BRUSSELS – He was branded as the new anti-Christ. He was the supreme embodiment of evil. He was the planetary public enemy number one. He was the villain on the cover of any magazine. But then he vanished. And the man who holds the most powerful job on earth still wants him badly – dead or alive.
But Osama bin Laden is not dead. He is very much alive. Somewhere in Pakistan.
Pictorial variations can be found in any Pakistani bazaar: in the collective sub-consciousness of millions of Muslims he has been elevated into the new prophet, riding a white horse between Mecca and Jerusalem, leading the Islamic cavalry to smash the Infidels.
Twice last October he materialized, like a high-tech ghost, on the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television network, which aired video tapes of him delivering messages. Twice in December he was back – on one occasion on the famous tape supposedly found in Jalalabad in Afghanistan, which, for the Pentagon, proved that he was in fact the mastermind of September 11. In April, he was back one more time. Since then, nothing.
A little more than two weeks ago, though, his Kuwaiti-born spokesman, Sulaiman Abu Graith, showed up on Al Jazeera in a prerecorded tape to confirm what many already suspected: yes, he is very much alive “and will soon make a televised address to the Muslim world.” Another Al Jazeera exclusive, of course.
As long as bin Laden remains at large – despite the efforts of the most powerful army in the history of the world – he remains the subject of intense debate. From Bangkok to Buenos Aires, live or on the Internet, conspiracy theories abound. He remains a CIA agent. His al-Qaeda network is a ghost brand, totally virtual. He will never be found because he is the supremely convenient excuse for any American military excesses. President George W. Bush, on the record, has once again reissued his orders: he wants bin Laden dead – and before September 11, 2002.
Al-Qaeda, virtual or not, is by no means smashed. It will strike again – and it will choose “the right time, place and method,” according to Graith. He emphasized that al-Qaeda was prepared for an American offensive, and its military, security, economic and media network were intact. “Ninety-eight percent of the leadership” is also intact, and Graith confirmed that the “Surgeon,” Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s number two, had not been killed at Tora Bora in Afghanistan in December. And the Taliban supremo, Mullah Omar – last seen escaping from American ballistic fury in December on the back of a Honda 50cc – is also very much alive. It’s no secret that Omar bought his way to a perfect hideout in the mountains of Uruzgan province in Afghanistan, where he is being fiercely protected by local warlords. All of this has been confirmed by Pakistani sources close to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The American media would never dare face the obvious, but the fact is that the hunt for bin Laden and the al-Qaeda leadership is a major embarrassment for the US to date. The US record on the attack on Tora Bora (December), Operation Anaconda (March) and Operation Snipe (May) is dismal. Bin Laden himself, the al-Qaeda leadership and thousands of Arab fighters managed to escape from Tora Bora – by bribing eastern Afghani warlords. Anaconda – employing 2,000 GIs, 2,000 Afghans and loads of B-52s and Apache helicopters – supposedly cleared out the Chah-e-Kot valley in Paktia province. But most Arabs and Taliban eventually managed to escape east. Snipe – employing 1,000 Royal Marines – intervened in Khost, and just managed to push al-Qaeda fighters further inside the tribal areas of Pakistan. There they have blended in everywhere, in Miram Shah, deep in the tribal areas.
Last November, the Taliban announced the death of Muhamad Atef, bin Laden’s military commander and personal security chief who helped set up al-Qaeda networks in East Africa. Atef was installed at bin Laden’s side by al-Zawahiri. He is believed to be the chief strategist of September 11. But he didn’t die last year: in April, the Pentagon tried again, stating that Atef “might” have been a target of aerial bombing near Kabul.
A few months ago, Indian intelligence services assured that they had proof that the ISI had ordered UK-born Sheikh Omar to send US$100,000 to Muhamad Atta, the alleged chief pilot on September 11. Sheikh Omar was arrested in Karachi in February and charged with the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in the same city. The US wants him extradited at any cost.
The biggest fish caught so far is Abu Zubaida, arrested in Faisalabad in the Pakistani Punjab in April. Zubaida, a former resident of the Gaza Strip in Palestine, had headed al-Qaeda’s international operations, and was to have become al-Qaeda’s leader in the event of bin Laden or al-Zawahiri being killed. Zubaida was based in Peshawar and was the main contact for all Arabs transiting to Afghanistan.
Long past are the days when a young Saudi, armed with petrodollars and the holy Koran, arrived in Pashtun country – from the western margin of the Indus to the Hindu Kush mountains and the great deserts of Baluchistan – to wage jihad. An Asia Times Online investigation with European and Afghan-Pakistani sources confirmed that he is back – but not necessarily in Pashtun country. The al-Qaeda leadership has already moved the de facto battlefield from Afghanistan to Pakistan. Karachi, Lahore and provincial capitals such as Faisalabad are slowly being turned into an urban guerrilla theater, against both the West and Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf’s rule.
Sheikh Omar, born in the UK, son of Muslim immigrants from the Pakistani side of Kashmir, highly skilled and tech-savvy, is typical of a key al-Qaeda operative. While in Pakistan, he was an active militant for the Kashmiri cause. When facing Pakistani justice, he talked at length about his contacts with the ISI – which Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider took no time to rebuff (“Moin” as he is known in Pakistan, is regarded as a no-brainer). Al-Qaeda, Afghan training camps, Kashmir and the ISI remain inter-related in myriad ways. During the 1990s, at least 20,000 people – mostly Arabs – transited through Pakistan for Afghanistan to “offer their services” to a number of Afghan-based Arab jihadi outfits. At least 5,000 passed all the tests, made an oath of allegiance to bin Laden and joined al-Qaeda, according to a source close to the ISI. The source adds, “About 5,000 Arabs, a few Bangladeshis and Somalis and very few Pakistanis are the hardcore support of al-Qaeda.” The majority are still alive, well and waiting.
The US military actions so far have killed, trapped or arrested no more than 2,000 fighters. The majority are laying low, behaving as law-abiding residents of various Arab, European and North American cities. They usually communicate through steganography – “hidden writing” in Greek, today transposed to secret Internet messages. Through steganography, messages are embedded in picture and music files. European intelligence sources in Brussels think that the messages could even be hidden in online porn sites.
A surefire way to track bin Laden is to follow the money. ISI-related sources point out that over the past Muslim holy month of Ramadan, for the first time since the mid-1980s, bin Laden did not receive the usual mountain of contributions from wealthy Arab citizens, derived from their mandatory zakat and fikra Islamic contributions. The money, apparently for charity work in Afghanistan, was always collected by bin Laden agents in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. This is how bin Laden literally controlled Afghanistan, with the help of his global armada of fund managers.
But now the CIA and European intelligence services are monitoring each and every wire and cash transfer from anywhere in the world to Pakistan. As much as is feasible, the hawala (unofficial money transfer) business in Pakistan and in the Arab word is under strict Western surveillance. Sources in Pakistan confirm that at present there are no Arab clients for foreign moneychangers in Peshawar and Quetta. And Pakistani diplomatic missions all over the world have been instructed not to issue Pakistani visas to Arabs without their application being examined by Pakistani intelligence in Islamabad. Arabs can no longer use the excuse of tabligh – preaching – to obtain a visa.
So al-Qaeda is now opening up even more, and subcontracting tasks to Pakistani jihadi organizations – as Asia Times Online has reported. Even before September 11 and the subsequent American response, bin Laden knew that he could not keep al-Qaeda as a purely Arab organization. Ma’askar – the Arab training camps in Afghanistan, run by the Arab veterans of the Afghan jihad – trained volunteers of at least three key Pakistani jihadi outfits.
Al-Qaeda may have been smashed in Afghanistan and may have relocated to Pakistan, but the US is very far from winning the new Afghan war. The US is shifting its military strategy, concentrating now on special operations troops working with the Pashtun-illiterate CIA to track down Taliban leaders in southern Afghanistan and al-Qaeda fighters who crossed to the tribal areas in Pakistan. But at the same time the US is still bombing Afghanistan, with the inevitable string of blunders, like last week’s when more than 100 Afghan civilians were wounded or killed by an American strike. A single not-culturally-impaired American operative on the ground could have warned that this was a marriage celebration – not a bunch of fleeing Taliban.
Pashtuns of all colors are fuming. The aerial hunt for Mullah Omar will go nowhere. ISI-related sources confirm that he is in hiding in Afghanistan’s eastern Uruzgan province, but the Americans will have to crawl there to get him. Pashtun leaders are also convinced that the US heavily favors the Tajiks of the Northern Alliance. And now that the war has de facto expanded to Pakistan, Pashtuns feel vulnerable on both sides of the border. Neither the US military nor the Musharraf government allows independent observers in the new war theater.
Musharraf and his leadership are cracking down internally on al-Qaeda. But bin Laden – and the Taliban – still have many powerful supporters inside the army and the ISI. This means that the US is even further away from winning the war in Pakistan – due to the ISI’s ambivalence. The US has also not won the war in Yemen. Bin Laden even managed to strike a – now dormant – active partnership with some hardcore Iranian mullahs. Islamists are still very much active in Chechnya and in Java. If bin Laden could not risk being a refugee in Iran – even protected by hardcore mullahs – Pakistan was the next best option. He did go in, and he has not come out.
He may cut an anonymous figure in the rivers of humanity of any Pakistani big city – a much better refuge than the volatile and American-scrutinized Pashtun tribal areas. He is now Musharraf’s nemesis. If he is arrested, his inevitable extradition to the US will destroy the ultra-precarious Pakistani state. If American special forces go and get him, that’s the end of any cooperation with the Americans by the Pakistani army. If he abandons his hideout, he can be captured. Otherwise, no matter the spin, there is no victory in the war against terrorism. For the moment at least, there’s every indication that bin Laden will celebrate September 11’s first anniversary alive, well – and on Al Jazeera.