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Reflections on Osama bin Laden, and his continuing relevance



Earlier today, I did a rather lengthy written interview with a journalist from an online Romanian newspaper. In light of the new tapes Osama bin Laden released last month, he put a number of questions to me about the al Qaeda leader. I thought the following, adapted from the interview but maintaining its Q&A format, would be of interest to Threat Matrix readers.

1. Some say Osama bin Laden is a freedom fighter. Others view him as the most dangerous man on the planet and a brutal terrorist. Who exactly is bin Laden? How would you describe him?

The case that bin Laden is a “freedom fighter” is the hardest to make. Al Qaeda and its affiliates have managed to control territory in various theaters; where they have done so, the harsh version of sharia they have implemented does not constitute what most people would think of as freedom. One example is Mosul, where in a Sunni area of the city, al Qaeda in Iraq banned the display of tomatoes and cucumbers side-by-side in vegetable stands because they regarded it as “sexually provocative,” prohibited barbers from using electric shavers, and banned a local bread known as “sammoun” because it did not exist during Prophet Muhammad’s time. All of which might be seen as merely quixotic were it not for the fact that people were actually killed for flouting these rules. Somalia’s Shabaab, which openly proclaims its allegiance to al Qaeda, has implemented a similarly unforgiving version of sharia. This is by design: in a 1996 interview with Nida’ul Islam magazine, bin Laden said that the Taliban regime in Afghanistan (which was known for its strict implementation of sharia) was “amongst the most protective of the religion approved by Allah, and the keenest to fulfill His laws and to establish an Islamic state.” And in the late 1990s, when journalist Peter Bergen asked bin Laden’s London contact Khaled al-Fawwaz what present government most resembled his vision of an ideal Islamic state, Fawwaz replied that the Taliban was “getting there.”

The narrative that bin Laden is a freedom fighter also overlooks al Qaeda’s imperialist ambitions. The group’s desire to overthrow a broad array of governments, including those outside the Arab world, and implement its draconian version of religious rule, places al Qaeda outside the common understanding of national liberation movements.

2. He came from a background of wealth and comfort to end up fighting on the front lines. Many in the US and in the West find this unusual. How do you see his evolution?

By all accounts, bin Laden has been quite pious since his youth. His personal evolution has been described competently in several books, including Peter Bergen’s The Osama bin Laden I Know, Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, and Bruce Riedel’s The Search for Al Qaeda. For bin Laden’s followers, and those who feel sympathy or admiration for him, his willingness to forsake a very comfortable life is seen as a laudable sacrifice. This decision—in favor of a hard life over an easy one—was made at several junctures, including when he joined the mujahidin during the Afghan-Soviet war, and when he defied the Saudi government following its decision to welcome US forces to its lands in the first Gulf War.

3. Why has there been no good information on bin Laden's whereabouts for so many years? Despite its technology and military power, why can't the US catch Osama bin Laden?

Part of the reason is that it’s difficult to catch a single person, no matter how powerful you are. This is particularly true when the manhunt is centered on someone who practices excellent operational security, which seems to be the case for bin Laden. Reports of the courier system he put in place to try to avoid detection are indicative of bin Laden’s strong operational security. A second reason that information on bin Laden’s whereabouts is poor—something that US defense secretary Robert Gates admitted in December 2009—is the US’s lack of HUMINT (human intelligence), resulting in an over-reliance on SIGINT (signals intelligence, i.e., surveillance of electronic communications). Until the US and its allies are able to improve their HUMINT, there will be a disturbing number of additional situations where pundits are puzzled by the inadequacy of our information.

4. Bin Laden has talked about "bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy." What do you think is the greatest damage bin Laden and his terror network did to the United States?

I count four different phases in al-Qaeda’s economic strategy of jihad, of which the bleed-until-bankruptcy plan (famously announced in the video bin Laden dramatically released just before the US’s 2004 elections) is only one. In my judgment, al-Qaeda’s economic strategy has encompassed the general use of terrorism to harm its foes’ economies, bleeding its foes until bankruptcy (i.e., having the US bogged down simultaneously in draining conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan), and targeting the oil supply. I count the post-economic crisis world as a fourth phase, in which al-Qaeda has further adapted its strategy to the changed circumstances. I believe that one major change to its approach in the post-economic crisis world is further highlighting the existential nature of the conflict: put simply, the US’s weakened position makes it seem mortal. And a second change is that, because the US economy is stagnant, salafi jihadi thinkers now put a premium on a greater frequency of attacks rather than maximizing the lethality of each attack.

As to the greatest damage bin Laden and al Qaeda did to the US, clearly the 9/11 attacks represent the most direct damage that the terrorist group has inflicted. Some estimates of the economic implications of those attacks are as high as $2 trillion. Bin Laden has boasted, on multiple occasions, of the damage he caused in those attacks, and how the cost to the US was many times what it cost al-Qaeda to carry them out. But the Iraq war has in my judgment been more costly for the US than 9/11 itself. There is a jiu jitsu to defeating terrorism, and one purpose of certain major terrorist attacks is to provoke an overreaction from the opponent. Indeed, Bruce Riedel writes that one goal of the 9/11 attacks was “to lure the United States into an invasion first of Afghanistan and then of Iraq, so as to replicate the quagmire that brought down the Soviet Union in the 1980s.” The costs associated with the US’s invasion of Iraq have been detailed extensively elsewhere—for example, in James Fallows’s book Blind into Baghdad. But in addition to assisting al Qaeda’s rebound (by removing pressure from the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater), the Iraq war significantly advanced al Qaeda’s bleed-until-bankruptcy plan.

Another vulnerability that al Qaeda has tried to exploit is the reliance of the US and its allies on oil imports. In a December 2004 audiotape, bin Laden described Western countries’ purchase of oil at then-market prices as “the greatest theft in history,” and told his followers to focus their operations on oil production, “especially in Iraq and the Gulf area, since this [lack of oil] will cause them to die off.” Ayman al-Zawahiri similarly called for al-Qaeda fighters to “concentrate their campaigns on the stolen oil of the Muslims” in a December 2005 video. Since then, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has on multiple occasions targeted key facilities in Saudi Arabia, which is critical to world oil markets because it produces almost 10 million barrels per day, and is the only country able to maintain excess production capacity of around 1.5 million barrels per day (a “swing reserve”) to keep world prices stable. Saudi production is particularly vulnerable to attack because it depends on a limited number of hubs. Two-thirds of Saudi Arabian oil is processed at the Abqaiq facility, and there are two main export terminals: Ras Tanura and Ras al Ju’aymah. Though al Qaeda has not been able to execute a catastrophic attack on these facilities, former CIA case officer Robert Baer warned in his 2003 book Sleeping with the Devil: “A single jumbo jet with a suicide bomber at the controls, hijacked during takeoff from Dubai and crashed into the heart of Ras Tanura, would be enough to bring the world’s oil-addicted economies to their knees, America’s along with them.”

5. Was Osama bin Laden a creation of CIA as some suggested? Did the Americans support him during the Afghan war against the Soviets in the 1980s?

Bin Laden was not a CIA creation. The CIA’s sponsorship of anti-Russian Islamic warriors in the 1980s was directed to Afghan mujahidin, and not to bin Laden’s “Afghan Arabs,” who were essentially militarily insignificant in that conflict. As Peter Bergen writes in The Osama bin Laden I Know, “there is no evidence that any of [the CIA’s] money went to the Afghan Arabs, nor is there any evidence of CIA personnel meeting with bin Laden or anyone in his circle.” Bin Laden told journalist Robert Fisk in both 1993 and 1996 that he received no assistance from the US during the Afghan-Soviet war; Ayman al-Zawahiri and Afghan Arabs like Abdullah Anas also deny US sponsorship. And CIA officers who were active in this conflict also deny any official sponsorship of bin Laden as his cohorts. As Richard Miniter writes in his 2005 book Disinformation, addressing the fact that the US did not create or sponsor bin Laden: “This is the rare case in which bin Laden, journalists, and the CIA agree.”

6. In a recently released Internet recording, the al Qaeda boss lamented the massive flooding in Pakistan, for which he blamed climate change. A similar bin Laden message in January also denounced the United States for not ratifying the Kyoto Protocol. Why is he changing his rhetoric?

I personally doubt that bin Laden sincerely cares about global climate change. It’s my guess—though I don’t have concrete evidence of this—that his rhetoric about climate change reflects the influence of Adam Gadahn, a Southern Californian convert to Islam who serves as an al Qaeda media advisor. There are a couple of reasons for this rhetorical shift. One is that it may appeal to certain audiences—Westerners who care about the issue, and much more directly, to Pakistanis who were victimized by the flooding. Bin Laden believes, not without reason, that he can stir the pot of anti-American anger if he can link this catastrophe to the US and the West. And a second reason behind this rhetorical shift is that it reflects the ideas of a revolutionary who has pledged to completely upend the present system. He can point to virtually any current problems as evidence that the status quo is failing, even if the alternative that bin Laden is trying to advance would not actually address these issues.

7. In the past few years, many people have begun to perceive bin Laden as an uncaring terrorist who has no hesitation about spilling the blood even of fellow Muslims. Does he still enjoy important support among Muslims?

And there is good reason for this perception. In December 2009, the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point released a report finding that only about 12% of al Qaeda’s victims are Western. Those who had to live under the brutal rule of al Qaeda affiliates, particularly in Iraq, have spoken out about this experience. The fact that al Qaeda has an image problem in the Muslim world is undeniable; but I would also warn against making the mistake of many commentators, and prematurely declaring the group to be only marginal.

8. Michael Scheuer, formerly the CIA's top bin Laden tracker, said that "many in the West paint a one-dimensional picture of bin Laden and we tend to forget he was trained as a construction engineer, he's a management expert and, when he was in the Sudan, he was extensively involved in agricultural issues." Do these facts somehow change the image of a brutal man most of us have of him?

Scheuer is right that many in the West paint a one-dimensional picture of bin Laden, but the examples that he provides do not negate bin Laden’s brutality. Nor does Scheuer intend to do so by providing them. This is evident from one of Scheuer’s statements in his 2002 book Through Our Enemies’ Eyes: “Like our founders, bin Laden has been viewed by his many followers as a man of faith, intellectual honesty, courage, and integrity, and for that reason the movement he established is a foe that must be understood before his movement can be, as it must be, defeated and eliminated.” This quote is reflective of Scheuer’s perception of bin Laden: that while we should avoid adopting a one-dimensional picture of the man, al Qaeda is in fact a mortal foe. While Scheuer and I have some differences of opinion, this is not one of them.

9. Some say killing or capturing bin Laden would be the trigger that leads to the swift collapse of the international terror network he created, and the various insurgencies that have spun off from it. Do you agree with this theory? Would removing bin Laden from the equation have a decisive effect on international terrorism?

While killing or capturing bin Laden would be highly significant, it would not mean the end of the al Qaeda network, nor of Islamist terrorism, nor of the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq. Al Qaeda is a networked opponent, and an effective networked foe is designed to be resilient. If bin Laden dies, he will be replaced. The US and its allies will need to become more effective at combating networked foes, as al Qaeda is not the last networked opponent we will see. On the point of fighting networked opponents, I recommend the excellent monograph Understanding the Form, Function, and Logic of Clandestine Cellular Networks by my colleague LTC Derek Jones (who authored the piece when he was a major).

10. Would it really matter if the US gets bin Laden?

Yes. Even though killing or capturing bin Laden would not end the terrorist threat, I strongly reject the idea—propagated by some commentators—that bin Laden and al Qaeda’s senior leadership have become marginal or irrelevant to the current fight. Indeed, the recent terror plot in Europe (the one in which Ahmed Sidiqi was a central figure) should put to rest the idea of al Qaeda or bin Laden’s irrelevance. New leaders like Ilyas Kashmiri and Yunis al-Mauretani assembled the recruits (including British, French, and German nationals, and perhaps one former Turkish Air Force officer) to perpetrate multiple Mumbai-style attacks. Bin Laden signed off on this himself. This serves to underscore the fact that the group remains quite lethal, and bin Laden remains relevant.

One man killed in the drone strikes that took place around the time the plot was revealed, Abdul Jabbar, was being groomed to serve as the emir for Jaysh al-Islami fi al-Britanniyyah prior to his reported death. Jabbar was linked to both the British fertilizer bomb plot and also the 7/7 attacks in London, as well as to would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad. This is a good indication that al-Qaeda is looking to expand, not fall apart.