Osama bin Laden casts himself as Muslim elder statesman
Latest video is less threatening, but raises new questions about the Al Qaeda leader's current location.
| WASHINGTON AND ISLAMABAD
The Bush administration has rarely voiced his name. Kerry's campaign has uttered it as often as possible.
But Osama bin Laden spoke for himself Friday in his first videotaped comments in more than two years. "Your security is not in the hands of Kerry or Bush or Al Qaeda," he said to Americans. "Your security is in your own hands." (see story on US election impact).
Intelligence experts were struck by Mr. bin Laden's tone and by his appearance: No guerrilla garb, no rifle, no direct threats, or religious rhetoric of the past. Bin Laden was wearing a traditional Arab white thobe and princely, gold-trimmed outer garment. With the fall of Saddam Hussein and the marginalization of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, "part of what bin Laden is trying to do is fill the vacuum of leadership in the Muslim world," says Bruce Hoffman, a RAND Corp. expert on terrorism. "Part of his game is to portray himself as a statesman."
Bin Laden's reappearance serves to remind Americans not only of his threat - but of his elusiveness three years after Sept. 11. Why is he so hard to find?
One Pakistani military commander now says the Al Qaeda leader has fled the mountainous areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan. There's speculation he may be hiding in Kashmir or in the cities of Pakistan - where several key top lieutenants have been caught in the past year. But most experts say that the US and Pakistan have no idea where he's holed up.
While bin Laden has been forced into hiding, effectively prevented from using cellphones, satellite phones, or the Internet, and many of his top echelon have been captured or killed, Al Qaeda's network continues to evolve and grow - as does bin Laden's legacy and mystique in the Muslim world.
Government officials and terror experts say he's been extremely clever in the way he's honed his messages and staged attacks that emphasize his importance as the Muslim world's lone "hero" able to stand up to superpower US, the country he claims is out to humiliate and dominate the Muslim world. The latest tape - an effort to cast himself as an elder statesman, not just a global jihadist - may be the most politically sophisticated, and dangerous, say experts.
"Part of bin Laden's genius is staying on message," says a senior intelligence official. "It's the Americans, Americans, Americans." Bin Laden's messages, says the official, all focus on US foreign policy in six areas: "unqualified US support for Israel; US presence on the Arabian Peninsula; US support for China, Russia, India, and others for oppressing Muslims; 'military occupation' of Muslim countries - Saudi Arabia, Philippines, Yemen, Iraq, and Afghanistan; US ability to manipulate the price of Arabian oil; and, US support for Muslim tyrannies - Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, and Algeria. He's said the same ... thing since 1986 and hasn't changed a bit."
In this speech, bin Laden tries to clarify his thinking or reformulate it. For example, he says that if it were really freedom he hated - as Bush has said - he would have attacked Sweden, not the US. "We fought you because we are free and because we want freedom for our nation. When you squander our security, we squander yours." He says that the genesis of the Sept. 11 attacks lies in 1982, when the US aided Israeli attacks on Lebanon.
CIA officials say there was no specific threat information on the current tape, but apparently they have only five minutes of the 18-minute tape. But they also say the threat may have come in another tape that was broadcast last week, purportedly by an anonymous American member of Al Qaeda. Both tapes were produced by the same Al Qaeda media office, As Sahab. The FBI and Department of Homeland Security are handing the "American" aspect of it, and have alerted law-enforcement officers across the country to try help identify the individual.
"It's probably more important now than ever to get him [bin Laden] ," says Mr. Hoffman. "We did say at the time [of the 9/11 attacks] that we wanted him dead or alive, and our words must have meaning - someone can't do that without impunity."
But it's not easy to find him, intelligence officials and counterterrorism experts say. For one thing, he's practiced guerrilla warfare for more than 20 years in one of the most remote and inhospitable corners of the world. Bin Laden also has a groundswell of support in the Muslim world, not just among radical Islamists, but among the larger population, which probably helps him elude authorities.
Take his escape from Tora Bora in late 2001. As the Monitor reported at the time, the US rained down bombs on the mountain hideout - claiming publicly he was surrounded there - while hiring local Afghans to guard the escape routes. Locals said that bin Laden paid the Afghans more than the US, thus enabling him to walk down the back side of the mountain and into Pakistan.
It's there, holed up in mountain caves along the border region with Afghanistan, that most intelligence officials and terror experts believe bin Laden has since been hiding. But much of the Afghan-Pakistan border region is a wild no man's land about the size of Texas. Experts liken trying to find bin Laden there to the FBI's five-year manhunt for Eric Rudolph, the young man responsible for several abortion clinic bombings as well as the 1996 Olympic Park bombings in Atlanta. He squirreled himself away in the hills of North Carolina and eluded one of the largest manhunts in US history for five years because he knew the terrain there better than those hunting him.
After two Al Qaeda attempts on his life late last year, Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf has redoubled his efforts, dedicating thousands of troops to the hunt. US and Pakistani intelligence teams in Pakistan are also working together to find bin Laden.
"To trace his whereabouts is a very difficult task," says Behrouz Khan, a security analyst based in Peshawar, Pakistan. "He has been in the state of war since 1980 and perfectly knows the art of guerrilla warfare.... Tora Bora was not the only hideout; he had numerous [hideouts] inside Afghanistan and along the border."
But one top Pakistan military commander said recently that bin Laden has left this region. "The way the Army has done its deployment, there is nothing that is beyond my eyes or my ears. I have a very good surveillance system in place. There is hardly any area, which we have not swept through. Had he [bin Laden] been there, and the way he moves with security guards carries a signature wherever he goes, I would have gotten him by now. I say he is not there," Corps Commander Lt. Gen. Safdar Hussain Shah told Pakistani journalists.
Other tribal sources say most of the foreign militants, mostly Arabs, have left the region through the southwestern Balochistan province into Iran or to the Gulf States, and to different parts of the country. "Osama would be a great fool if he is still in the tribal region," says Riffat Hussain, a security analyst in Islamabad. "The most wanted man in the world would want to go as far away from that place - to some where nobody would suspect him to be."
So where could bin Laden be?
Sailab Mehsud, a Pakistani expert on the tribal areas of South Waziristan, says, "He could be anywhere from the tribal region to Afghanistan to the troubled Muslim province of China, as Uighur Muslim militants have also fought with him. For him the Pashtun [tribal] belt would be a safest bet. They [Pashtuns] are staunch Islamists and according to traditions they never hand over their guests. Osama has experienced that as Taliban preferred to risk their rule but refused to hand over him to Americans."
Many tribal members feel indebted to him and also admire him for what he did to help evict the Soviets from Afghanistan and stand up to the US. "His elusiveness intrigues people," says Noor Mohammad, an educated tribesman in South Waziristan. "They love the suspense, and keeping the US on its toes is a bonus."
Mr. Mohammad adds: "Nobody has succeeded in penetrating Osama's close ring of companions. Either people are not providing information because they sympathize with him or they are too afraid of Osama's network despite" the $25 million reward the US has put on him.
Many Pakistanis speak about bin Laden with admiration. "I wish Bush fails to catch Osama," says a Westernized Pakistani teenager, who asked that his name not be used. "It is good that he brings sleepless nights to Bush, who invaded Iraq for nothing. We are no friends with Osama, but America has gone too far against Muslims."