Bin Laden Was a Failure for the Last Six Years of His Life

U.S. officials say the al-Qaeda leader's last success was the 2005 London bombing

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Up until Navy SEALs killed him in Abbotabad, Pakistan on May 2, Osama bin Laden was undoubtedly the world's most-wanted terrorist. But, according to a Reuters report today, he wasn't exactly living up to that title for the last six years of his life. U.S. officials tell Reuters that, based on circumstantial evidence from bin Laden's compound, the "last successful operation" the al-Qaeda leader oversaw was the group's 2005 suicide bombings of London's transit system. Bin Laden hadn't been personally linked to the attacks until recently.

So what explains bin Laden's six-year dry spell? Had he become a mere figurehead, holed up in his compound watching himself and President Obama on TV (see above), or was he simply failing to carry out attacks? The latest assessments from U.S. and other Western officials suggest the latter theory. Reuters notes that bin Laden appears to have had advance and perhaps detailed operational knowledge of an unsuccessful London-based plot to bomb U.S.-bound flights in 2006 and of unsuccessful Mumbai-style plots against European cities last year. Still, Reuters adds, "the cache of evidence found in bin Laden's lair does not offer new indications about any specific current plots he was involved in directed at U.S. or other Western targets."

The picture Reuters paints of bin Laden--detail-oriented and still in charge, if rather ineffectual--squares with the characterizations of the al-Qaeda leader that emerged shortly after his death, as investigators scoured the Abbotabad compound. At the time, one U.S. official told The New York Times that bin Laden continued to plot attacks, including assaults on U.S. railroads, and convey those idea to other Qaeda leaders. The Washington Post claimed bin Laden "functioned like a crime boss pulling strings from a prison cell," exhorting his followers to "remain focused on U.S. targets instead of mounting less risky operations in places such as Yemen, Somalia and Algeria"--an opinion some al-Qaeda members strongly disagreed with. ProPublica noted that bin Laden even criticized al-Qaeda's English-language magazine, Inspire, for recommending using a farm vehicle with blades as a "fearsome killing machine." That attack, like many of the others, never materialized.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.