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Bin Laden: the everywhere and nowhere man

One of the standard descriptions of celebrity is to say that someone has become a famous face. But what was unusual about Osama bin Laden is that the face is pretty much all that his enemies and supporters had.

Previous bogeymen of the west could be narrowed down to a town, if not an actual address — Hitler, Berlin; Stalin, Moscow; Saddam Hussein, Baghdad. Bin Laden, though, existed only on videotapes and, it was presumed, in caves, so his death in a plush residential district of a garrison town is a reminder of the extent to which he was able to evade his enemies and rely on political friends in Asia.

Despite being stateless, he was very far from faceless. The sensible rule for those wishing for some reason not be found — reclusive writers such as JD Salinger and Thomas Pynchon, or fugitives such as Lord Lucan — is to fight to keep their faces out of the papers. The classic recluse is known only through a high school yearbook photo, rendered ever more misleading by time. In the many supposed sightings of Lucan, the identification was predicated on the fact that he no longer resembled the extant snaps. In fiction and in fact, cosmetic surgery is a given for those hiding from the law.

Bin Laden, though, not only seems to have kept his own face until American special forces blew it away, but delighted in distributing images of it throughout his time as the world’s most wanted criminal. His videos to al-Jazeera allowed him the paradox of being simultaneously nowhere (for the CIA and special forces trying to find him) and everywhere: on TV, online, on posters and on T-shirts.

Biographies suggest that Bin Laden had a deep fascination with the American culture he affected to despise and so may have calculated the totemic power that these intermittent electronic pop-ups had: as if the wanted poster nailed to the tree of a frontier town had suddenly come to life and started taunting the impotent sheriff and townsfolk.

Indeed, counterintuitively for a fugitive, disguise was never an option. At many points in the last 14 years, off-the-record sources in the espionage world have assured the media — and, probably, presidents and prime ministers as well — that Bin Laden was already dead (his kidneys having supposedly packed up) and so his face needed to stay the same or, crucially, the same plus a few more wrinkles and grey hairs. Unlike the elites in the capitals he targeted, Bin Laden wanted to be seen to grow older.

And what a useful face it was, the one he kept showing the world.

The thinness of the cheeks and wispiness of the beard seemed somehow appropriate for a man who floated beyond capture, as if he were literally ethereal. But his image also had the aura of the mystic and holy man, which presumably explains the ability he had to recruit young men and women to blow themselves up in their teens and twenties, while he desperately tried to live to old age in his hidden spaces.

Indeed, part of the provocation bin Laden offered to his enemies (especially America) in the historically Christian west was his curious resemblance, in his penetrating eyes and cloudy beard, to classical depictions of Jesus Christ.

There was another religious complication in this visage as well. Islam conventionally forbids visual representations of the prophet Muhammad. And so the pleasure Bin Laden seemed to take in having his features beamed around the world might be taken as symbolic of the way in which he perverted and travestied the faith he claimed to represent: in showing his face, he showed himself to be a false prophet. —

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