Two vastly differing studies of the hunt for the world’s most wanted terrorist and the never-ending war against Al-Qaeda. Incredibly it will be 10 years in September since the 9/11 attacks, and Osama Bin Laden is still at large. Having failed to capture him, the American administration these days argues he is irrelevant. Al-Qaeda, it says, has been fatally weakened by unmanned drone attacks on its leadership hiding out in the tribal areas of Pakistan, a claim undermined by some reports
Incredibly it will be 10 years in September since the 9/11 attacks, and Osama Bin Laden is still at large. Having failed to capture him, the American administration these days argues he is irrelevant. Al-Qaeda, it says, has been fatally weakened by unmanned drone attacks on its leadership hiding out in the tribal areas of Pakistan, a claim somewhat undermined by reports that only two high-level militants were killed despite a record 133 attacks last year.
President Obama hasn’t mentioned Bin Laden since last September. “[Al-Qaeda] have been holed up in ways that have made it harder for them to operate,” he claimed. “And part of what’s happened is Bin Laden has gone deep underground.” There is little doubt that drone attacks may have impeded its ability to operate. There have been no large attacks since the 7/7 bombings, and more recent thwarted attempts such as ones to bomb New York’s subway and Times Square or the Christmas Day underpants bombing have been far more amateurish. Home-grown terrorists and internet clerics seem a greater threat than the man with the $25m bounty on his head.
And yet surely, wherever he’s holed up, Bin Laden must be congratulating himself. More than 8,000 Nato soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, billions of dollars been spent, and we seem mired in a never-ending war.
Two important new books by long-time Bin Laden-watchers try to assess how much of a threat Al-Qaeda is today and come up with very different views. Peter L Bergen, national security analyst for CNN and one of the few journalists to have interviewed Bin Laden, begins his book with the run up to 9/11. The account of missed warnings by the Bush administration is familiar territory, but he tells it well and takes us right on through to the current morass in Afghanistan.
The Longest War is by far the best and most comprehensive book on the conflict so far. Bergen includes detailed accounts of missed opportunities such as Tora Bora, the last time American intelligence had Bin Laden in their sights yet failed to put enough boots on the ground, leaving the job to warring Afghan commanders who let him flee.
Bergen’s clear anger over the war in Iraq leaves few in the Bush administration unspared and he is excellent on the absurdity of Washington’s complex dealings with Pakistan. He argues that had Al-Qaeda been founded and based in Iran, and had Iranian nuclear scientists met with Bin Laden and on top sold technology to rogue states, America would have gone to war. Instead Pakistan was an ally receiving billions of dollars. But what is missing from Bergen’s account is an analysis of what it is that Pakistan really wants. In the same way, there is little insight into how the Taliban have achieved their remarkable resurgence or what motivates Al-Qaeda.
One might hope to find this instead from Michael Scheuer, the head of the CIA’s Bin Laden unit in 1996-99, who has arguably followed the Al-Qaeda leader more closely than any other analyst. In his small, rather angry book, he argues that the West has misinterpreted its nemesis, who will be 54 next month. He claims they have mistakenly caricatured him as a hot-headed jihadist under the influence of an evil mastermind, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian cleric who is Bin Laden’s deputy.
Instead, Scheuer’s Bin Laden is media-savvy — putting out more than 30 videos and audiotapes since 9/11 — and a master strategist who took full advantage of the war in Iraq, which he describes as “Bin Laden’s Christmas present”. In his view, Bin Laden is not just a figurehead but a leader of continuing significance and “uniquely dangerous” — able to mobilise 1.3 billion Muslims.
Although Scheuer devotes much space to criticising other writers on Bin Laden, I am not sure we learn anything new about the 17th son of a self-made millionaire from Yemen. Indeed, his own description of Bin Laden being regarded as a hero by the Afghan mujaheddin for his fierce fighting against the Soviets is sadly mistaken. Even then many Afghans regarded him as a fanatic and were scared of him. If there is a kind of Stockholm syndrome for those dedicated to tracking down an enemy, Scheuer may suffer it. At times he seems in danger of romanticising Bin Laden, describing him as “pious, brave, generous, intelligent, charismatic, patient, visionary, stubborn and egalitarian”.
What both books make clear is the tremendous difficulty that governments — and armies — have in adjusting to the changing pace of events, and how hard they found it switching to fighting a terrorist threat after decades stuck in the cold war mentality.
Over the past few weeks, from Tunis to Cairo, events have again moved on, leaving governments scrambling to keep up. Both America and Al-Qaeda have been sidelined by the astonishing outpouring of protesters in Arab streets and squares. There is a new generation out there wanting to oust corrupt and repressive rulers not through violence and suicide bombs but Facebook and peaceful protest. Suddenly, even Bin Laden and his videotapes seem stuck in the past.
Christina Lamb is the Washington bureau chief of The Sunday Times
Investigating America's Homegrown Terrorists
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