spoke on television and he wrote- he gave this very funny--I think he wrote it--this very funny essay where he mocked all these American analysts who think that he has to scrawl- imbed code inside his messages as if he’s living in area of carrier pigeons. And he basically says, “Look. I’ve got access to e-mail. I can e-mail people when I want to tell them what to do. I can call them. I’m living in the same world you’re living in. Stop trying to think that I’m using pigeons to communicate my messages.” So I think he does get frustrated with some of those images.
Question: Where do you think bin Laden is today?
Steve Coll: I think he’s along the Afghan-Pakistan border and I sometimes try to play a sort of- this parlor game that you could play with people who watch al-Qaeda or the- pay attention to the search for bin Laden. Suppose someone walks in to the room right now and says, “Osama’s been captured” or “Someone just hit him with a predator.” You say, “Okay. Interesting. Don’t tell me where. Put a map up on the wall. Take a pin. Put the pin in the map and ten people closest to the hole wins. Where-- Who can come closest to where he actually was? And so where would you put your pin?” And I would probably put it in north Waziristan around Miranshah and along the border. There’s an area there controlled by the Harkani[ph?] clan that he has long roots in. There are some risks to him if he stays in that area and so maybe it’s a little too busy and a little too trafficked. An alternative place where some other smart people who know the intelligence they tend to put their pins just a little bit north of that in Bajaur but it’s basically a general area around the federally administered tribal areas. Probably more north than south would be my best guess.
Question: Did the Bush administration have a role in writing this narrative?
Steve Coll: Yeah, it did, very much in- at a couple of levels. It-- Osama’s ideology is not very fully formed. I don’t think his analysis or his ideology or his political program are by any means his strengths. His-- He has talents but ultimately this sense of ideology and strategy is not one of them and ultimately I think al-Qaeda will be defeated by the self-limiting nature of his ideology. However, to the extent that he has ideology, it has sort of two levels. One is a political, sort of terra firma here and now set of grievances in which he’s trying to give voice to an eclectic array of legitimate grievances in the Islamic world, and on the other hand he has a millenarian view of himself as leading a preordained war called by God that will end at the end of time. And at both levels the metaphor of war and the fact of war are central to his claim on his followers. So when the Bush administration after 9/11 announces a war against him and frames a global war in which he is the adversary it provides exactly the narrative that he’s been-- It reinforces and elevates and accentuates the narrative that he’s been developing, and certainly he would embrace and has embraced the sort of equivalency that the war narrative provides between himself and say George W. Bush. On the one hand, the president of the hyper-power of the post- early post Cold War period and on the other hand Osama bin Laden leading the righteous forces of Islam against the oppression carried out by that hyper-power. And the Bush administration sort of fairly quickly realized, especially after they turned their attention away from pursuing him and toward invading Iraq, that maybe it wasn’t a good idea to call attention to his-- So they- they’ve gone through this kind of bipolar sort of swings in their attitude towards Osama as an adversary trying to not elevate him by not talking about him, but then that only emphasizes the impunity that he seems to enjoy.
Question: What is al-Qaeda’s reach today?
Steve Coll: What is al-Qaeda first of all? It’s an organization with a particular leader and deputy leader and a bunch of committees and a headquarters sort of and some-- It is a continuous organization that was founded at meetings in 1988, has had the same bureaucracy and the same leader and deputy leader for 20 years. So there is an organization that’s called al-Qaeda that has a boss and it has committees that do finance and media and military. It’s more than that though. It’s also a movement that inspires followers who are disconnected from leaders. It’s also a network of like-minded organizations and it’s also a brand that attempts to attract other organizations and adherence whether in groups or as individuals. So al-Qaeda is I think properly understood as synthesis of these characteristics. Today al-Qaeda the organization is resilient militarily in the sense that they continue to be able to run medium-sized attacks in to Europe. They are struggling politically. I think they are strategically in a corner that they’re not likely to get out of very easily but the organization is still a factor in the security threats faced by not only the United States but also Britain and Germany and Denmark and other countries.
Question: What are your thoughts on the Hoffman and Sageman debate over al- Qaeda’s present condition?
Steve Coll: I think they’re both right. I-- Here is a concrete example and I think it proves the case that they’re both right. The July 7 subway bombings in London-- I think you can-- The evidence is pretty well now established that that attack was supported by al-Qaeda headquarters in Pakistan and was supported by the travel that some of the participants in the plot undertook to meet al-Qaeda operatives in Waziristan and on the other hand the plot originated spontaneously in the disaffected lives of some Pakistani originated British citizens in Leeds. So on the one hand you could say that attack would never have occurred without the independent grassroots individual alienation of the Pakistani Briton in Leeds. On the other hand, it would not have occurred also without the resilient al-Qaeda organization. You can-- It’s like an Escher drawing. You can emphasize one side of that equation or the other but both are present in the narrative.
Recorded on: 07/10/2008
Steve Coll discusses bin Laden's family life, upbringing, and possible whereabouts.
Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?
- Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
- It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
- COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
Sallie Krawcheck and Bob Kulhan will be talking money, jobs, and how the pandemic will disproportionally affect women's finances.
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Manly Bands wanted to improve on mens' wedding bands. Mission accomplished.
- Manly Bands was founded in 2016 to provide better options and customer service in men's wedding bands.
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