The hunt for Osama bin Laden continues. In Pakistan, security forces are gearing up for a major movement into the mountainous tribal area of South Waziristan, seeking to disarm local militants and hunt for foreign al Qaeda fighters hiding in the hills. Meanwhile the U.S. is negotiating to place ads on Pakistan Television alerting people in the country’s border regions that Osama is in the area and reminding them that there is a $25 million bounty on his head. Pakistan’s government is as usual reticent to admit he may be hiding inside the country, and radical religious leaders in Islamabad and Rawalpindi plan to protest the ads, which they see as a conspiracy against Islam.
Is all this a waste of time? Yes, according to several recent analyses. Bin Laden, it seems, is not worth catching. In fact, taking him down could be seen as a Coalition defeat. One take on this is offered by recent CIA number-three man A. B. “Buzzy” Krongard. He argues that if bin Laden dies, the resulting power struggle among his (surviving) subordinates might take the form of a wave of attacks against the U.S. as each contender makes his claim for supremacy. Kind of a terror talent show. Apparently if we do not allow the issue to come up, they will not have anything to prove and will behave. Of course, they could as easily unleash the assault to impress bin Laden right now. Alternatively, Osama might order them to do it–he has said he intends to, and al Qaeda issues new threats of “imminent surprises” almost weekly. Therefore, it is hard to see the increased danger the assumed power struggle would present. Anyway, factional infights among extremists usually take the form of attacks against each other, not external enemies. The real adversary in a terrorist power struggle is the person praying next to you. Recall the bombing death of Osama bin Laden’s mentor Sheikh Abdullah Yusuf Azzam in 1989. It is a good bet that the organizer of the assassination was his student and successor. If anything, this is the kind of behavior we should encourage. Krongard also states that bin Laden is less threatening because he has transitioned from being a terrorist mastermind to a charismatic leader. This is something of a false dichotomy, since Osama has always been both simultaneously. Maybe the word Krongard was seeking is a symbolic leader–but if that is all he is, the al Qaeda underlings still will not have to wait to begin their power struggle. Indeed, a weak Osama would be in a great deal of personal danger from pretenders to the throne.
So if Osama’s power is mainly symbolic, wouldn’t it still be a good idea to get him if we could? Absolutely not says Steve Simon of the RAND Corporation, former head of the Transnational Threat Office of the National Security Council. “Killed, he will be a martyr,” Simon says, “maybe even more powerful.” The damage has been done. Militant Islam is on the march. Killing Osama will not kill the idea, it will only enshrine him among the blessed shuhada enjoying his 72 maidens in paradise.
My initial thought reading things like this from former officials involved in the hunt for bin Laden is that if it helps explain why we have not caught him yet. Or maybe it is a rationalization of failure. The argument that a living evil genius is preferable to a dead martyr is especially troubling. Surely, it is an old argument, long predating this conflict; but there are precious few examples of evildoers gaining increased power and influence after death. Who are these mighty martyrs of history? Che Guevara makes a good subject for a t-shirt, but I don’t see him causing as much trouble in Latin America today as he did when he was actively exporting revolution.
Secondly, from the terrorist point of view, the living Osama bin Laden is a much more potent and inspirational figure. Evading the worldwide manhunt is his main claim to mojo. It has made him the embodiment of the Islamic resistance. He is still out there fighting, and the most powerful country in the world cannot stop him. He outwits us at every turn, and then taunts us in his videotapes. Every jihadist on Earth is rooting for him. Furthermore, we may think bin Laden has been marginalized–and the fact that three quarters of his original organization is either dead or in custody, coupled with al Qaeda’s inability to mount significant attacks inside the United States, seems to confirm the fact–but he does not accept it. In his mind, he is as important as he ever was. He is not marginalized, he is intentionally underground. He is not being defeated, he is outfoxing us. He is a holy warrior engaged in a long-term struggle with the devil, the leader of a worldwide movement, the focal point of the aspirations of the Muslim ummah, the Caliph in waiting. So he thinks. And he is anxious to make his comeback as soon as he can.
A recent report indicated that the government is seeking intelligence analysts, and CIA Director Goss is restructuring how terrorism intelligence is handled, as well as filling critical vacancies in his organization. One hopes that the new hires understand the meaning of victory. Not a definitive, universal, perfect victory over a form of political violence from which we will never be free, or over a concept that will always have at least some adherents. That is a high bar to reach. No, I mean victory over our enemies. What bothers me about the abovementioned analyses (beyond what I think is a flawed view of extremist psychology) is their sense of moral detachment from events–from 9/11, yes, and all the other acts of violence ordered or inspired by Osama bin Laden. It is true that taking him down will not end all terrorism, or destroy the radical Islamic movement with which we are at war. No one said it would. No more than catching a given criminal will mean the end of the type of crime he committed, or removing a dictator will end all dictatorship. But every day Osama is at liberty is a day he has gotten away with mass murder. If he goes unpunished it tells the up-and-coming Osamas that maybe they can get away with it too. There is an element of justice in our pursuit of bin Laden that should not be forgotten. Indeed, it should be central to the hunt. It is a source of legitimacy, of strength and spirit. And for people who are anxious that in the pursuit of justice we might generate some negative symbols, let me offer Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in his underwear, and Saddam Hussein dragged from his spider hole. Maybe we can add Osama bin Laden in an orange jumpsuit. Sure, some Muslim radicals might be offended, no doubt. But the rest of us would feel just fine.