I once hypothesized that Osama Bin Laden might be dead. The induction went like this: Proof of life is easy to furnish, but some of the tapes allegedly showing him could easily have been cobbled from earlier releases. Ergo, it mattered to al-Qaida to demonstrate that he was alive. Yet they lacked the ability to demonstrate it. Furthermore, Bin Laden used to be a highly loquacious man, pronouncing on everything from East Timor to Iraq, and seemed at a crucial juncture to have gone quiet.
This reasoning proved inadequate when he popped up during the last U.S. election and made a series of contemporary references, mainly (and ill-advisedly) drawn from Michael Moore's dreadfulFahrenheit 9/11. And we are now assured that the latest audiotape delivered to Al Jazeera has been authenticated also. If we suppose this to be true, then it nonetheless seems to be further evidence that al-Qaida is, as I argued last week, facing a very serious crisis.
Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, there were arrogant and megalomaniac statements from men like Suleiman Abu-Ghaith, spokesman for al-Qaida, saying that this "storm" of violence would not cease falling, and warning all Muslims living in the West to avoid air travel and tall buildings. Then there came all kinds of bluster about how Iraq would be turned into a sea of fire if one coalition foot was allowed across the border. Then there was a long silence. And then the truce offers began, of which the second, delivered in a somewhat thin and reedy voice, was last week's. (The first was a truce offer to Europeans only, offering a separate peace, and went nowhere, as might easily have been predicted.)
The conditions for this latest truce are of course impossible as well. All one needs, in order to earn Bin Laden's mercy, is to give up Afghanistan and Iraq. But this raises a more intriguing question. Why are formerly triumphalist jihadists using the language of "truce" at all? Not very long ago, God was claimed to be on their side and victory certain.
This comes in the context of a reported and believable split within al-Qaida's own ranks. There doesn't seem much reason to doubt the authenticity of Zawahiri's letter to Zarqawi in Iraq, raising doubts about his strategy of poisoning Iraqi society by targeting the Shiites. Heretics they may be, says Zawahiri, but are you sure that blowing up mosques and mausoleums is the right way to go? Add to this the number of home-grown Iraqi "insurgents" who are turning their guns on Zarquawi's gangsters, and you have a real crisis for the bearded nutbag whose very name used to terrify even some of the stoutest in the West.
I have been attacked for callousness and worse for saying that Bin Laden did us a favor on 9/11, but I am increasingly sure I was right. Until that date, he partially owned Afghanistan and his supporters were moving steadily toward the Talibanization of Pakistan as well. There were al-Qaida sympathizers within the Pakistani intelligence services, armed forces, and nuclear establishment (which then included the A.Q. Khan network). There was also an active Saudi support system, consisting mainly of vast tranches of money, for jihadism worldwide. Now, Afghanistan is lost to Bin Laden and Pakistan has had, at least officially, to modify its behavior considerably. The A.Q. Khan network has been shut down. The Saudi ruling class identifies its state interest with a repudiation of al-Qaida, inside and outside its own borders. And the one remaining regime that openly preached holy war and helped train jihadist forces like the "Fedayeen Saddam"—the pseudo-secular terror state in Iraq—has been irretrievably smashed. Wherever Bin Laden is now, it cannot be where he wanted or hoped to be four and a half years ago.
Given the utter discredit and isolation of its forces in Iraq, who would still say that the fighting there is a "distraction" from the hunt for al-Qaida? They have taken tremendous casualties, obviously in the hope that their atrocious tactics would swiftly dissipate coalition morale and coerce Iraqi support. And it seems as if they haven't learned from their mistake.
The fratricide within the insurgency offers a perfect opportunity, which one hopes is being fully exploited, for infiltration, for the spread of damaging rumors about secret negotiations with one faction, for sabotage and for provocations that will increase the misery and distrust now infecting the ranks. It also offers an occasion to reverse the questions that we have been so anxiously asking ourselves. It is for the murderers and video-beheaders to ask themselves: How long can we sustain this effort? How many casualties is too many? Was our postwar planning adequate to the task? Are we winning hearts and minds? Are we endangered by sectarian strife within our own camp? And they have to pursue these discussions in secrecy, with superstitious reference to dreams and omens and prophecies, whereas at last we can pursue our argument in the open.
But what if the other part of Bin Laden's latest tape is true and another attack is in the making? Well, since 2001 there have been hideous assaults in Spain, Turkey, England, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Kenya, Iraq, Jordan, and Indonesia. I know of no evidence to suggest that this has increased Bin Laden's following in any country, and of considerable evidence to the contrary. We keep hearing that this is a war, which by any definition it is. Well, you can't expect a war without casualties. But it just could be that these threats are a sign of desperation, and that the next attack, wherever it comes, simply will not have the psychic potency of the first one. The only alternative is the unthinkable one of suing for terms, while we should be determined that—as already seems possible—it is the enemy that does that.