Well, the jungle drums are beating about the just released video of Usama Bin Laden.
The intelligence community, pundits, media, politicians, bloggers and, of course, supporters of Bin Laden around the globe have been anxiously reviewing the tape. First came the speculation about its legitimacy, is it the big guy or some clever imposter. Lots and lots of beard jokes. Then came the ongoing analysis of the message and its importance.
That’s “importance” not “impotence” by the way. Although White House Security Adviser Fran Townsend did call him “…virtually impotent.” In a weekend interview, Ms Townsend said “This is a man on the run from a cave who is virtually impotent other than these tapes.”
I wouldn’t have used that phrasing, but I get the point she’s trying to make.
Personally, I think I got me a case of Bin Laden Fatigue Syndrome (BLFS). It’s not recognized by my insurer as a legitimate disease so I’ll probably seek alternative holistic therapies. One particularly promising treatment involves rum runners and a really comfortable hammock.
So imagine the excitement when news came out at the end of this weekend that we might be treated to not one, but two videos featuring Bin Laden. What a bonus. The second video will reportedly contain a statement of sorts from one of the 9/11 hijackers.
One gets the impression that Bin Laden is missing the spotlight. He also comes across in the first video as a surly teen who feels he isn’t being given enough attention. It’s not just folks here in the West who watched him in that video and thought he looked more like your crazy uncle than a crazy terror leader bent on death and destruction.
Islamic websites have been entertaining input from sympathizers who seem irritated that Bin Laden didn’t seem as scary as he should. Perhaps it’s time for an objective evaluation of Bin Laden’s importance in the scheme of things. Frankly, it’s about time.
Yes, he’s our Dr. Evil and of course it would be lovely to see him at the receiving end of a Predator. But do we honestly believe that Bin Laden is at the center of our global problem with fundamentalist jihadists now?
While catching him would obviously be cause for holding Mardi Gras early, do we believe it would put an end to the war on terror?
Is there actually anyone out there who believes that if we had only caught him in Tora Bora, all the other like minded Al Qaeda losers around the world would have given up and gone to vocational school to pursue productive lives?
We’ve all got Bin Laden fever… a fixation on a crazed, egomaniacal psychopath who didn’t get enough hugs from Dad. Yeah, he’s dangerous in his own way… but he’s not the great Oz. He’s more like the Mayor of the Oompah Loompahs. Only way taller.
There’s been so much emotion, talk and ink invested in Bin Laden that his actual importance to the war on terror (or whatever you’d like to call it) is way out of whack with reality. While he’s surely a thorn in the side, a constant irritating reminder that the face of terrorism has evaded capture for the six years since 9/11, he could hardly be considered the most important operational target. His capture would be a victory for emotional, symbolic reasons, not for some ability to obtain a treasure trove of operational leads and actionable intelligence.
Here’s the skinny on the Islamic terrorist problem… it’s bigger than Bin Laden and always has been. It’s just that he came along at an opportune time, and certainly had a flair for public relations and networking that was lacking in the past. But he didn’t invent jihad or the tools of terror.
Since Bin Laden and his all girl orchestra formed Al Qaeda during and following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, it has evolved into a loose confederation of groups, large and small, with operators, active supporters and sympathizers spread across the globe. They’re linked together by occasional shared ideas and goals, which makes it all sound loftier than it is. To call a spade a spade, they dress up their violence and destruction in pseudo religion and claim to be serving God by blowing up a random mix of Muslims, Jews and Christians.
What a load of crap.™
“What a load of crap” is of course the registered trademark of the Peoples Weekly Brief.
In the old days of terrorism, back when dinosaurs such as the Red Army Faction, Japanese Red Army and others walked the planet, they didn’t wrap themselves in a religious blanket to justify their use of terror, violence and mayhem. They were essentially anarchists lashing out at The Man, occasionally espousing some supposed goal, but usually not with a straight face.
Al Qaeda drapes itself in Islam, although it’s a warped, zealous, skewed and sick interpretation of the actual religion. And by wrapping their brand of death and destruction in a religious cloak, they’ve managed to portray themselves as something other than killers and thugs to portions of the world’s population.
Hijacking Islam for their purposes has always been a great recruiting tool. Al Qaeda is very adept at fishing for uneducated, unemployed, confused and troubled youth who latch on to Al Qaeda’s rabid message of hate with a convert’s zeal. They use Islam to give their hate an air of legitimacy, and the recruits get a sense of belonging and higher purpose. Right up until they’re given the bomb belt or keys to the explosive laden truck. Being instructed to blow yourself up for your fraternity brothers is one hell of a hazing ritual. Personally I’d rather drink heavy and go streaking.
And finally, we, meaning anyone Al Qaeda targets, ends up battling the religious angle… constrained in our efforts against Al Qaeda because of the connection to Islam. Look no further than the fear of profiling to understand how Al Qaeda uses religion to their advantage. Because this is an educational, interactive column, here’s an SAT question… Al Qaeda is to legitimate religious beliefs as Monkeys are to flying out of my butt. Actually, that question has yet to appear on the SAT exam.
There are those who insist that there is no difference between what Al Qaeda believes and desires, and what all Muslims believe and want. This theory holds that Islam is basically a violent religion that calls for the destruction of all those who don’t adhere to the Islamic faith. How about that for a big broad brush?
These folks basically view the war on terror as a life and death struggle against Islam. For them, it isn’t about defeating Al Qaeda in a straightforward counterterrorist effort, it’s an ideological struggle akin to the battle against communism.
Some of these same folks are talking some pretty crazy talk right about now, advocating among other things that we should be warming up the bombers and heading for Iran. By the way, one of these advocates is a lead policy adviser to Rudy Giuliani. I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it… study who the candidates have as advisors and staff before jumping on their bandwagon.
All I can say is, keep it in perspective. Take a deep breath and repeat after me: this is a counterterrorist effort against Al Qaeda, not an apocalyptic battle against Islam. Capturing Bin Laden isn’t the barometer for how the war on terror is progressing. The U.S. government isn’t out to steal your civil liberties and trample your rights as an individual.
It’s hard to fathom how much of the rhetoric surrounding the war on terror, Bin Laden, Iraq and the overall question of national security is due to the 2008 presidential campaign, and how much is simply due to the human propensity for leaking hot air. No sooner was the Bin Laden tape released than Democrats began shouting that our failure to capture him was emblematic of our failure to wage a successful war against Al Qaeda. Which was naturally followed by the chorus of “We’re less safe than before 9/11”.
Only a moron, a politician looking to get elected, or a combination of the two, would honestly believe that we are not safer now than we were at 9/11. There has been a tremendous amount of progress made within the intelligence and law enforcement communities on key processes and procedures that has our information collection, analysis, coordination and cooperation between the various agencies working better than it did six years ago.
We have better cooperation with key foreign liaison partners than we did six years ago. We have a better understanding of the scope and motivations of Al Qaeda than we did six years ago. We and our allies have had countless successes during the past six years, wrapping up Al Qaeda operatives, identifying previously unknown linkages with other organizations and disrupting and preventing a large number of potentially deadly plots such as this past week’s arrests in Germany.
Of course there’s room for improvement. The retooling of the coordination and cooperation processes between the intelligence organizations and local, state and federal law enforcement agencies is a massive undertaking. There are still issues of “turf” and primacy in operations, and we have nowhere near sufficient human intelligence sources capable of penetrating Al Qaeda in all its various forms. But to claim we aren’t better than we were six years ago is either a sorry display of naiveté or a sorry display of willful ignorance in the name of politics.
Across the aisle, the Republicans, at least those that haven’t completely jumped ship for reasons of self preservation, declared that the Bin Laden tape shows there’s still evil out there and the war on terror is priority one and Iraq must not be abandoned. Well yeah, we kind of knew that there was still evil out there. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t need Bin Laden to remind me of that.
As far as the importance of the war on terror… I frankly don’t want to make all my political, economic and other decisions based on concern over Al Qaeda. It might be a related symptom of Bin Laden Fatigue Syndrome. Managing the war on terror is one item on the government’s to-do list, it ain’t the whole list. I’d feel better about the 2008 election if the candidates would clearly explain, in detail, what they would do in regards to the counterterrorism effort (it’s all been sound bites and platitudes so far) and then get on with the other, frankly more important long term issues that will affect our well being. This is not to diminish the danger presented by Al Qaeda. But keep it in perspective.
Bin Laden banged on about Iraq quite a bit in this latest video. It’s amazing he had time to talk about it given how much time he spent pontificating on American politics, the economy and the subprime crisis. I’m sure countless Al Qaeda recruits were stirred into action by Bin Laden’s fiery discourse on the American credit markets. What a gasbag. Undoubtedly the second video, if released, will be just as scintillating.
A problem we’ve got now is that Iraq and the war on terror are now joined at the hip. Discussions regarding counterterrorism are inevitably tied to progress in Iraq. This is unfortunate because it has meant the near extinction of rational discussion regarding the war on terror. Depending on their leanings, people tend to be either so defensive, or so disgusted with the Iraq situation that conversation is less than illuminating.
The process of trying to continuously minimize the threat from terror is a global one. Iraq is one theater in this ongoing effort. Of course we can argue that, before going in to oust Sadaam, Iraq wasn’t a key theater in the counterterrorism program. But it is now and we have to deal with it.
Withdrawing from Iraq, whether immediately or over time, will not reduce the terror threat. We should take a lesson from those old school terror groups of the 70’s… they didn’t need a reason to carry out their violence. And if they did claim a reason, once that reason disappeared, they simply found some other justification for their terror.
The difference between them and Al Qaeda is they didn’t pretend that God was on their side. The point being, make Iraq go away, and Al Qaeda will fill the gap with some other issue or supposed cause. They’re very adaptable that way. It’s what terrorists do.
Finally, a frequently asked question is… are we going to have another attack on American soil? Unfortunately, I feel pretty confident that the answer is yes. We are not in a zero sum game, meaning that in counterterrorism you almost never reduce the risk down to zero. The law of averages works against you. We have to be diligent, correct and lucky all the time. The terrorists just need to get one through occasionally to feel vindicated.
You want an example, look at Israel over the past few decades or the UK during the IRA campaign.
If we lived in a totalitarian state, we could pretty much guarantee complete security. But an open society and airtight homeland defense systems don’t mix. Just as Al Qaeda uses religion to its advantage, they also are adept at using the West’s openness and freedoms to facilitate their efforts.
What Bin Laden doesn’t understand, and what his less savvy minions certainly don’t get, is that those freedoms are in reality our best defense. Its why, despite the occasional successful attack that might sneak through, they’ll never win.
Till next week, stay safe.
Mike Baker served for more than 15 years as a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations around the globe. Since leaving government service, he has been a principal in building and running several companies in the private intelligence, security and risk management sector, including most recently Prescience LLC, a global intelligence and strategy firm. He appears frequently in the media as an expert on such issues. Baker is also a partner in Classified Trash, a film and television production company. Baker serves as a script consultant and technical adviser within the entertainment industry, lending his expertise to such programs as the BBC's popular spy series "Spooks" as well as major motion pictures. In addition, Baker is a writer for a BBC drama to begin production in July 2007.