The Satellite Dishes Finally Make Sense

We are pleased to have another guest post from Erica Chenoweth. Erica is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University, where she directs the Program on Terrorism and Insurgency Research. She is currently finishing a book about terrorism in democracies. Erica’s post is below.


Since the release of the graphics of Osama bin Laden’s Abbotabad complex last week, I’ve been puzzling over the purpose of those satellite dishes. I had assumed they served some operational purpose, such as satellite phones or internet connectivity—something that would help Osama bin Laden stay in contact with his agents. But analysts claimed that there were no phone or internet connections, in or out. Why would bin Laden waste money on something he wasn’t going to use?

I guessed that perhaps the compound wasn’t originally built for bin Laden—that maybe he was just housed there. But recent descriptions of the construction of the place, and speculations that the compound was built for his exclusive use, made that theory implausible, or at least extremely difficult to confirm.

Today’s release of Osama bin Laden’s home videos solve the puzzle, revealing a much more mundane purpose: he liked to watch himself on TV. In essence, the satellite dishes were there for the sole purpose of satisfying bin Laden’s obsession with his own media portrayals.

What does this revelation tell us about bin Laden’s behavior, and that of terrorists in general?

On the surface, this disclosure seems to confirm an incredibly human desire for notoriety—an attribute that Louise Richardson emphasizes in her book What Terrorists Want. Ultimately, instead of being people with grand objectives—freedom from oppression, the restoration of justice, the purification of souls—terrorists may simply be people who adopt these narratives to justify their own self-glorification. Instead of using violence instrumentally to secure certain political objectives, terrorists may be individuals who already want to use violence to satisfy personal desires for prestige—and look good doing it.

The best portrayals (in my opinion) of Osama bin Laden’s radicalization indicate a gradual and purposive process. According to most accounts, bin Laden’s desire to hurt the United States reflected real grievances about the perceived injustices of U.S. actions in the Middle East. But this latest news seems to indicate that—at least lately—the bulk of his activities concerned his attention to our attention to him. And no matter how he was portrayed before, bin Laden would never have wanted this inside view to be revealed to the world.

The news also tells us that the public should take terrorists’ stated motivations with a grain of salt. In some cases, their motivations may be rooted in real grievances which, if addressed, will make them stop using violence. But in many cases, their actions may be rooted in nothing more than pure ego. And if that’s the case, then addressing their grievances will only make them find a new cause to promote.

9 Responses to The Satellite Dishes Finally Make Sense

  1. Osamabama May 7, 2011 at 9:43 pm #

    >>Why would bin Laden waste money on something he wasn’t going to use?<<

    Because it would look strange for a large house in that part of the world not to have a satellite dish, I think.

  2. Realist Writer May 8, 2011 at 3:20 am #

    “What does this revelation tell us about bin Laden’s behavior, and that of terrorists in general?”

    That people like to see themselves on TV?

    Your logic would basically lead you to conclude politicians (especially extremist politicians), while representing real grievances and interest groups, are in fact vain individuals interested only in prestige and fame, interested in making controversial statements only so journalists can hear those statements and make comments about them. And while that may be true, I think that is a more cynical view of humanity than what said politicians want, especially since we have to rely on them to represent us in a representative democracy.

    • name May 8, 2011 at 3:30 pm #

      …said the sheep.

  3. Elais May 8, 2011 at 2:29 pm #

    Dumb question from an undergrad here but… Maybe he liked to watch television as well? I mean watching images of himself could be a big part of it but maybe he liked to keep up with news not related to him, or even a favorite tv show or two. Maybe evem his crew had access to tv on breaks. It just feels weird for me when we say “he watched himself on tv, therefore the sattelites served that one purpose.”

  4. bp May 8, 2011 at 2:44 pm #

    >>In essence, the satellite dishes were there for the sole purpose of satisfying bin Laden’s obsession with his own media portrayals.

    How could you possibly know what the SOLE purpose of the dishes were from watching one home video? I’d assume he also wanted to keep up with the news.

  5. bradjshannon May 8, 2011 at 6:43 pm #

    I’m not sure I understand the “narcissism” explanation of OBL’s behavior or living situation. If he’s the PR Guy for al Qaeda, it is his job to closely monitor and control his public image. That’s not necessarily narcissism.

    • chris May 9, 2011 at 5:25 pm #

      That, but also, it would tell him what the West knows, or thinks, or thinks it knows about him (at least the unclassified parts).

  6. making sense May 8, 2011 at 6:50 pm #

    If this is what passes as insights from terrorism and insurgency research, no wonder it took nearly 10 years to capture OBL and that the “War on Terror” has been so unproductive. That an exiled international terror propagandist and leader in hiding would want to receive satellite TV broadcasts about what was happening around the rest of the world only because of his obsessive self-glorification and nothing else is rather laughable.

    Chenoweth is only parroting US government propaganda, backed by a very limited, selective release of video in a clumsy effort to dismantle OBL’s image among al Qaeda followers. She only illustrates that she is well paid to jump through hoops on signal. Obsessive self-glorification certainly would not have been OBL’s worst character flaw. There may still be parts of the world where that is seen as a character flaw, but perhaps least so in the celebrity-driven US.

  7. Rob May 8, 2011 at 7:32 pm #

    I have it on good authority that he was a fan of Dancing with the Stars but mostly so he could see the fat chick fall on her decadent American ass.