Osama bin Laden – Dead or Alive?
The Pakistan Observer recently reported the following quote from a senior Taliban leader: “Much dreaded Osama bin Ladin, the man on the top of the U.S. list of most wanted men, had a peaceful natural death in mid-December in the vicinity of famous Tora Bora mountains.”
This unidentified source continued: “The Coalition troops are engaged in a mad search operation but they would never be able to fulfill their cherished goal of getting Osama alive or dead.” The source went on to say that the late Osama bin Ladin was suffering from some serious lung complications, and succumbed to the disease for lack of proper treatment. The source claimed that OBL was laid to rest honorably in his last abode and his grave was leveled in accordance with his Wahabi beliefs.
This unnamed individual then went on to describe the funeral he attended. According to him, about thirty close al Qaeda associates of OBL, including his most trusted personal bodyguards, family members and some “Taliban friends” attended the funeral rites. A volley of bullets was fired to pay final tribute to the “great leader.” The Taliban source who claims to have seen bin Laden’s face before burial said “he looked pale and freak but calm, relaxed and confident.”
The source strongly asserted that bin Laden had no feelings of remorse before death. He insisted that bin Laden was proud to have succeeded in his mission of igniting awareness amongst Muslims about hegemonistic designs and conspiracies of “pagans” against Islam. He said that bin Laden believed that the sacrifice of a few hundred people in Afghanistan was nothing as those who gave their lives in creating an atmosphere of resistance will be adequately rewarded by Almighty Allah.
On the other hand, in late June al Qaeda broadcast that bin Laden was still alive, and that the United States had better fasten its seatbelts, because the worst was yet to come. In response, Afghan President Hamid Karzai called for a joint operation by Afghanistan, the United States, and Pakistan to capture Osama bin Laden, who he believes is in hiding somewhere in the mountainous region bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Karzai went on to say that “[bin Laden] is an individual, hiding in a house, not moving around properly or not communicating with anybody. It’s easy to hide. Some criminals are hidden for 10 to 12 years around the world, so criminals can hide … but bin Laden will be found one day.”
So which is it? Did he die peacefully or is he still plotting our demise?
On June 23, al Jazeera, the Arabic satellite channel about which I have written earlier (“Target Al Jazeera – ‘Information War’ Weapon,” DefenseWatch, May 15, 2002), broadcast an audio tape produced by al Qaeda which al Jazeera claimed was authentic. On the tape, Suleiman Abu Ghaith – who has appeared sitting at bin Laden’s side in propaganda videos – announced that bin Laden and 98 percent of the al Qaeda leadership are still alive and planning fresh attacks on the U.S. in the coming days and months. He boasted that the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan failed to destroy al Qaeda. Abu Ghaith reported that “The system is still there and it is operating at full power.”
“Our martyrs are ready for operations against American and Jewish targets. America should be prepared. It should be ready. They should fasten the seatbelts. We are coming to them where they never expected.”
Abu Ghaith also claimed al Qaeda was behind the April truck bombing of Africa’s Djerba synagogue in Tunisia where 21 people, mostly German tourists, died.
Sen. Bob Graham, Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the tape was credible. The last time U.S. intelligence had a fix on bin Laden was at the start of the military campaign last December. He was believed to be hiding in the eastern Afghan Tora Bora mountains. Then he vanished without a trace.
So which is it? Did he die peacefully as reported by The Pakistan Observer, or is he still plotting our demise as Abu Ghaith insists?
Last April, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said: “He’s alive or dead. He’s in Afghanistan or somewhere else.” Which just about sums it up. Larry Johnson, a former State Department counter-terrorism official, put it this way: “The proof that he’s alive is, we don’t hear anything from Osama bin Laden.” And then he adds: “The proof that he’s dead is, we don’t hear anything from Osama bin Laden.”
Time Magazine reports from unnamed White House sources that intelligence officers are getting credible second-hand reports from individuals who claim to have spoken with bin Laden recently. A Bush aide says, “The guy is alive. He’s just being really quiet. It’s not in his interest to show where he really is. So he’s just maintaining complete silence.”
So which is it?
The preponderance of the evidence seems to point to his live presence in the mountains of Kandahar, somewhere in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan, or possibly lost in the teeming masses of one of Pakistan’s cities like Karachi. This is kind of like saying, “He’s somewhere out there west of the Mississippi.”
The bad news is that unless we are able to recruit and train reliable local talent, we don’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of finding bin Laden. The good news is that bin Laden cannot effectively lead al Qaeda from his deep cover.
So is he dead or alive? Does it really matter?
Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor