Osama's alive. Does it matter?

Military analysis.
Nov. 20 2002 12:48 PM

Osama's Alive!

Does it matter?

A year ago, President Bush said he wanted Osama Bin Laden "dead or alive." Alas, last week's audiotape underscores that more than 400 days after the 9/11 attacks, he continues to elude us. Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle has seized on this to question the course of the war on terror, suggesting that we have made little progress if Bin Laden and most other top al-Qaida leaders remain at large. Is Daschle right? Or is the administration right that our efforts in Afghanistan, at home, and elsewhere indicate that we are winning the war?

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We should avoid the temptation to consider this struggle a vendetta against one horrible man and his close associates. The pragmatic question is whether we prevent more serious attacks by al-Qaida and related organizations against the United States, its interests, and its allies. By this standard, military and law enforcement actions have probably reduced al-Qaida's capabilities by at least half in the short term (meaning that Bush is more correct than Daschle, in a sense). But the continued survival of top al-Qaida leadership, the relatively slow recent efforts here in the United States to improve domestic security (despite this week's passage of legislation creating a new department of homeland security), and the appeal of Bin Laden's message to much of the Islamic world mean that the longer-term outlook is gloomier.

First, how strong is al-Qaida today? Bin Laden's survival does not mean the organization is thriving. Its recent operations suggest that al-Qaida still has many willing and able soldiers. But their sanctuary, training facilities, weapons labs, and communications hubs in Afghanistan have been demolished, so they are generally operating independently and resorting to simple tactics.

Attacks have been numerous, but generally small, since 9/11, with the exception of the October Bali bombing (which was conducted by close Indonesian associates of al-Qaida). The smaller episodes included a bombing in Tunisia and an attack in Pakistan that each killed more than a dozen Europeans, less bloody but still deadly recent assaults against a French oil tanker near Yemen and American troops in Kuwait, and the attempted attack by the shoe bomber. In addition, the October hostage crisis in Moscow that resulted in more than 100 deaths is sometimes linked to al-Qaida. Bin Laden referred to it in his audiotape, but the Russian violence is probably better understood as a homegrown consequence of the Chechen war. In death tolls and in the nature of the terror tactics, 2002 has been more like 1998, the year of the embassy bombings in Africa, than like 2001. But the frequency of the attacks is extremely worrisome.

What about the future? Bin Laden is probably on the run, perhaps in the tribal regions of northwest Pakistan, back in Yemen, or (less likely) in a Pakistani city. His health may be poor. He may be largely cut off from his fellow al-Qaida leaders. His ability to plan, communicate, and direct has probably suffered a very serious blow from which he may never recover. In addition, at least a quarter of his top 20 associates are now out of the picture. That includes those such as Mohammed Atef killed by aerial attacks, and those arrested overseas such as Ramzi Binalshibh, Abu Zubaydah, and Omar al-Farouq. Other lieutenants are on the run, concerned at least as much with their own survival as with future plots.

Unfortunately, even if al-Qaida's leadership is weakened, Bin Laden's ability to inspire and recruit remains powerful. He can tap into seething anger at the United States, still prevalent in much of the Islamic world. That is largely because of the unfair conviction that the United States never helps Muslims, but also because the Bush administration has effectively endorsed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's tough policies toward the Palestinians. The administration's largely unavoidable support for President Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan also mobilizes Islamic extremists in that country. The U.S. war has disrupted the ability of Islamic extremists to develop extensive terror networks, but more small-scale violence is brewing. Recent "chatter" on the airwaves, detected by U.S. and allied intelligence services, suggests that additional attacks may be forthcoming, even if none are likely to have the sophistication or lethality of 9/11.

Bin Laden's survival has critical symbolic significance. Terrorist organizations with highly charismatic leaders tend to depend heavily on those leaders and benefit greatly from their inspiration. Groups such as the Shining Path in Peru, Kurdish Peoples Party in Turkey, Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, and the quasi-terrorist UNITA in Angola did not weaken appreciably until their leaders—Abimael Guzman, Abdullah Ocalan, Velupillai Prabhakaran, Jonas Savimbi—were arrested or killed (or decided to negotiate).

Another long-term concern is that homeland security efforts are dragging. We are currently benefiting from a window of protection provided by the disruption of al-Qaida's activities in Afghanistan and around the world. But al-Qaida will adapt and is already adapting. And new anti-American terrorists will organize themselves. We need to be ready when they devise another ingenious, precedent-setting, catastrophic attack. To date, homeland security efforts have focused (not unwisely) on preventing attacks like those of the past—airplanes, truck bombs, anthrax, and so on—but we need to think more broadly as well since al-Qaida is surely doing the same. Over the last six months, Washington has gotten distracted, first by a protracted debate on a department of homeland security and then by Iraq. Congress only approved the department this week. Worse, there is no 2003 budget for homeland security, even though the fiscal year began almost two months ago.

Bin Laden is alive. That is bad news. But if we can keep focused on counterterrorism and homeland security, we can minimize the significance of his survival.

Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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