International Relations

The Satellite Dishes Finally Make Sense

May 7 '11

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.