Who will be the next Dr. Evil?

Who will be the next Dr. Evil?

Who will be the next Dr. Evil?

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Dec. 21 2001 11:06 AM

The Next Dr. Evil

Who will replace Osama as demon in chief?

Illustration by Charlie Powell

Remember that morning in 1998 when you woke up and knew—just knew—that Osama Bin Laden was the United States' Public Enemy No. 1? Three weeks before, you hadn't heard of him, but suddenly there was collective agreement: This hairy monster was our very own Blofeld, the devil at whose feet all crimes could be laid—not merely the U.S. embassy bombings that brought him to our attention, but the first World Trade Center bombing, a plot to assassinate the pope, another to crash a dozen airliners in the Pacific. …

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.


Americans like to personalize our foreign policy problems. When something goes wrong abroad, it's not an "issue"; it's someone's fault. We always put a face to our misery. And every so often, we anoint some foreign malcontent as the arch-fiend responsible for all our global difficulties. Before Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein had a decadelong run as Dr. Evil. Hussein had succeeded Panamanian thug Manuel Noriega. Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi reigned through much of the '80s, though the colonel could never match the whiskery satanic infamy of his predecessor, Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini. (Other dastards have had brief interludes at the top, too. Click here for some of them.)

It takes more than bloodthirstiness and an anti-social personality to turn an everyday ruffian into our devil. The great American villain should spew exceptionally nasty anti-American rhetoric. He must have a sinister or comical appearance: Beards and mustaches are encouraged, so are uniforms or exotic national costumes. (Noriega's acne scars confirmed his iniquity.) He should possess the Bond villain's combination of ruthlessness and secretiveness. He should develop alarming weapons or employ heinous tactics (biological weapons, airplane terrorism, etc.), and he should reside in some hard-to-target hideaway (Qadaffi's tent, Saddam's bunkers). He should threaten not simply American lives but the American way of life. He should either undermine American values from within (as drug dealers do), or he should offer the rest of the world a compelling challenge to American ideals (as the potent Islam of Khomeini and Bin Laden does).

These are high standards. When Bin Laden is killed or captured, is there anyone qualified to inherit his black crown?

Americans will first look to Bin Laden's al-Qaida to provide a sufficiently malevolent heir. Bin Laden's deputy, Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri,is the obvious candidate, but he's no more likely to escape than Bin Laden. The other al-Qaida lieutenants are unknown, and the organization is presumably so broken that no single dark champion can emerge. The Philippines, Somalia, and Indonesia all claim al-Qaida-allied Islamic guerrillas, but none of these movements is powerful, and none has a charismatic leader.


In the absence of an al-Qaida heir, attention is already turning to the obvious candidate for demonization, Saddam Hussein. Hawks are rallying for a war against the "ultimate terrorist." Hussein is certainly a superb candidate for top scourge. He's evil, he's incorrigible, he makes and uses weapons of mass destruction, he murders his own citizens, he despises the United States. Hussein, in short, knows the part. He will almost certainly replace Bin Laden. But Hussein is an unsatisfying choice—been there, done that. We know how bad he is; we spent a decade throwing darts at his face. It's hard to whip up the same enthusiasm about him the second time around.

If Hussein doesn't capture the imagination, or if we quickly topple him, we'll need to find an alternate viper. There aren't as many promising applicants as you'd expect. Traditional American enemies have behaved relatively well recently. Qaddafi isn't making trouble. Young Bashir Assad of Syria is colorless and bureaucratic. The mullahs of Iran have mellowed toward the United States.

Among the ranks of terrorists, the name that surfaces is Imad Mughniyah, Hezbollah's top terror strategist. Before Sept. 11, Mughniyah had been responsible for more American deaths than any other terrorist. He masterminded the 1983 bombings of Beirut's U.S. Marine barracks and U.S. embassy. He kidnapped and murdered Americans in Beirut, hijacked an airliner in 1985, and blew up Jewish buildings in Argentina during the early '90s. (Some far-fetched intelligence reports posit a grand-unified theory of terror linking Mughniyah, Bin Laden, Hussein, and the Sept. 11 attacks.) But Mughniyah is not a vivid candidate for demon. He avoids publicity—there are no known pictures of him. He has none of the rhetorical or ideological muscle of a Bin Laden—Mughniyah is a killer, not a leader. And he hasn't targeted Americans for more than a decade.

Nor do emerging terror operations supply an obvious Bin Laden sub. Hamas, the Palestinian terror bombing outfit, follows Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, an old, infirm cleric. Hamas is murderous, and it has potent ideology. But Hamas' real battle is with Israel. It has never targeted Americans. And Yassin doesn't have the personality to be an Übervillain. Other groups, like Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers and the Algerian Islamic terror group GIA, are ruthless and bloody-minded, but the United States doesn't care about their fights, and they don't care about us.


The world's worst dictators also fall short. Myannmar's regime, which used to bear the fabulously horrible name SLORC, represses, tortures, and murders its own citizens. But it has kept its brutality inside its borders. Zimbabwe's RobertMugabe is killing opponents, encouraging mob warfare against whites, and generally destroying a prosperous country. But again, the U.S. interests in Zimbabwe are too weak to warrant demonizing Mugabe. North Korea's Kim Jong-il has inherited his father's paranoia and appetite for exotic weapons. But Kim has been experimenting with rapprochement recently, and he hasn't threatened U.S. forces in South Korea. Besides, his ideology is so hopelessly wrong-headed and out of date that he's hard to take seriously. Kim could certainly kill Americans, but there is no danger anyone will embrace his crazed ego-Stalinism. (On the other hand, the villain of the next Bond movie will be a North Korean general.) China's Jiang Zemin suppresses dissent and foments anti-Americanism, but neither China nor the United States seeks an overt struggle with the other. (Even if China did pursue enmity, Jiang is too bland to be cast as supervillain.)

There are three candidates with Bin Laden potential. The first is a real long shot: Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Of course, Saudi Arabia is a U.S. ally that hosts American military bases and does billions of dollars in business with U.S. companies. But Crown Prince Abdullah is extremely religious and conservative. Unlike other Saudi royals, Abdullah dislikes the West and doesn't appreciate American intervention in the Islamic world. He's somewhat sympathetic to pro-Bin Laden Saudi fundamentalists. If Saudi Arabia becomes a little more fundamentalist and a little more anti-American, it's not impossible that it could abandon its American alliance. The U.S.-Saudi relationship, which has frayed since Sept. 11, could degrade. (Remember, most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, most of Bin Laden's money comes from Saudis, and many Saudi clerics support his brand of jihadism.) An alienated Saudi Arabia could destabilize the U.S. economy with oil price hikes and could supply funds and arms to anti-American terrorists. It's not likely, but it's not impossible. Abdullah, with his beard and robes, could become a vivid American enemy.

But the most likely candidates for chief demon—after Hussein—can be found in our own hemisphere. Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's coup-leader-turned-president, is the most unstable politician in the Americas. Chavez is trying to impose a radical socialism on Venezuela, a policy that has inflamed the conservative business community and many ordinary citizens. Chavez has the tics of an arch-rogue: He's megalomaniacal, he's prone to break into song or poetry during TV appearances, and he doesn't like the United States. His own doctor questions his sanity. Chavez has condemned the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan as "terrorism" and has sucked up to Saddam Hussein and Fidel Castro. So far, he hasn't spread his revolution beyond Venezuela, but he's so erratic that no one really knows what he might do.

Manuel Marulanda, the 71-year-old commander of the Colombian rebel group FARC, has even more qualifications for the job. He rules over a huge, inaccessible enclave of rural Colombia. After 40 years of rebellion, Marulanda has semilegitimized FARC through negotiations with Colombia's President Andres Pastrana. His operation—supposedly Marxist—is little more than banditry. Marulanda's 15,000-strong army kidnaps Colombians by the score and murders villagers (trading massacres with the equally loathsome right-wing paramilitary group, AUC).

Marulanda qualifies for American hatred because he targets Americans and crosses borders. His troops have murdered Americans in Venezuela, kidnapped them throughout Colombia, and extorted money from American businesses. He protects heroin and cocaine tycoons, allowing them to produce drugs in Colombia for the American market. And he is expanding his operation globally. Earlier this year, Colombia arrested three IRA hardmen who had been training Marulanda's followers to use the explosive Semtex.

Marulanda does media interviews and has a panache that could help in his demonization. (He is famous for always draping a towel over his shoulder, raising the possibility for still more offensive towel jokes.) He has a colorful nickname: "Tirofijo" or "Sureshot." After Osama, and after the Butcher of Baghdad, then "Tirofijo"!