Even though tonight’s presidential debate is planned to curtail spontaneity I keep expecting the Woody Allen moment–Senator Kerry will be pounding President Bush on what he sees as a lack of progress in the war on terrorism, and noting that the Coalition has thus far failed to locate Osama bin Laden.
”Well, that’s funny,” the president replies, “because I happen to have Osama bin Laden right here…”
I noted several weeks ago that if Osama were produced any time soon it would be dismissed as a stunt, denounced as sneaky politics. As if on cue, Mrs. Heinz Kerry said she would not be surprised if he turned up before the election. This has been a topic of conversation at least since December 2003 when Madeline Albright noted her belief that Osama’s capture would be timed for prime political impact. But there have been few signs of life from Osama recently, and even his followers seem to have given up on him. When al Qaeda’s number-two man Ayman al Zawahiri emerged from his cave to issue the annual 9/11-anniversary message he did not mention the titular leader of the movement. Previous messages had featured audio or video footage of OBL, but this year all we saw was Zawahiri against a blank canvas background, making some uninspiring comments about how the United States and its Coalition partners are trapped in a quagmire in Iraq and Afghanistan, and struggling to avoid collapse like the Soviet Union. Osama is also conspicuously absent in statements from Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi in Iraq, probably the most publicly active member of al Qaeda, but who seems to have forgotten for whom he is working. Perhaps when the price on his head was raised in June to the top level of $25 million he took it as tacit recognition that he had joined the ranks of the super villains and no longer needed to make the obligatory gestures of fealty to the front office.
Bin Laden hit the headlines recently when Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said that he believes Osama is alive, but has no idea where he might be. U.S. Lieutenant-General David Barno, commander of Coalition forces in Afghanistan, offered helpfully that bin Laden was in Pakistan–something of a faux pas, but let’s face it, where else could he be? There was some buzz this week about Zawahiri being captured, and though all the stories can be traced back to a report on Al Arabiyah on Monday (in other words, nothing new since then), it makes sense to me. One reason was the video–making and releasing them always entails some degree of risk. Even more important was the timing of the takedown of al Qaeda stalwart Amjad Farooqi, who had been complicit in the Daniel Pearl killing and recently attempted to assassinate Musharraf. Farooqi’s end was inauspicious; surrounded for hours in his not-so-safe house in Nawabshah, he emerged wearing a chador quoting the Koran and daring the security forces to shoot him down. They did. Any actionable intelligence from captured documents, hard drives, and interrogations of people in the house would have to have been exploited while it was hot and before the compromised networks could disperse. If Zawahiri was captured later that day it was probably as a result of what was found with Farooqi. Hopefully we will know soon, though I don’t relish hearing the clucking about “suspicious timing.” As far as I am concerned, any time is the right time to bring in the bad guys.
And if we have Zawahiri, can Osama be far behind? Only if he is alive. My belief from early 2002 has been that the burden of proof is on bin Laden, and since then he has not done a very good job. There has been no new video since December 2001, and the authenticity of the audiotapes that have emerged in the last three years is questionable. Chechen terrorist leader Shamil Basayev is in as much danger as bin Laden, despite the mere $10 million price on his head, and he appears on television occasionally. Someone as vain as Osama should be trying much harder to get his image out, to inspire the faithful, annoy the Americans, and shore up his standing in radical circles.
Despite these and other recent successes, we are in increasing danger. The Democrats in particular have been pointing out the growing threat, which has more to do with politics than intelligence estimates. As noted in November 2003, that the logic of triangulation pointed towards emphasizing danger, real or imagined. If nothing happens, they can still say not enough has been done to make America safe. If the terrorists make a successful domestic attack, they can cite it as proof. It makes sense politically, but it is a shame they have to game the threat like that, particularly as the election nears and the risk becomes acute. When I speak in public the first question is, invariably, what are the odds that terrorists will try to pull off an attack to try to influence the election as they did in Spain? I hate to give numerical odds because numbers are a device that pundits use to give an air of precision to what are essentially hunches. Nevertheless, I will say this–the odds that al Qaeda is trying to attack us at home are 100 percent. The probability that there are sleeper cells in the U.S. or heading towards us is certain. According to information taken from Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, planning for the upcoming attack is very detailed. The next few weeks are a dangerous time. Al Qaeda is going to take its shot, and soon. Maybe our agents will break up the operation (or more likely, simultaneous large-scale operations) before the terrorists can strike. Other countries with upcoming elections, such as Australia and Afghanistan (both on October 9) are similarly under the gun. A major attack would be an important test of national will in any society. I doubt that the terrorists can pull off another Spain, but surely, they will try.