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Bin Laden Rides Again: Myth vs. Reality

by Tony Karon

That It Boy of inter­na­tion­al ter­ror, Osama Bin Laden, is back in the news. Head­lines from just the past week: “Rus­sians Reveal Bin Laden Plot to Kill Bush at G8 Meet­ing.” “Bin Laden Video Claims Respon­si­bil­i­ty for Cole Bomb­ing.” “Yemen Foils Bin Laden Plot to Kill U.S. Inves­ti­ga­tors.” “Bin Laden Group Planned to Blow Up U.S. Embassy in India�” And final­ly, at week’s end, U.S. forces all over the Gulf con­fined to bar­racks and ships put to sea because of a “non-spe­cif­ic but cred­i­ble threat” from Bin Laden’s group. Vile acts and wretched con­spir­a­cies report­ed from all over the world, all car­ry­ing the impri­matur of the Sau­di ter­ror tycoon skulk­ing in the hills of Afghanistan, his name now the glob­al­ly rec­og­niz­able short­hand for Islamist ter­ror in the same way that “Xerox” has become for “pho­to­copy.”

In the lan­guage of adver­tis­ing, Bin Laden has become a brand — a geopo­lit­i­cal Keyser Soze, an omnipresent men­ace whose very name invokes per­ils far beyond his capa­bil­i­ty. To be sure, his threat is very real. Bin Laden is a financier of con­sid­er­able means who main­tains a net­work of loy­al­ists com­mit­ted to a war of ter­ror against the U.S. And he has put his mon­ey, con­nec­tions and noto­ri­ety to work in attract­ing a far wider web of pre-exist­ing Islamist groups to his jihad against Wash­ing­ton.

If Bin Laden did­n’t exist, we’d have to invent him

Still, the medi­a’s pic­ture of Bin Laden sit­ting in a high-tech Bat­cave in the moun­tains around Kan­da­har order­ing up glob­al may­hem at the click of a mouse is more than a lit­tle ludi­crous. Yes, the var­i­ous net­works of Islamist ter­ror have made full use of the pos­si­bil­i­ties pre­sent­ed by tech­nol­o­gy and glob­al­iza­tion. But few seri­ous intel­li­gence pro­fes­sion­als believe Bin Laden is the pup­pet-mas­ter atop a pyra­mid struc­ture of ter­ror cells. It’s real­ly not that sim­ple, but per­son­al­iz­ing the threat — while it dis­torts both the nature of the prob­lem and the rem­e­dy — is a time-hon­ored tra­di­tion. Before Bin Laden, the face of the glob­al ter­ror threat against Amer­i­cans belonged to the Pales­tin­ian rad­i­cal Abu Nidal. Or was it Colonel Ghaddafi? Aya­tol­la Khome­i­ni, per­haps? And does any­one even remem­ber the chub­by jowls of Car­los the Jack­al, whose image drawn from an old pass­port pic­ture was once the icon of glob­al ter­ror?

Per­son­al­iz­ing makes it seem more man­age­able. Bin Laden may be out of reach right now, safe in the care of Afghanistan’s Tal­iban rulers. But by mak­ing him the root of the prob­lem, we hold out the pos­si­bil­i­ty that his ulti­mate removal from the scene will make the world safe from Islamist ter­ror. A com­fort­ing thought, but a delu­sion nonethe­less.

The dan­gers are real. The Cole bomb­ing, and this week’s indict­ments hand­ed down in the Kho­bar Tow­ers attack, are bru­tal reminders of the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of U.S. per­son­nel sta­tioned in the Arab world to attack by extrem­ists. Last Sat­ur­day, Indi­an police arrest­ed a group of men alleged­ly plan­ning to blow up the U.S. embassy in New Del­hi and quick­ly turned up evi­dence link­ing the plot to Bin Laden. Two days lat­er, an unre­lat­ed plan, involv­ing sui­cide bombers killing U.S. agents inves­ti­gat­ing the bomb­ing of the U.S.S. Cole, was foiled in Yemen; their trail, too, leads back to Bin Laden. He was in the news again the fol­low­ing day after West­ern reporters were shown a Bin Laden pro­mo­tion­al video in which he appeared to claim respon­si­bil­i­ty for the bomb­ing of the Cole in a macabre poem.

Then there is the sub­lime: For sheer dia­bol­i­cal genius (of the Hol­ly­wood vari­ety), noth­ing came close to the reports that Euro­pean secu­ri­ty ser­vices are prepar­ing to counter a Bin Laden attempt to assas­si­nate Pres­i­dent Bush at next mon­th’s G8 sum­mit in Genoa, Italy. Accord­ing to Ger­man intel­li­gence sources, the plot involved Bin Laden pay­ing Ger­man neo-Nazis to fly remote con­trolled-mod­el air­craft packed with Sem­tex into the con­fer­ence hall and blow the lead­ers of the indus­tri­al­ized world to smithereens. (Pag­ing Jer­ry Bruck­heimer�) The Rus­sians, who believe a Bin Laden attack in Genoa is more like­ly to be car­ried out by their old ene­my, the Chechens, have sent an advance team of anti ter­ror­ism experts (armed, we hope, with small-scale anti-air­craft weapons).

But Bin Laden’s role has always been that of facil­i­ta­tor. That was his func­tion in the ‘Islamist Inter­na­tion­al’ formed, with the active encour­age­ment of the CIA and Egypt­ian and Sau­di intel­li­gence, to recruit vol­un­teers to fight the Sovi­ets in Afghanistan. His con­sid­er­able wealth (and abil­i­ty to raise funds from oth­ers) and his orga­ni­za­tion­al exper­tise played a key role in help­ing the “Arab Afghans,” as the vol­un­teers became known, play a cred­itable role in the war against the Sovi­ets. And once that war was won, he con­tin­ued to play the same role, keep­ing its vet­er­ans togeth­er and main­tain­ing an infra­struc­ture to arm, train and fund Islamist war­riors for deploy­ment in Mus­lim armies in places as diverse as Bosnia, Chech­nya, West­ern Chi­na and the Philip­pines.

He’s not duck­ing blame, he’s demand­ing it

Hav­ing come under the influ­ence of rad­i­cal Egypt­ian Islamists in Afghanistan, Bin Laden found him­self in con­flict with the pro-West­ern regime in his native Sau­di Ara­bia. The Gulf War proved to be his break­ing point with the Sau­di roy­al fam­i­ly. Dri­ven by a desire to expel the U.S. from the Gulf region and over­throw a roy­al fam­i­ly he denounced as cor­rupt apos­tates, he turned his fire increas­ing­ly against Amer­i­ca. The World Trade Cen­ter bombers may have been moti­vat­ed by sim­i­lar con­cerns — and they may have been inspired by some of the same mil­i­tant teach­ings of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rah­man — but the two don’t appear to have been direct­ly linked.

Bin Laden sub­se­quent­ly claimed his men were behind the 1993 deba­cle in Mogadishu, where 17 U.S. ser­vice­men were killed in a botched raid on a local war­lord. Whether or not there’s any basis to the claim, Bin Laden wants to be held respon­si­ble for that and any oth­er attack for which the media is pre­pared to blame him. The rea­son he has spent the past decade offer­ing assis­tance to a wide range of pre-exist­ing Islamist groups is pre­cise­ly because he wants to paint him­self as the per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of the con­sid­er­able anti-Amer­i­can sen­ti­ment inflam­ing much of the Arab world, a lat­ter-day Salah el Din dri­ving out the imag­ined Cru­saders. The West­ern need to per­son­al­ize the ter­ror­ist men­ace plays into his hands. Indeed, most experts agreed that Pres­i­dent Clin­ton’s 1998 cruise mis­sile strikes on Bin Laden were prob­a­bly the sin­gle most impor­tant PR boost in the Saudi’s career. And the fact that his name is cit­ed by way of expla­na­tion for the fact that the world’s most pow­er­ful mil­i­tary has moved into defen­sive posi­tions all over the Gulf cer­tain­ly does­n’t do his care­ful­ly cul­ti­vat­ed image any harm.

Even when groups involved in malfea­sance around the world have had deal­ings with Bin Laden or those close to him, intel­li­gence experts don’t believe that the Sau­di financier is nec­es­sar­i­ly pulling the strings when they act. What Bin Laden may in fact per­son­i­fy is the com­ing togeth­er of diverse Islamist groups dur­ing the Afghan war, and their iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the U.S. as their pri­ma­ry ene­my dur­ing the decade that fol­lowed. So lop off the head, and the body con­tin­ues to func­tion, because it remains a diverse and dif­fuse set of groups and cells with their own inter­nal struc­tures, dri­ven by a com­mon sense of implaca­ble griev­ance. That men­ace will remain, even if Bin Laden is removed. We may sim­ply have to find a new name and face for it.


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