Politics & Policy

Osama, Fallen Star

Crix nix Qaeda pix.

In Lahore Pakistan you can also still get Osama bin Laden cologne, though sales have never matched the hype the product generated in its 2002 rollout. The Karachi Dawn reports that bin Laden t-shirts are no longer a hot item in Islamabad; at 300 rupees (about $5.00) they may be overpriced for the locals, and apparently only Western tourists buy them, as conversation pieces. (Though the five-cent bag of Arafat chips is very affordable for the prospective martyr with the munchies.) Meanwhile the Saudi-owned London-based newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat published a scathing critique of the latest al Qaeda video, calling it boring and lackluster, and saying that the terror group’s image in the media has “retreated to the point where it is almost pitiful.” Their solution? More screen time for Zarqawi, the supporting player who is gradually stealing the show.

What does an evil genius have to do to get a little respect? I have written about this before, the unwillingness of the world to take the terror mastermind seriously any more. In part, it is Osama’s fault. Would you have wagered money in September 2001 that by 2005 al Qaeda would not have executed another major terror attack inside the U.S.? The group made many threats of course, but was never able to back them up, creating an unbridgeable credibility gap.

Sometimes we underrate Osama to our detriment. It has become a knee-jerk response from Western analysts to attribute new terror attacks to any group but al Qaeda, and to recite the mantra that bin Laden is marginalized, his network operates without him, we’re facing al Qaeda 2.0, or 3.0, that there is no possible way Osama constitutes a threat. We heard a lot of this immediately following the July 7 London bombings for example; but many learned experts had to beat a retreat when it turned out the ringleaders had recently returned from a trip to Pakistan, and especially after al Qaeda obligingly released their suicide videos. Looks like Osama’s network is a little more sophisticated than some experts want to believe.

Whether or not bin Laden is still running the show, he surely wants to be, and must spend a lot of his time figuring out ways to stay in charge. He does not have much else to do with his time, and, anyway, control is important to people bent on world domination. He has shown that he is not someone you would want to cross. Former al Qaeda chief spokesman Sulieman abu Gaith vanished in 2002 after a terror attack on Marines in Kuwait–the perpetrators had lavished praise on Gaith as their inspiration, but never mentioned the corporate chairman. Bad move. Some say abu Gaith is in hiding in Iran–perhaps, if he is lucky.

Zarqawi, Osama’s emir in Iraq, spends a lot of time praising Osama, every chance he gets. He would not do that if he did not either feel some sort of loyalty, a degree of threat, or have other reasons for wanting to be perceived publicly to be on the team. Likewise, lately there have been more branches of the al Qaeda franchise incorporating the brand in their name. Al Qaeda of the Land of the Two Rivers (Iraq), al Qaeda of Syria, Saudi al Qaeda, Somali al Qaeda, and, of course, al Qaeda Classic. In the past, Osama advised his followers to come up with a variety of names, and to make pronouncements under many assumed identities, to introduce noise in our analytical systems and make the threat seem greater than it was. Now the guidance is, support the brand, raise the corporate profile, and talk up the name. That is not a sign of strength.

If we assume that Osama aches to be taken seriously, we can also assume that he is very frustrated in his current situation, holed up in the tribal zone along the Afghan/Pakistan border, moving from hideout to hideout, and relying on low-tech communications to keep tabs on his network. The Pakistanis claim he is isolated and ineffective. The events of the summer may have proven otherwise, but it is still good to say it, because it will get back to him (we know al Qaeda has a media department that follows their clippings) and perhaps goad Osama into making a mistake. After all, he has to come out sometime. He cannot stay holed up forever and remain relevant. This guy wants the world to think he is the Mahdi, the Muslim messiah, and you cannot rouse the faithful locked in a windowless room or crouching in the back of a Toyota pickup. Some day he will have to make a personal appearance, hopefully looking more inspiring than he did in his recent videos, which had the production values of a public-access channel.

There are some signs of stirring. The Egyptian Shbabmisr website is running a six-part serial of what it claims to be an interview with Osama from July, 2005. And Monday saw the premier of the Voice of the Caliphate (Sout Al-Khilafa) web newscast–16 minutes of unedited terrorist propaganda with a lead-in that resembles a very bad science-fiction film. But while Zarqawi was on the screen half the time, Osama was not mentioned at all. That could be bad news for Zarqawi if it triggers the boss’ envy. Maybe they will have bin Laden do a guest shot, to plug his next project. I am sure they could book him; he is not exactly fighting off the offers.

James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, a trustee for the Leaders for Liberty Foundation, and an NRO contributor.


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