Does Bin Laden ‘Dead or Alive’ matter anymore?
Weekly Pulse
January 28-February 4, 2010
If al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has not already become a mythical hero, we will make sure he becomes one, especially in the earstwhile Afghan frontiers of Indian subcontinent where religious extremism has thrived since early 19th century on grounds of the same mythology. The Bin Laden ‘Dead or Alive’ controversy has reached such heights that American author David Ray Griffin has published a full volume titled Osama bin Laden: Dead or Alive?, arguing the al-Qaeda leader is “long dead.” The same point is frequently made by known Western or Muslim world critics of the US-led War on Terror, and has been stressed by two successive presidents Pervez Musharraf and Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan, America’s frontline ally against terrorism in the region.

Since the current war in Afghanistan began in October 2001, well over 40 audio and video tape messages from bin Laden have appeared in international media. Even if their authenticity is questioned by those claiming his death during the December 2001 US air assault on Tora Bora hills or afterwards due to kidney failure, the fact that many of these messages refer to current instances leads some, especially US security officials, to counter argue that al-Qaeda leader is still alive and kicking.

If bin Laden is still alive, how come he has evaded the biggest international manhunt led by the world’s sole superpower with all the technological capability and regional allied support for well over eight years? Ask the claimants of bin Laden’s death or the “conspiracy theorists.” The American explanation for the failure to capture or kill the “Most Wanted Terrorist” with $50 million head-money reflects a frustrating hope against hope, best articulated by Bruce Riedel, who served as a Obama Administration’s advisor on Afghanistan earlier last year, when he remarked in October that the trail has not so much gone cold as “frozen over.”

Bin Laden’s Whereabouts

As for the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, official arguments by the US and its Western allies are mostly conflicting and marked by uncertainty and confusion. For instance, in early December, while US National Security Advisor James Jones claimed in a CNN interview that bin Laden “periodically slips into Afghanistan” from his hideouts in Pakistan’s tribal areas, the same day, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told ABC News, “It’s been years” that the US has not had any good intelligence on the whereabouts of bin Laden. Around the same time, at a joint press conference in London, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown claimed bin Laden was present in Pakistan, with his Pakistani counterpart Yousaf Reza Gillani denying it the very next moment.

While the controversy about the life and death of bin Laden and his probable abode in hiding, if alive, rages on, the al-Qaeda terror network continues its important mission of influencing the extremist mindset with fresh audio or video messages allegedly from its top leadership.

On January 24, in another of his purported audio messages broadcast by Al-Jazeera, bin Laden claimed responsibility for the December 25 attempted bombing of US Northwest Airlines flight with 279 people on board from Amsterdam to Detriot. The al-Qaeda leader also vowed to continue attacks on the United States. "God willing, our raids on you will continue as long as your support to the Israelis will continue," he warned.

The latest message from bin Laden is a confirmation of the claim al-Qaeda’s Yemini wing made soon after the foiled terrorist attack on the Christmas eve, which forced the Obama Administration to, perhaps, first time in the last one year in office to publicly underscore the gravity of internaitonal terrorist threat from al-Qaeda.

The accused in the latest attempted act of terrorism against the United States by al-Qaeda is a young Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. He has already been indicted by a US Federal Court of smuggling explosives on the US-bound flight and attempting to detonate them as it approached Detroit Metro Airport. Currently in jail, he is awaiting trial on six counts that carry a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Motives Behind Messages

In his message, bin Laden also said the attempt by the "hero" Abdulmutallab "is to stress earlier messages delivered to you by the heroes of the 11th of September attacks.” He cited Washington's support for Israel as the motivator for more attacks on the United States, and vowed not to stop so long as Palestinians cannot live in peace. "America should not dream of security until we enjoy it as a reality in Palestine," he warned.

In almost all of the messages from al-Qaeda leader, there is always a reference to the Palestinian issue, the Israeli atrocities against Palestinians and the US support to Israel. However, in most cases, the messages refer to some recent episodes, say, of civilian casualties due to NATO airstrikes in Afghanistan—as his last purported audiotape released in September 2009 did, in which bin Laden urged European countries to pull their troops out of Afganistan, warning them of "retaliation" if they did not. Such messages from al-Qaeda leadership are said to have mulitiple motivations, including fueling Muslims’ hatred of the West and garnering their support for the terror network’s extremist ideology and terrorist cause against the United States, and its Western and Muslim world allies.

One of bin Laden’s 20 sons, Omar bin Laden, the co-author of a recent book Growing up Bin Laden, along with al-Qaeda leader’s first wife and his mother, Najwa, has now added to the part-media, part-official debate on Bin Laden ‘Dead or Alive? He told Reuters on January 27 that al-Qaeda and Taliban were only allies of convenience and "do not love one another." In another interview with the Rolling Stone , posted on the magazine’s website on January 20, Omar said his father was “worth more to the United States alive than dead” because his death could unleash “very, very nasty” attacks by militants.

The Real Question

Leaving aside the claims and counter-claims about bin Laden’s physical being, geographical location or his greater worth being captured alive or the terrorist implications of his killing, the real question is the fate of al-Qaeda with or without its founder and his charismatic appeal among the followers of al-Qaeda ideology.

Even if the presumption that bin Laden is dead and all the accounts of his audio or video appearances on international media are fictitious holds true, then what about al-Qaeda No 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the ideologue of the movement, the one who prevailed over bin Laden in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan 21 years ago to opt for terrorism as a strategy to defeat the remaining superpower, the United States, and its allies in the West and the Muslim world?

Apart from dozens of “questionable” audio or video communications by bin Laden in the last over eight years, al-Zawahiri has also consistently passed on al-Qaeda messages to a variety of audiences, including the global followers and opponents of the terror network, each time referring to current events like his boss. And, unlike bin Laden, he does not seem to suffer from any perennial illness. Nor has anyone yet questioned his faked physical appearance in video footages.

In bin Laden’s case, for instance, critics such as Griffin suspect his September 2007 video message, which was his last video appearance in the international media, by pointing to his “neat, jet-black beard;” or the October 2004 videotape, which, they contend, was meant to secure a second term for former US President George Bush; or the October 2001 videotape showing a “fattened” al-Qaeda leader, sitting with al-Zawahiri and other compatriots, congratulating each other for the September 11 attacks.

The Egyptian doctor is the architect of al-Qaeda’s ideology of terror, including the historic fatwa of February 1998 by the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders, in which al-Qaeda leadership pledged to make no distinction between America and its allies, civilian or military, while orchestrating its international terrorist campaign. Given that, even if bin Laden is dead or dies in future, the cause that began over two decades ago and in whose articulation the Egyptian extremist ideologue, the founder of Al-Jihad, Ayman al-Zawahiri played an instrumental role, is most likely to continue under his leadership—perhaps, with much more vengeance, as Omar bin Laden claims.

Mythology of Extremism

We should also not forget the fact that the region where al-Qaeda survives and its leadership continues to evade capture or death at the hands of either Pakistani security forces or US drones has been home to extremist tendencies, grounded in myths of divine grandeur surrounding extremist leadership, for at least two centuries. Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are only two new foreign characters in the historical bid to bring about radical religious revolt through military means by misleading the traditionally conservative local Pashtun tribesmen of this area.

This militant struggle in the north-west frontiers of Indian subcontinent bordering Afghanistan first began under the leadership of Syed Ahmad, who died while battling the forces of Pubjab ruler Rangit Singh at Balakot in 1831. However, even after his death, Syed Ahmad’s aide Wilayat Ali continued to mislead the local predominantly Yousafzai Pashtun tribesmen that Syed Ahmed was still alive and hiding in a cave as part of a tactical retreat from the battlefield. This myth was spread under a carefuly calibrated plan to rally local tribesmen for a radical cause, to persuade them to establish “the base” (which al-Qaeda literally means), considering it a pre-condition for the return of Syed Ahmed from his hidden abode in the cave.

This mythology is part of the Islamic eschatology, under which Imam Mehdi is to return to the earth before the Day of the Resurrection to rid the world of error, injustice and tyranny. Self-proclaimed Imam Mehdis have recurrently appeared in Islamic history, or the followers of fundamentalist Muslim cults have given their leaders such status, to justify violence in the name of religion. The context for the story of Syed Ahmad hidden in a cave was the same.

So, even if we presume bin Laden is dead, or if at all he is reported killed sometime from now, that may not make a big difference in the global terrorist agenda of al-Qaeda, since the terror netwrok’s conservative local support-base now has the following of additional Pashtun tribes such as Waziris and Mehsuds, enabling it to use the region as a “base” for global violent jihad. In a sense, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri appear to be a reincarnation of Syed Ahmad and Wilayat Ali. The myth of bin Laden hidden in a cave may continue to be spread by al-Zawahiri or whosoever succeeds him after his demise.

Al-Qaeda and the Taliban may have forged a marriage of convenience, if we accept Omar bin Laden’s argument, but their cause is common: if a base is established in a rugged mountainous area beyond the reach of modern security forces and their equally modern weaponry, then it can act as a staging post for a violent jihad far beyond the tribal borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Identical Roots

Lastly, we should not forget that apart from violent jihadi influence from Arabia, local subscribers of Talibanization in the tribal regions draw their radical religious zeal from their own historical extremist figures such as Haji Turangzai, whose fight against the British Raj is being emulated by the Taliban in the shape of al-Qaeda-inspired insurgency and terrorism against US and its allies in the war against terrorism, including Pakistan. In April 2008, the now slained leader of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Baitullah Mehsud, reportedy organised the movement’s meeting in Aurakzai Agency near the tomb of Haji Turangzai, which proclaimed that the Emirate of this 19th century Pashtun extremist hero “had come to stay.”

Unlike al-Qaeda’s global terrorist ambitions, Taliban may have specified terrorist aims in Afghanistan or Pakistan. However, in terms of ideology of hate and terror, there is hardly a disconnet between them. More than anything, it is the history of extremism that unites them. Just as the death of Syed Qutub, the Egyptian predecessor of al-Zawahiri, did not make a dent in the growth of extremist in Egypt and beyond, the death of al-Qaeda may not lead to significant erosion in the strength of the terrorist network worldwide.

As for the tribal regions, the alleged nerve centre of al-Qaeda, the mytholgy of bin Laden hidden in a cave, expecting his followers to lay down “the base” for jihad, can also work wonders in future, as much as its early 19th century equavalent did for decades in the British Indian Frontier during the 19th century. It is quite unfortunate, therefore, that much of our attention remains focused on trivial issues such as whether bin Laden is alive or dead and on his possible hideouts. We fail to comprehend the wider framework within which extremism grows and terrorism flourishes, with a mythological great deception such as the above fueling it further.

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