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Dec 15, 2003

So Now, What About Osama? Special to Site

So Now, What About Osama?
The capture of Saddam Hussein was a victory both for the American army in Iraq and the Iraqi people, but let us be clear: it will have little impact on the wider war on terrorism. It was al Qaeda that struck us on 9/11; it was al Qaeda that attacked the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, and it was al Qaeda that blew up two American embassies in Africa in 1998, not Saddam. Saddam’s capture reminds us that al Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden, remains at large. Bin Laden has gone largely unmentioned by the Bush administration ever since he vanished at the battle of Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan sometime in mid-December 2001, two years ago. The silence of administration officials concerning bin Laden might leave one with the impression that he is no longer relevant to the war on terrorism. However, that view is dangerously mistaken, akin to underestimating the threat posed by al Qaeda’s leader before 9/11.

Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had only one real ideology: the cult of Saddam. Saddam ran Iraq as a dictatorial kleptocracy that enriched a relatively small circle of family members and loyalists. Beyond this circle the cult of Saddam had little wider resonance, despite Saddam’s posturing that he was a new Saladin who would reclaim Jerusalem for the Arabs. By contrast, bin Laden has synthesized an ideology of “al Qaedaism” that is extraordinarily resonant in the Muslim world. Indeed, polls taken earlier this year in Muslim countries as disparate as Indonesia, Turkey and Jordan found that bin Laden is more trusted than President Bush.

Since his disappearing act at Tora Bora bin Laden has released a stream of audiotapes that keeps his rabidly anti-Western message circulating around the world. Around the first anniversary of 9/11 bin Laden released a tape urging his followers to attack western economic targets. Within a month groups affiliated with al Qaeda blew up a disco in Indonesia frequented by westerners killing two hundred and attacked a French oil tanker off the coast Yemen. In his most recent tape, released two months ago, bin Laden urged his followers to wage a jihad against coalition forces in Iraq saying: “We reserve the right to respond at the appropriate time and place against all the countries participating in this unjust war, particularly Britain, Spain, Australia, Poland, Japan and Italy.” Since the release of that tape a suicide attack on an Italian police barracks in southern Iraq killed seventeen; a group of Spanish intelligence agents was ambushed in central Iraq killing seven, and suicide attacks on a British bank and e
mbassy building in Istanbul killed more than sixty. Groups affiliated with al Qaeda are suspects in most of those attacks.

Finding bin Laden should be the number one priority of the war on terrorism, not only because it is his organization that was responsible for the 9/11 attacks, but also because bin Laden continues to this day to inspire attacks from his hideout on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Unfortunately, the hunt for bin Laden has stalled. Following the battle of Tora Bora where hundreds of Afghan militia members, supported by a small number of US Special Forces, had bin Laden encircled in an area of several dozen square miles he disappeared into the North West Frontier Province of neighboring Pakistan. This province is a desolate region of deserts and mountains thousands of square miles in area that bin Laden knows intimately as he has been visiting it regularly since he was in his early twenties. Moreover, according to several US officials, bin Laden is not doing the kinds of things that gets fugitives caught such as using phones that can be traced, nor does it appear that the CIA, nor the intelligence se
rvices of coalition partners, have a mole in al Qaeda who can provide real time information about bin Laden’s location.

However, the day will eventually come when quality intelligence or a lucky break will finally unmask bin Laden’s location. The successful capture of Saddam provides a useful template for that day. When bin Laden is found we should at all costs avoid the temptation of making him a martyr, a role that he has–at least rhetorically– said he is hoping to embrace. The “martyrdom” of bin Laden would energize the ideology of al Qaedaism for decades to come, while pictures of a captured bin Laden would do much to puncture his mystique, as have the unflattering pictures of the captured Saddam. Moreover, a trial of bin Laden will not enhance his legend. The Egyptian jihadist leader Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman was tried for his role in a series of terror plots in New York in the mid 90s, and is now serving the rest of his life in an American prison. Sheik Rahman is now largely forgotten. It is this model that should be followed in bringing bin Laden to justice. If bin Laden dies a martyr, in death he may take on more impor
tance than he has had in life.

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