Imagine the surviving al Qaeda planners in their subterranean war room, tossing around ideas, writing them on the white board beneath the scribbled sign “It’s the jihad, stupid!” Things are not going particularly well for them. The campaign against the Crusaders and Jews, now in its seventh year formally, and a year and a half after the victorious Battles of New York and Washington, has not yielded what it was supposed to. Certainly, they did not expect to be holed up — literally — at this point in the war.
But the topic of the day (if it is day, who can tell? They never get outside anymore) is the Osama bin Laden media campaign. They have been keeping him alive for a year through a combination of forged letters, e-mail messages, and audiotapes edited from hours upon hours of musings he left behind. He liked to do that — talk on tape, record his thoughts — it’s a characteristic of egomaniacs who think that every moment a pearl of wisdom might drop that can’t be missed. Like the pharaohs who had their every word written down. He never went back and listened to his tapes, but he kept them around, circulated them in the network. They have certainly come in handy. With digital audio, it is easy enough to do post-production work on a laptop computer. Sometimes the released tapes are mixes of the genuine and bogus. Some have been simply false or bootlegs made by others. There is a veritable Osama industry out there. The release of a new tape never fails to go into heavy rotation on cable news, for a day or two at any rate.
But a year later the lure is wearing off. A credibility gap is developing. Not enough proof, too many questions. Why isn’t he more specific about dates and events? If he can smuggle audio out, why not video? O.K., maybe he has changed his appearance and doesn’t want to be seen. So, why not narrate behind some current-events video? TV producers would love it. O.K., good idea, maybe next time. But they still want to see him. That has been a constant problem. First there was silence, trying to reorganize, figure out how to get bin Laden back in public after his untimely demise. Then came the threats — he will appear in July, he will appear in September, he will appear after the next big attack. Seemed like a good idea at the time, and scared the heck out of the enemy. But he never did appear. Yes, the network pulled off some important missions. Yemen, Tunisia, Kuwait, Bali — that last one, a masterpiece, really got the Australians mad. The terrorists laugh nervously. Australia has sent hundreds of steel-eyed Diggers to the desert and unleashed its special forces in various target-rich countries. “Remind me again why we wanted to create undying hatred among the Aussies?” abu Gaith asks. “Don’t you remember?” al-Zawahiri says, “It was like America, like 9/11.” “Right… and … uh…” A centipede crawls over his sandaled foot. Musty cave, he thinks, not like those good ones we used to have.
Many more attacks had failed, most of them in fact, and all of the important ones against the U.S. No follow-ons as planned after 9/11, and no revenge for the humiliation of the Taliban. Nothing to rally the Muslim world to the cause, or to take attention away from the posturing phony Arafat. And ironically, keeping bin Laden alive now benefits the U.S. It keeps the war going, gives the Crusaders an excuse to keep fighting, and serves as a focus for their anger. Look how the Americans used this latest tape to hammer al Qaeda’s connection to Saddam. (They smile — serves him right, the apostate.) And admittedly, it wasn’t their best work. Helpful advice on how to dig holes in the desert? Like Iraqis don’t know? And putting everyone out in the open within a square mile, dug into three-man pits covered by tarps — in the cold desert nights they would shine like stars to FLIR sensors. A few cluster-bomb runs would take them all out, long before they had a chance to emerge waving surrender flags, assuming they had hidden enough white cloth from the Baath Kommissars. Even white underwear is against regulations in Saddam’s army.
But the U.S. overplayed it. Now commentators throughout the Mideast are saying the tape was fake, created by the Americans in order to make a link to Saddam. A foolish charge — if the Americans wanted to do that they would play up Fawzi Sad al-Ubaydi, the al Qaeda operative captured in Morocco who was a captain in Iraqi intelligence. He has not been heard of since he went to Gitmo.
When even your supporters are missing the point of the tapes it’s time to rethink the strategy. But al Qaeda can’t admit bin Laden is dead. They cannot just tell the truth, that he died in a cave in Afghanistan in December 2001. That would give the U.S. a huge win, and the Americans have to be denied the satisfaction. No, the way to handle this is to figure out how to make Osama a martyr. That is, not a martyr on the enemy’s terms, slain by their weapons, but a martyr on his own terms, going out at a time, place, and manner of his choosing.
So they put together a new message, and sell it over the Internet to Al-Ansar Islamic News Agency. They pre-position their leader to die heroically, “in the Eagle’s belly.” Then the next time something happens — “Guys, do you think we can pull something big off this year?” — they can claim it was Osama. He “threw his steed and soul at the enemy” just like he said he would. But make sure it’s something unlikely to leave remains that can be genetically tested. Nevertheless, even if — who will believe the Americans? “It will be their word against ours, and to our audience he will be an immortal hero.”
Once the idea is out there, it can be capitalized on any time. Any successful martyrdom operation will do. The actual shaheed won’t care — they won’t tell him in advance anyway, and afterwards he’ll be enjoying his 72 virgins. Besides, he would be happy to help the cause. Bin Laden will be with him in spirit. And even if al Qaeda can’t pull it off in the U.S. proper, the “belly of the eagle” is vague enough to be construed to be anywhere the Crusaders are active. Perhaps a ship, an aircraft (good eagle symbolism, very media friendly), or an embassy. Anywhere they can hit. Just have the press releases ready. Osama will serve the cause well in death. Nearly as well as in life.
But who will take over then? An uncomfortable silence falls on the chamber. Eyes dart about. Who indeed? Zawahiri and abu Gaith look at each other. Zawahiri, scholarly and imperious. Abu Gaith, younger, intense, eyes narrow. They smile and chuckle. Someone will lead.