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Tape Exposes Man Behind Al Qaeda Curtain

Bin Laden's latest mutterings sound like a pathetic bid to regain relevancy.

November 15, 2002|Avigdor Haselkorn | Avigdor Haselkorn is the author of "The Continuing Storm: Iraq, Poisonous Weapons and Deterrence" (Yale University Press, 1999).

The latest Osama bin Laden tape may actually be good news. But a powerful combination of divergent interests seems to be conspiring to keep us from realizing that.

By implicitly claiming ownership for such outrages as the attack on the synagogue in Tunisia; the killing of the French engineers in Karachi, Pakistan; the bombing of the French tanker off Yemen; the attack on the U.S. Marines in Kuwait; the Moscow theater takeover; and the Bali nightclub bombing, Bin Laden confirms that Al Qaeda's ability to conduct a catastrophic attack on the scale of Sept. 11 may have been severely degraded.

It is possible to argue that the tape is a pathetic attempt to claim relevancy. After all, some of the attacks, like Moscow and Bali, have had little to do operationally with Al Qaeda except perhaps in terms of a shared anti-Western ideology. Moreover, some of the incidents that Bin Laden praised were clear-cut failures. The Moscow theater takeover must be seen as a botched operation, and neither the 2,000-year-old synagogue nor the French tanker was destroyed as planned.

Most telling, the Indonesians arrested for the Bali attack have expressed disappointment that their attempts to target Americans largely failed. Yet in the tape, Bin Laden alleges that Australia was the target because of its support for the U.S.-led war on terror.

Ironically, instead of these interpretations of Bin Laden's tape, the American public has been hearing the opposite message.

Al Qaeda, it is said, is still very much in business. President Bush lamented that the message indicated "yet again that we're at war." In fact, some have gone as far as warning that the tape may herald new devastating attacks.

Why would the U.S. help Bin Laden's effort to intimidate and frighten?

First, the Bush administration is understandably playing it safe. Because of the secretive nature of the enemy and the great uncertainties the U.S. faces, Washington prefers to err on the side of safety. After the Sept. 11 attacks, worst-case thinking has become the only rule in town.

The administration also is worried that any claim of victory would undermine public alertness. And claiming success could weaken support for the administration's robust foreign policy at a time when war with Iraq is on the agenda.

Also, the counter-terrorism "industry" in the West has a vested interest in blocking a message that the organization has been crippled.

Various experts were announcing as late as last week that the question of Bin Laden's survival was irrelevant given that Al Qaeda is a terrorist network powered by a common ideology and deployed around the globe in readiness to act. These same experts are now claiming that the tape may portend a new offensive.

But the notion that operatives are waiting for a green light from Bin Laden to strike is ludicrous. Terrorism has been at full throttle ever since Bin Laden issued his fatwa in 1998.

Finally, there are the opponents of a U.S. attack on Iraq who tout the tape as proof that Bush is going after the wrong enemy and would divert the nation from the war on terrorism. These same critics, however, have long maintained that an attack on Iraq would serve Al Qaeda and bring it multitudes of new recruits. If the removal of Saddam Hussein would work so clearly in his favor, why would Bin Laden go out of his way to warn the U.S. against invading Iraq?

The answer could be that Bin Laden has reached the conclusion that an American offensive would quickly topple the Iraqi leader. He has no interest in another demonstration of overwhelming American superiority. Worse yet, the establishment of a pro-Western regime in Iraq would vividly illustrate Bin Laden's disastrous record. Despite his best efforts, the U.S. was not destroyed. Moreover, it is still well entrenched in the areas that he has claimed for the new Islamic caliphate.

Indeed, the downfall of Hussein would be the best evidence yet that, despite Bin Laden's bluster, his Sept. 11 attacks were instrumental in a new American "empire" gradually taking shape in Central and South Asia as well as in the Middle East.

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