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Osama bin Forgotten


If there is one image that summarizes the gross ineptitude of the Bush Administration’s counterterrorism policy, its tendency to crass partisan manipulation, its indifference to the threat presented—so long as it justifies assumption of ever greater and unchecked powers, then it is one man: Osama bin Laden. He was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. He has been declared “Public Enemy No. 1,” and used as a stock figure in hundreds of Republican election commercials. And today, at the end of six years after 9/11, bin Laden remains a free man. Not cowering in fear and on the run, it seems, but living in comfort, and fairly oblivious to the fact that the United States is after him. But that’s the question, actually: is the United States really out after him? Has it committed the resources and personnel necessary to nab the man who caused murder and mayhem to rain from the sky across America six years ago? That’s a question that needs to be looked at, turned over in the mind, and asked, loudly, tenaciously. The answers the White House gives us are not acceptable.

The Chase Gone Cold
Today James Gordon Meek, writing in the Daily News has a report that should be required reading for every American who cares about 9/11 and the Bush Administration’s total failure to produce any measure of justice for its victims:

Osama Bin Laden isn’t hiding in caves. He’s almost certainly living in a cozy compound in Pakistan guarded by a few loyal fanatics, a dozen terror experts and intel officials told the Daily News. The group of veteran Bin Laden hunters say the cave-dwelling myth is one of many tall tales about the Al Qaeda kingpin, including reports that the renegade Saudi is dying of kidney disease.

Six years after the 9/11 attacks, many Americans don’t understand why he’s so hard to find and kill. Frustrated agents say he skulks across some of the most hostile terrain in the world and that Pakistan refuses to let U.S. troops chase him there. The futility of efforts to permanently silence Bin Laden was brought home Friday when he released his first video message since 2004, a 26-minute, anti-U.S. diatribe.

In the jagged peaks of the Afghan-Pakistani border, a good Bin Laden hideout typically would be a simple adobe house surrounded by a high mud-brick wall – perfect for defending a monster. “He’s probably not living in a cave,” said Robert Grenier, the ex-CIA Pakistan station chief who helped topple the Taliban after 9/11 and chased Bin Laden afterward. “He’s probably living in a fairly comfortable, though Spartan, compound somewhere in northern Pakistan,” Grenier said.

The fact that bin Laden is a free man today, disseminating recordings for use in Al Qaeda’s recruitment campaign, is a big deal. This deserves to be a feature story in papers and news broadcasts around the country. And we should all be asking: why? The answer is that the Bush Administration has made a conscious decision not to dedicate the resources and the materials to capture him. I say that based on discussions with intelligence professionals who have and continue to be in the hunt after bin Laden. They all concur that there was a major pull-back in the winter of 2002-03 as the Bush Administration prepared its invasion of Iraq. After that a few more resources were allocated for the hunt, but nothing like what would be needed to close a grip around bin Laden and seize him.

One former intelligence analyst who keeps track of these things said: “The objective is pretty clear. More people have recently been sent into Tora Bora and the border region; there’s been a personnel build-up. But they’re there to start a patient tracking down—to narrow the options on his hide-out. No rush to pick him up. The word is out. If we get him late in the summer of 2008, or in the fall, that will be just about optimal.”

So there you have it: the capture of bin Laden is planned as a classic October surprise to bolster Republican election prospects. The fact that intelligence resources can be deployed in such a way—as they have in fact now been used for five years—is an unparalleled act of political cynicism. But it’s the Bush Administration, what else do you expect? For these people our security is simply a political game.

The bin Laden Video
I have been going through the media looking for a sensible discussion of the latest bin Laden video and what it means. The greater part of what has appeared in the U.S. media is, as usual, somewhere on a spectrum between juvenile and merely ignorant. “Looks like he’s been reading left-wing bloggers,” says one certified member of the vacuous chattering class on the Potomac. No, there is important information to be gleaned from bin Laden’s video. He’s refocusing and retargeting his message. If you want to counter him effectively, you need to appreciate what he’s up to.

Barnett Rubin, certainly our country’s leading Afghanistan scholar, and Olivier Roy, the best student of political Islam in France–or, for that matter, anywhere–have the key analysis. From a must-read post that Rubin put up yesterday evening:

Most of the discussion of Bin Laden’s recent video seems to me to have missed the point. Bin Laden is no longer just seeking to lead Muslims in a jihad against “Crusaders and Zionists”; he is proclaiming to the whole world that the genuine revolutionary alternative to imperialism, capitalism, global warming, genocide, moral decay, confused sex roles, the decline of the family, commercialism, and whatever else ails us is Islam. In this sense Bin Laden is indeed seeking to don the mantle of the last century’s false prophets. One of the clearest indicators is the social origin of new recruits to al-Qa’ida. As Olivier Roy writes in his forthcoming Le Croissant et le Chaos:

“The map of the origin of al-Qaida recruits does not match the map of Middle East conflicts. The recruits consist predominantly of second-generation European young Muslims and converts, not Palestinians or Afghans, and very few people coming from the Middle East.”

This quote comes from an electronic file dated in July, but it perfectly matches the profile of those arrested in Germany last week: the sons of Turkish guest workers and a German convert. Just what are these “converts” converting to? They are not converting to anything that most Muslims would recognize as Islam. They do not integrate into the religion and culture of Islamic civilization and then gradually develop political views that correspond to their new milieu. On the contrary: they are radicalized opponents of the global order who find that al-Qa’ida has become the most genuine anti-globalization revolutionary organization. “Conversion” is just part of the initiation ritual. . .

Bin Laden’s message has little or no appeal to Muslims in Palestine, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, or elsewhere engaged in their national struggles for identity, legitimacy, or power. He engages, as Roy writes, “les migrants, les réfugiés, la seconde génération, les nouvelles classes sociales, ou bien . . .les tribus en mutation sociale.” (He attracts “migrants, the second generation, new social classes, or tribes undergoing social change.”)

Bin Laden is feeding off of Bush’s Islamofascism propaganda. The Bush Administration conflates conflicts and movements around the globe that are fundamentally different, though sharing some roots in political Islam. Bin Laden’s reaction appears to be to say “thank you,” he will gladly expand and attempt to assume sway over these movements. But he particularly wants what Roy calls “the second generation,” those who have ceased to understand their struggle in terms of nationalistic aspirations (Palestine v. Israel, Pakistan v. India) and instead take a global view of the Islamic community, and particularly those half- but not entirely assimilated Muslims living now in countries like Britain, France, Germany and Spain… and more distantly, the United States. Which raises the fundamental question: is the Bush strategy not actually enabling bin Laden? Rubin hits this point very effectively:

This movement can pose a serious threat because of its global capacity for violence. But the more we link that threat to the numerous political struggles of Muslims around the world, the more we provide Bin Laden with talking points for his next video. Stay tuned.

An effective strategy has a simple first target: seize bin Laden. The failure to accomplish this in six years is leading bin Laden’s entire community of potential recruits to come to one conclusion: Bush, the pseudo-cowboy, pseudo-tough guy president, is impotent.

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