This was inspired somewhat by a recent post by Gregory Djerejian over at the Belgravia Dispatch. Now just to be clear so that nobody mistakes this as an attack on him, I like Greg, I respect him, and his blog is on my daily reading list right next to such daily Darling reads as Rantburg, Roger Simon, Belmont Club, ect.
Unfortunately, I tend to disagree with Greg's most recent conclusion that Osama bin Laden is among the deceased. I also think that a number of people (Greg not amongst them) don't adequately understand where it is that bin Laden falls into the grander picture of what al-Qaeda and its allied groups are. This is key, because if he is at some point confirmed as being captured or killed it will be imperative that the US understand what we've done - and what we've not done - in terms of the long-term destruction of our current adversary, meaning al-Qaeda and its allies in the International Islamic Front. This post is an effort to demonstrate this, as well as to tie together a number of semi-incoherent threads that have been floating through my feebled mind of late.
A few rebuttals, or why I think bin Laden's alive ...
Greg's post brought up a number of key points in terms of arguments in favor of bin Laden taking a dirt nap, so let me take the time to address them one-by-one to explain where my own conclusions on these tapes disagree with his own:
1. The fact that bin Laden hasn't issued an audiotape since May 7, 2004 is immaterial, given that he hadn't been heard from between December 2001 and October 2002. I also think that comparing the long periods of time between when these tapes have been issued in recent years to the relatively short amount of time in which they were issued in the immediate aftermath of September 11 is somewhat erroneous, since it fails to take into account that prior to October 7, 2001, the last time bin Laden appeared on videotape was in January of that same year to celebrate one of his son's weddings and the attack on the U.S.S. Cole. So for him to go underground for long periods of time without communicating with the general public is by no means out of character, even during those periods of time when he is universally agreed upon to have been alive.
2. The April 15, 2004 audiotape that offered a truce (sulh, not hudna) to Europe is considered authentic by both European and US intelligence agencies. It is precisely for this reason that the Italian intelligence agency SISMI among others were worried about the possibility of terrorist attacks on the date of or shortly following the offer's expiration.
3. In the case of the January 2004 tape, here is what the speaker says: "From Osama Bin Laden to his brothers and sisters in the entire Islamic nation: May God's peace, mercy and blessings be upon you." This isn't exactly an introduction so much as it is him giving his blessing to the rest of the Muslim world.
4. The October 19, 2003 videotape, according to the Guardian article that Greg cites, apparently includes a call to attack US and British troops in Iraq, which enables us to date as being made at some point after March 2003. I'll deal with the issue of whether or not bin Laden could have predicted the US attack on Iraq a little further down. As far as him appearing healthy in the October 2003 videotape, he would have had nearly two years to recover from any injuries sustained during Operation Enduring Freedom.
5. I believe the video footage of bin Laden and al-Zawahiri walking along the mountainside with Amin al-Haq was actually shot in springtime and that there is some dispute as to whether or not it is pre-9/11 footage. In the absence of a consensus one way or another, I think one should refrain from having any kind of firm opinions about the tape and considering all options open.
6. Bin Laden released an audiotape on February 11, 2003 intended to coincide with the date of that year's Eid al-Fitr holiday, so there is not a gap between December 2002 and April 2003 in which bin Laden remains silent. It is on the February 2003 tape, incidentally, that he openly acknowledges that an alliance with the Baathist poses no threat to his agenda with respect to defeating the US.
7. The November 2002 audiotape that claimed responsibility for both Bali and the Moscow theater seige is the subject of a great deal of controversy ever since the Dalle Molle Institute for Perceptual Artificial Intelligence went public with its belief that the audiotape was a fake. Now I'm no voice or audio expert so I don't want to get into any deeper into this debate than I have to, but the Dalle Molle Institute's conclusions are far from definitive and the CIA stands by its belief that the November 2002 tape was indeed a genuine recording. As the Guardian story that Greg cited noted, the Institute of Linguistics and Phonetics believes the tape to be genuine. I should also note here that the CIA has access to a large number of intercepted phone calls from bin Laden's satellite phone that have not been disclosed to the public for a variety of reasons and as such has a far greater body of data against which to test these recordings.
8. The claim of responsibility for the September 11 attacks was indeed, as Greg notes, likely recorded pre-9/11. Though the fact that al-Qaeda was able to escape from Afghanistan with its audio and video team intact should at the very least make you wonder who else managed to get out ...
9. The "no videotape" argument for bin Laden being dead is in my mind rather disingenuous given that Saddam Hussein, who had a far, far larger ego than bin Laden ever did, never released one during his time on the lamb in Iraq, yet appeared to be alive and well in December 2003 when he was apprehended by US forces. I would also point out that there is currently a large body of evidence suggesting that bin Laden has changed his appearance in some fashion.
General President Musharraf of Pakistan is not a credible source of information on whether or not bin Laden is still alive in my view for a number of reasons, not the least of which being the fact that even if he was being completely candid to his interviewers (and intelligence about whether bin Laden is dead or alive could presumably change between interviews) one of his main sources of information is likely the dubiously-reliable ISI.
11. If the administration had anything resembling proof or even likely proof that bin Laden were dead, such as what any number of captured al-Qaeda leaders like Abu Zubaydah, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, et al. have said on the subject, I think I can safely say that they would be screaming it from the roof tops, especially at this point. Then there's also the point that if the administration has been sitting on proof that bin Laden is dead and has chosen not to reveal it to the general public, there is an entirely justified Democratic criticism to be made that it withholding information of a vital sort from the American public.
12. Bin Laden doesn't view the world through the same prism that we do, even if he desires to influence our election one way or another. As such, I wouldn't expect that he would break cover just because he thought it might ensure a Bush defeat in November. Even if that is an outcome that he considers desireable, I think it's safe to say that neither Greg nor myself know enough about bin Laden's current situation to know whether or not him breaking cover in hopes of influencing the election would be something that he views as being in his best interest, especially if he has altered his appearance.
That being said ...
So why would bin Laden remain outside the public square for so long? It's a question that has boggled any number of intelligence analysts, but I think perhaps one of the most likely explanations occurs in Michael Ledeen's War Against the Terror Masters from pp. 49-50, which I trust he won't be too angry if I quote:
The US intelligence community, which had scoffed at the very idea of Iran/Al Qaeda cooperation, now seriously considered the possibility that bin Laden himself was hiding in the Islamic Republic. Nobody knew exactly where bin Laden had found refuge, but it would be entirely in character for the Shi'ite tyrants in Tehran to hide him. Their faith revolves around a "vanished imam" and they would understand that bin Laden might become even more powerful if he, too, vanished. The Iranians were adept at creating myths; they would relish turning bin Laden into a legendary figure. "Vanishing" bin Laden inside Iran would be easy, since, in addition to the normal hiding places in a country of seventy million people, there was a vast covert facility: the Chinese and North Koreans had dug an elaborate network of tunnels just north of Tehran, where weapons, ammunition, laboratories, and guests requiring total privacy could be secreted. Bin Laden was used to living in caves and tunnels, after all.
In all probability, the working relationship between Al Qaeda and Iran was forged in Afghanistan in the Afghan war against the Soviet Union and continued uninterrupted throughout the nineties. There were certainly many contacts during Osama's Sudan years, and while his move to Afghanistan and his intimate relationship with the Taliban (an enemy of Iran) undoubtedly caused problems, the link was never broken. Indeed, people in a position to know claim that shortly after September 11, bin Laden sent a video casette to Tehran, thanking the Iranian leaders for the precious assistance.
Ledeen wrote that back in September 2002 and looking back, it seems that he seems to have been proven all too correct. Based on what we know today:
- Over 384 al-Qaeda operatives, including 18 senior leaders (if not bin Laden himself, certainly his top lieutenants), are holed up at Chalous and Lavizan. And guess who helps to staff Chalous? Russian, Chinese, and North Korean scientists.
- According to the 9/11 commission report among other sources, bin Laden would have had good reason to thank Iran with respect to the 9/11 attacks. Others, such as Iranian defector Hamid Reza Zakiri, go even further to recount that bin Laden sent more than just a video to the Iranian leadership - he sent his son Saad, as well as his several of his wives and other children.
Now I know that conventional wisdom has bin Laden and al-Zawahiri as being in the Pakistani tribal areas (where there have been repeated sitings of both men), but consider this - when Pakistani forces launched a major offensive against al-Qaeda and its Pashtun tribal allies in April 2004, they were quite certain that they had Ayman al-Zawahiri cornered and were going to deliver a major prize to Musharraf's American backers. In the end, they ended up killing the man they believed to be al-Zawahiri who was being protected by hundreds fighters ... only for them to learn that it was none other than an Uzbek named Thuraya who was apparently serving as al-Zawahiri's body double. Who's to say that the "Osama" that any number of US and Pakistani detainees claim to have seen isn't just another such double? Their presence in the tribal areas would serve to keep US, Afghan, and Pakistani forces hunting in the tribal areas, all the while the real bin Laden was hundreds of miles away. I can't help but notice that since Thuraya was bagged, there has been a sizeable drop in the number of reputed al-Zawahiri sightings in the territories.
Heck, it'd be a pretty good plan if I was an international fugitive ...
And for whatever it's worth, the same source who told me that the reports of Adnan al-Shukrijumah in Latin American is bunk also said that according to Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, he last met with bin Laden in northern Pakistan in late 2002 and that bin Laden addressed him while wearing a hood that covered his face, kind of like Darth Sidious, I guess. I just mention this for the sake of completion and you can choose either to believe that or not.
What I know ...
For whatever it's worth, here my own private collection of the reports on bin Laden's movements and activities since November 10, 2001. All of this should be subject to change, as my most recent information on any of this dates to August 2004:
- Swore to defeat the United States in a speech delivered to 1,000 Afghan tribal leaders at the Islamic Studies Center in Jalalabad on November 10, 2001.
Left Jalalabad for Tora Bora on November 23 in a convoy of over 100 trucks and armored cars.
- Family was entrusted to Saif al-Adel in December 2001 and handed over to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps for their protection.
- Believed to have escaped from Tora Bora on December 12, 2001 during a 24 hour cease-fire between al-Qaeda fighters and US-backed militia forces.
- Captured bin Laden bodyguard chief Abdullah Tabarak has told US interrogators that he played pre-recorded cassette tapes over bin Laden's satellite phone after December 12 to convince US intelligence that bin Laden was still at Tora Bora in a ruse that succeeded until December 16, when the stronghold fell to US, British, and Afghan forces.
- Believed to have fled to Peshawar immediately following Tora Bora and taken refuge with members of Fazlur Rahman's Jamaat-e-Ulema-e-Islam party. May have undergone plastic surgery in early January 2002.
- Received medical treatment from long-time physician Dr. Ahmed Khawaja in the Bajaur area of Pakistan under the protection of the Ghilzai tribesmen following Tora Bora. According to Khawaja's interrogation by Pakistani authorities, the long-standing rumors of bin Laden having kidney problems were a ruse deliberately concocted by the terrorist leader in order to have his enemies believe him to be largely immobile and dependent on frequent access to medical aid.
- Intercepted communications from eastern Iran recorded conversations between bin Laden in Peshawar and senior al-Qaeda leaders in Iranian Baluchistan in January 2002. Confirmed by both US and Indian intelligence officials. These communications came to an end after they were reported by American and international media outlets.
- Wrote a letter to Abu Zubaydah in Faisalabad in early 2002 investing him as the operational commander of al-Qaeda and urging him to continue the war against the US and its allies even if bin Laden and al-Zawahiri were killed.
- Despite multiple reports placing him in Chechnya, Azad Kashmir, Shah-e-Khot, Jalalabad, and Karachi no confirmed sightings of bin Laden have been made since December 2001, leading a few in Western intelligence agencies to conclude that he died at Tora Bora.
- "Recent" video footage released by al-Qaeda media organizations since 2001 is likewise regarded as inconclusive by most Western intelligence agencies.
- In July 2002, bin Laden's eldest son Saad was formally invested as his father's heir apparent by Saif al-Adel and Mahfouz Ould Walid in Iran.
- Arab media reports in August 2002 claimed that bin Laden had resumed active command and control of al-Qaeda, which would be consistent with the worldwide terror offensive launched by the network in two successive waves from September 2002 to January 2003 in its attempt to deter the US and its allies from attacking Iraq.
- Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are believed to have traveled to the Pakistani border towns of Dir and Shah Salim in August 2002 to solidify their new alliance with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami party. By this point, the towns of both Shah Salim and Murkushi had been operating as bonafide al-Qaeda enclaves inside of Pakistan for at least several months.
- During their time in Pakistan, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri relied on an extensive security network that was set up to include three concentric circles spread out over a diameter of roughly 120 miles. The first ring sent a warning to the second ring whenever Pakistani troops entered the Northwest Frontier Province, while a smaller ring some 12 miles in diameter provided advance warning if the first ring had been breached or compromised. At the center of the security rings were the two al-Qaeda leaders, their aides, and bin Laden’s 200-strong bodyguard contingent.
- After Ramzi Binalshibh's arrest in September 2002, 5 passports intended for bin Laden's children were recovered from Binalshibh's residence in addition to the terrorist's address book.
- The Saudi-owned magazine al-Majallah published bin Laden's purported will from December 2001 in an October 2002 issue. In it, he expresses frustration at his Taliban allies and calls for a full purge within the terror network of all suspected "collaborators."
- On November 11, 2002 an audiotape from bin Laden broadcast on al-Jazeera claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks that had occurred over the last several months on 3 continents. Despite the Lausanne-based Dalle Molle Institute for Perceptual Artificial Intelligence's findings that the audiotape was a fake, the CIA and NSA nevertheless continue to affirm that is genuine, citing a far greater body of data from which to compare it to, including hundreds of satellite phone calls intercepted by the US and allied intelligence agencies from 1996-1998.
- Sent 3 Saudi emissaries with an audiotaped message from him to GSPC leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar in Niger in December 2002.
- Last met with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (and Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani?) in December 2002 in Pakistani Baluchistan. According to Mohammed, senior al-Qaeda leaders travel in and out of Iran and into Pakistan through the Ribat tribal region. Mohammed further named bin Laden's backers inside Pakistan as Mehmed Ahmed, Hamid Gul, and Javir Nasir and claimed that he received messages from the terrorist leader through members of Dawood Ibrahim's criminal organization.
- Using information gathered from the Spider Group [a special team of former Pakistani military officers hunting for al-Qaeda leaders in the Pakistani tribal areas under FBI direction], Pakistani authorities were able to apprehend Dr. Javed Ahmed Khawaja and his extended family in Lahore in December 2002. A naturalized American citizen, Ahmed had several computers full of information on al-Qaeda activities in the Bajaur tribal region in his possession and is believed to have provided medical treatment to bin Laden following Tora Bora in addition to harboring Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Yasser al-Jaziri, Assadullah (the son of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman), Abu Faraj al-Libi, and 7 members of bin Laden’s bodyguard in the immediate aftermath of the al-Qaeda retreat from Tora Bora. Khawaja's phone number in Bajaur was among those found in Abu Zubaydah’s phone directory after his capture.
- Son Ali was married to a Yemeni bride in Jeddah in January 2003.
- February 2003 audiotape denounces planned US-led invasion of Iraq, authorizes al-Qaeda cooperation with Iraqi Baathists.
- Eldest son Saad met with Saif al-Adel and Abu Musab Zarqawi at a safe house in Iranian Baluchistan in February 2003 to discuss plans to expand the al-Qaeda network inside Iraq.
- UK-based al-Ansar News Agency (ANA) claimed to possess a videotape of bin Laden in which he stated that he would die in an attack on the United States at some point in 2003. However, the tape has not been released and ANA has a very poor track record in this regard.
- Khalid Sheikh Mohammed told US interrogators that he had last met with bin Laden in December 2002 somewhere in southwestern Pakistani Baluchistan between Chaman and the Iranian border.
- Khalid Sheikh Mohammed stated that when in Pakistan, bin Laden relies on an extensive network of phone calls, runners, intermediaries, and human couriers provided by the Jamaat-e-Ulema-e-Islam and Jamaat-e-Islami parties. Whenever he wishes to issue orders, he sends trusted human couriers to call an intermediary of one of his lieutenants to relay his orders.
- Captured Taliban diplomat Nasser Ahmed Roohi claimed that bin Laden was in the Siakoh mountain range between the Afghan provinces of Nimroz and Helmand and Pakistani Baluchistan meeting with Taliban officials but that he left the area with his bodyguards as soon as he learned of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's arrest.
- After the capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the CIA suspected they had narrowed bin Laden and his entourage down to traveling in a huge Baluchi trading caravan moving between Pakistan and Iran. President Bush authorized Predator drones to launch a missile attack on the caravan if bin Laden was confirmed to be traveling in it. However, no such confirmation was forthcoming and the caravan crossed into Iran without incident.
- Indian intelligence believes that former ISI chiefs Hamid Gul and Mehmud Ahmed are assisting bin Laden in escaping US and Pakistani efforts to arrest him.
- Held a terrorist summit in Afghanistan in April 2003 to discuss the state of post-Baathist Iraq within the context of al-Qaeda's global jihad.
- Summit attended by a mixture of al-Qaeda, Taliban, Chechen, and IMU members, as well as his trusted lieutenant Saif al-Adel. Al-Adel was designated al-Qaeda's new military commander in the wake of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's arrest.
- A Pakistani police raid on a Karachi al-Qaeda safe house in April 2003 resulted in the capture of Tawfiq Attash Khallad and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s nephew Ali Abd al-Aziz (Ammar al-Baluchi), who had linked up with Khallad following his uncle’s arrest. Khallad was in the process of recruiting over a dozen LeJ members to perpetrate suicide attacks on the US airbase at Shehbaz in Jacobad as well as a suicide aircraft attack on the US consulate in Karachi. Khallad was found in possession of handwritten letters from bin Laden who had been delivered to him by courier.
- All 6 sons were formally stripped of Saudi citizenship on July 7, 2003.
- Top al-Qaeda courier Adil al-Jaziri was arrested by Pakistani authorities and handed over to the US in July 2003. Al-Jaziri had previously served as a top media aide to bin Laden and was responsible for arranging audiotapes from the al-Qaeda leadership to be smuggled from Pakistan to Qatar or the UAE for public broadcast.
- Bin Laden is known amongst the tribesmen of Afghanistan's Kunar province as loar sheikh or "big chief."
- German intelligence learned in September 2003 that Iranian authorities were aware of regular contact between bin Laden and senior al-Qaeda leaders in Iran but had done nothing to stop it.
- US intelligence believed it had narrowed down bin Laden's location to an area of roughly 40 miles in Waziristan between Angoor Ada and the administrative capital in Wana in September 2003 based on electrontic intercepts from the region.
- On September 11, 2003, al-Jazeera aired what it purported to be a new videotape of bin Laden, al-Zawahiri, and Amin al-Haq walking through the mountains of Afghanistan. French counter-terrorism expert Roland Jacquard believes this to have been old footage shot sometime before December 26, 2001.
- In an audiotape broadcast in October 2003, bin Laden sought to hold himself up as the only Arab leader capable of resisting the United States in the wake of the US-led war against Iraq. It also referenced a US budget figure released in July 2003.
- A raw intelligence report by the ISAF in Afghanistan in October 2003 noted reports that bin Laden was living in Kunar province under the protection of the Guzer tribe.
- Met with Taliban leaders during Ramadan 2003 to inform them that their monthly sum of $3,000,000 was being reduced to $1,500,000 to cover costs of supporting the jihad in Iraq.
- A December 2003 audiotape from bin Laden referenced the capture of Saddam Hussein and denounced US and coalition efforts in Iraq as both neo-colonialism and the beginning of a new crusade.
- Approved a major al-Qaeda attack in Rappahannock county, Virginia in late December 2003.
- Multiple reports have claimed that bin Laden entered Iran with al-Zawahiri in July 2003 and have been replaced in Pakistan and Afghanistan with body doubles. These reports, one of which comes from a high-ranking member of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, state that he met with senior Iranian military commanders in the small town of Najmabad in Central district on October 23, 2003 and are regarded as credible by many in the US intelligence community.
The vast majority of this can be easily confirmed through open-source reporting by anybody who's interested. Heck, the majority of it can be confirmed just by using the Rantburg search engine. Suffice it to say that even some of this is true, the US has good reason to suspect that bin Laden is still at large and as long as that remains the case, he will remain a threat to the United States.
How he matters ... or doesn't
There are two schools of thought as to what will happen in the event bin Laden is captured or killed. The fear of him becoming a great hero for his followers or those who despise the US is pretty much fait accompli at this point - that much was ensured as soon as it was determined that he was the one who slaughtered 3,000 Americans on 9/11 and has created a terrorist coalition that is still standing after nearly 4 years of open warfare with a superpower. One school sees him as a Hitler-esque demagogue whose followers will almost certainly collapse into schism and infighting without his controlling personality, while the other sees him as nothing more than the end-product of a religio-ideological culture that has grown up over the last 80 to 1,300 years depending on your views of the current state of Islam. In other words, he's a cog in a machine, maybe even a valuable one, but him being captured or killed isn't ultimately going to change anything as far as the current conflict is concerned.
I myself tend to view both schools as containing a lot of truth to them. While it's certainly true that there is more to the current conflict than just bin Laden, I don't think his cult of personality should be under-estimated. As fun as it is to note with a chuckle that one of the most iconoclastic sects in human history seems to have no problem with posters and banners of the man, the idea of him being the Guy Who Stood Up To Amerikkka And Lived To Gloat About It strikes a powerful chord among his fellow travelers, and his death or capture would certainly serve as a powerful blow to the idea that he is the one on the winning side of this struggle. Certainly it would have a most demoralizing effect on al-Qaeda's rank-and-file, though to be quite honest I'd much rather he be killed on the battlefield than be taken prisoner: I can easily imagine a Beslan-style situation in which hundreds of innocent people are taken prisoner by al-Qaeda members in an effort to secure his release. Another factor that is likely in the event of his death or capture is that the fractures within al-Qaeda are likely to come home to roost (and the absence of such an occurence is one of the strongest indications IMO that he is alive) and we could easily see open warfare within the network along Saudi/Egyptian, Arab/South Asian, ecumenical/sectarian, or purist/pragmatic lines.
Ultimately, we'll just have to wait and see whether or not al-Qaeda as a network is able to survive bin Laden's death or capture. If it does (or has, from people who believe bin Laden to be among the deceased) then that should simply underscore just how deadly an enemy we're dealing with here: one whose hand can reach even from beyond the grave to threaten us.