Analysis: Riding Bin Laden's ghost

By CLAUDE SALHANI  |  July 12, 2002 at 10:38 AM
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WASHINGTON, July 11 (UPI) -- Osama bin Laden is dead. At least that's what Amir Taheri, the editor of the Paris-based Politique Internationale, wrote in the New York Times, Thursday. He died last December in southeast Afghanistan and was buried there, in the rugged mountains. End of story.

But is it?

If there should be any truth to that theory, why then, has the death of the most wanted man in the United States --probably since Jesse James - and the most revered among America's nemesis, been kept such a close-guarded secret?

The answer is that hiding the truth helps both camps.

"With an ego the size of Mount Everest," writes Taheri, "would bin Laden have remained silent for so long?" One could also ask, would he not have thumped his chest at having survived multiple U.S. efforts to eliminate him?

You can bet your bottom rupee he would.

In the early days of the Afghani campaign to oust the Taliban and their al Qaida acolytes from Afghanistan, bin Laden delivered two videotapes of himself to the Qatari-based al Jazeera television network in Doha as proof that he had survived, and to rally his forces around him.

In the first tape, he outlined his vision of fighting America and Israel and boasted how he would crush the world's greatest superpower. In the second, he gloated over the Sept. 11 attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, going as far as describing how, as an engineer, he had studied the structure of the buildings. He even bragged how some of the "brothers" who partook in the attacks were not privy to the full extent of the details, and that except for the group leaders, the rest ignored they were engaged on a suicide mission.

Since then, there's been silence.

Surely, with such an inflated ego, had bin Laden indeed still been alive, he would have found it unbearable to keep quiet for such a prolonged period of time. Would he not in fact have chosen to send another "in your face" videotape, through his preferred Qatari outlet, letting the United States realize that the biggest manhunt involving units of the U.S and allied military, the FBI, CIA, as well as numerous other spooks and elite forces from Europe and Pakistan, have all failed to track him down?

How could he have resisted?

Yet, as large numbers of his followers are rounded up and interrogated, arrested and jailed, much of his funding severed and dried up, bin Laden remains silent.


The answer is that this silence serves the interests of both sides: bin Laden's followers, as well as the Bush administration's. For once - and this is indeed a rare occasion -- the president and the terrorists see eye to eye.

Al Qaida's remnants - those who managed to escape from Afghanistan and regroup on the Pakistani side of Kashmir, in Pakistan itself, Yemen, or elsewhere in the world, very much want to keep his ghost alive. This would help them keep the movement going forward. It would help them issue directives in his name, if, and when, the need should arise. More importantly, it would also keep whatever sleeper cells are currently in Europe and the United States operational.

New threats emerged on Wednesday that there could be as many as 5,000 al Qaida sleepers waiting to strike in the United States. News of the master's death would greatly demoralize these operatives, some who have been training and waiting several years now to be called upon. Learning of their master's death could lead to desertion in their ranks.

The uncertainty helps keep the U.S. in the dark while denying a decisive victory to the American military -- and the intelligence community, who has been stumbling around blindly in the tumultuous aftermath of Sept. 11.

Finally, hiding bin Laden's death would further deny the Americans an opportunity to claim that al Qaida's leader was killed in the air strikes on the Tora Bora Mountains. Such news would, at least in the minds of many Americans, justify the massive air raids on Afghanistan, including the erroneous bombing raids and the regrettable "collateral damage" that accompanied those.

"Bin Laden's ghost may linger on," writes Taheri, perhaps "because Washington and Islamabad will find it useful." Pakistan's leader Pervez Musharraf, quite naturally "is keen to keep Pakistan in the limelight as long as possible," enjoying the support from the world's greatest superpower.

Indeed, Musharraf, who faces innumerable obstacles juggling with his intelligence service, the ISI, which he can barely control, the remnants of the Taliban still hiding in the remote border provinces, and the Kashmiri quandary, which almost took him to a nuclear confrontation with neighboring nuclear-armed India, finds U.S. support, a godsend and something to cherish.

For president Bush and the Republican Party, now in a crucial electoral year, rallying the country behind the specter of bin Laden holds uncountable advantages, not least of which, is to help his administration put a face on terror.

The administration was able to enact a number of laws and impose unprecedented measures, some of which have been slowly chipping away at individual liberties in America. Under Attorney General John Ashcroft, the Justice Department has been able to arrest and secretly deport hundreds of people simply suspected of harboring sympathy towards America's enemies.

Many of those had no links to al Qaida or terrorism.

The U.S. Patriot Act of Oct. 26 overwhelmingly approved by both houses of Congress and signed by Bush was Ashcroft's blueprint for fighting terrorism. The American Civil Liberties Union, a nonpartisan organization that has never endorsed or opposed cabinet nominations urged the Senate as far back as Jan. 2001 to look closely at Ashcroft's track record, "a record rife with hostilities to civil rights and liberties."

One Web site,, stated: "Under the cloak of fear and blind of terrorism, they (Ashcroft and Bush) are trying to strip away civil liberties in this country.

Even the Washington Times, a conservative newspaper that normally supports the Bush administration found it hard to toe the party line. Commenting on a December 2001 press conference at the Washington Press Club, the paper wrote: "Despite Mr. Ashcroft's best efforts, the administration has failed thus far to make the case for military tribunals and keeping detainee's names secret."

Regardless of whether bin Laden is alive or not, this is one secret that serves both sides well -- for the time being.

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