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Bin Laden: Never a Master of Marketing

Osama bin Laden -- or “Usama” if you prefer -- was many things. On his lengthy resume he could easily have checked off boxes for positions such as Master Terrorist, Mass Murderer, or Raconteur of Mayhem. But a brief review of a few of his personal documents recently released by the Combating Terrorism Center seems to indicate that public relations and marketing were not among his many skills. In fact, the more we learn of the al-Qaeda mastermind, the more it seems that the man who spent a decade as one of the most feared and hated blackguards on the face of the planet was something of an oafish character.

This is not meant to imply that he was harmless or benign in any way, shape, or form. He still dreamed the big dreams of little terrorist scoundrels everywhere. He wanted to kill the president of the United States (naturally) and dream up new ways of blowing up large things with the highest civilian death toll possible. But in his more private moments he seemed to focus on a rather odd, rambling, and quite possibly manic list of obsessions.

I’m not sure if bin Laden was a Frank Sinatra fan or not, but when it came to regrets… he had a few. Was he sorry for carrying out massively destructive attacks on helpless civilians? Did he worry that he was betraying the tenets of the religion he claimed to champion? No. He was concerned that he’d not come up with the best name for his organization. Al Qaeda -- or “the base” -- just didn’t have the right ring to it.

I can sympathize with him there, having spent a fair bit of time working in the marketing game myself. Branding is critical to success in any business venture, and I suppose terrorism is no exception. You need a catchy name that really reaches out and grabs those target demographic shoppers in the ideological market. So what was he considering for the re-launch of his enterprise? On the list were “Muslim Unity Group, Islamic National Unification Party or Monotheism and Jihad Group.”

One is never going to land a spot on the Mad Men staff with efforts like that. The first choice has to be eliminated immediately, if only for the unfortunate acronym. (Seriously… do you want your followers asking new recruits to sign on to join MUG? It sounds more like a coffee klatch than the real-world version of Villains United.) The INUP is no better, primarily because it makes it sound like a political party and, much like in the United States, those are about as popular as flatulence in the church pews.

MJG holds a bit more promise, but let’s face it… that makes the organization sound more like an investment capital firm. No, if I was going to sign on as their advertising consultant, I’d have come up with something that kicks in a bit more of the Wow Factor. How about “Capitalist Pig Death March”? It not only carries the terrorism brand nicely, but if the outfit ever folds you could reapply it as a name for a punk rock band.

Or perhaps “Jihad Dot Com” might have worked better. That one stays true to your heretic killing roots, but ropes in the all-important iPad-carrying youth market. You’ve got to think of the children, Mr. bin Laden. They’re the future, after all.

When he wasn’t coming up with clever new names for his merry band of murderers, Osama apparently spent a fair bit of time watching cable news shows. (Let’s not be too judgmental here, folks. Admit it… you do too.) And while some are disputing whether the comments originated from bin Laden himself or Adam Gadahn, the al-Qaeda leadership was apparently not much enamored of Fox News, but thought MSNBC was pretty good. (At least until they fired Olbermann.)

In that regard, Osama falls in line nicely with a majority of the Neilsen families in the United States, but it still presents something of a puzzle. Why would a Fox-hating fan of MSNBC be determined to kill Obama? It simply doesn’t make sense. Then again, most geniuses are fickle and have eclectic tastes I suppose.

Bin Laden was also very much in tune with American politics, which should come as no surprise. But while he was busily plotting to knock off not only Barack Obama, but General David Petraeus as well, guess who didn’t make the hit list? Joe Biden.

No, Osama wanted Joking Joe left safe and sound right where he is, and the reason will seem completely obvious in retrospect. With Obama out of the way, Biden would take charge and, as the now dead jihadist put it, he is “totally unprepared for that post, which will lead the US into a crisis.”

I bet Biden is just fuming over that one, and probably regretting the fact that he advised Obama not to go ahead with the mission. Just goes to show you, there’s no accounting for taste. But in any event, you can download and read the full text of all the documents here. Draw your own conclusions, but one thing seems clear. Osama bin Laden had a story arc which went from his being one of the richest and most powerful sheiks in the Arab world to one of the most feared terrorist leaders on the planet, but he ended his days much more like a nerd holed up in his mom’s basement playing World of Warcraft all night. A marketing genius he wasn’t.