Yesterday, this column suggested that the attacks on New York and Washington point to a more wide-ranging al-Qaida plan to provoke the United States and its allies into military action in Afghanistan. It also argued that al-Qaida is fuelling an American and European media that's hopelessly predisposed to scare viewers and readers. For example, take the widely held fear that there might be terrorist pilots who plan to spray American cities with anthrax using crop-dusting planes. The first piece of evidence to support this theory was a manual found among the belongings of Mohamed Atta, who died when the plane he was piloting crashed into the World Trade Center. On this evidence alone one could argue that Atta deliberately left behind such a manual so that everyone would believe there was a further mission when in fact no plan exists; and while one can understand the FBI's need to be safe not sorry, the existence of the manual may be just that: a red herring. Why leave behind this telling clue? And the result? Near-hysterical Americans and Europeans buying gas masks, more suspicion of Muslims in America and Europe, and, of course, the added urgency on the part of America and its allies to pursue the Taliban and al-Qaida, which is perhaps exactly what the terrorists want. Yet for what purpose?
The attacks might have been scheduled to give America and its allies just enough time to get troops and materiel to Afghanistan before the arrival of winter. Once winter arrives, however, the Taliban and al-Qaida have their best defense; snow and what one might describe as the season of little or no hope. Moreover, and more importantly, winter traps American and allied troops exactly where al-Qaida wants them—in Afghanistan—whereas the next phase of their own plan involves Pakistan.
When American forces engage Taliban fighters, virulent anti-American sentiment in Northern Pakistan (currently not as impressive as some reporters have suggested) can be expected to swell—helped along by Taliban-friendly Bin Laden-adoring clerics. As Tariq Ali points out in this week's edition of The Nation, any further unrest could have immensely serious consequences for Pakistan; it is no exaggeration to describe the state of this nation as close to a powder keg. Perhaps it's alarmist to say that Pakistan has a few nuclear weapons (and a reactor), yet it's also no secret. Could the aim of al-Qaida be to grab Pakistan's nuclear arsenal? Would they need to topple President Musharraf's regime, or do they hope to encourage enough civil unrest and distraction to allow their own guerrillas (trained in those famous Afghan camps) to make a raid? Such a raid might fail—and let's hope it does—but what we know so far suggests that Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaida, messianic as they be, are not wayward fanatics interested in acts of random terror but ambitious strategists with a carefully orchestrated plan that has to date been horrifyingly well-executed.
Bin Laden's Plan: Part 3—What America Must Do—appears tomorrow.