Thursday, January 19, 2006

Bin Laden Strikes Back?

On the same day we learn that the US bombing raid on villages in northeastern Pakistan killed several top al-Qaeda leaders -- including Abu Khabab al-Masri, al-Qaeda's top bomb-maker and chemical/biological weapons scientist, Abu Ubayda al-Misri, the chief of operations in southern Afghanistan, and Abd al-Rahman al-Maghrebi, the chief of propaganda in northern Pakistan and the son-in-law of al-Qaeda's #2 al-Zawahri -- Osama bin Laden himself resurfaces, issuing a message (now believed to be authentic) warning the US of more attacks and claiming that the absence of attacks is not attributable to US defenses but rather extended planning by al-Qaeda. Interesting, bin Laden also made reference to the possibility of a truce between the US and al-Qaeda, in order to allow Iraq and Afghanistan to rebuild themselves. Concidence? I think not.

This message from bin Laden smacks of desperation and signals that al-Qaeda is in serious disarry as an international terrorist organization. Since 9/11, al-Qaeda's targets have been soft ones: discos in Indonesia, buses in London, and exposed US soldiers in Iraq. Of course, these attacks are horrendous, but they are certainly not the sort of targets that al-Qaeda would like to be striking. Al-Qaeda has been seriously damaged by the loss of Afghanistan as well as the arrest or killing of many senior leaders. And while it may be preferable that the US arrest or kill bin Laden too, one can only imagine how difficult it is to run an international terrorist organization while constantly on the run, fearful that any and all methods of communication may be tapped.

Why would bin Laden issue this message now, after more than a year of silence (most experts believe the message was taped in December)? Al-Qaeda is in trouble. Bin Laden may very well be facing a leadership crisis, as hiding in caves and keeping silent does not inspire insurgencies. He may need to reassure the troops that he is indeed alive and (more or less) well, especially after so many top leaders will killed last week. However, the message itself sounds desperate. "Yes, we still mean to kill you, and though we haven't, it's only because we haven't been trying. But now, we're going to try. Seriously." That's not a message that rings true. And if al-Qaeda is preparing a significant onslaught against US and Western targets, why offer a truce? Only one thing can demonstrate to the al-Qaeda faithful and Western infidels that al-Qaeda is still a potent international threat, and that is another large-scale attack. And with Iraq and Afghanistan monopolizing al-Qaeda's attention -- both of which are wars they cannot afford to lose -- it's not likely al-Qaeda has the capability to conduct such an attack. That does not mean it is not a threat. Certainly al-Qaeda can still carry out attacks on soft targets, and they can of course continue to cause chaos and kill civilians and soliders alike in Iraq. But, I would wager that al-Qaeda is no longer capable of attacks like those it carried in the 1990s up through September 11.


geoff said...

I don't really understand bin Laden tea leaf reading. How much reasonably can we infer, can we derive, from these missives of his? And if he knows we can infer x, y or z, won't he alter his statements in response, making our inferences even less reliable, etc.? I guess what I'm saying is, it's a fun game, but is it really productive? I haven't gone back to look at the tape, but what did we infer from the last video before the last attack? Were we right? Or was it like most fortune telling -- ambiguous enough to admit of many interpretations? You know -- "You will meet an unexpected fate."

Seth Weinberger said...

I guess it depends on whether you assume bin Laden is a rational actor or merely a homicidal kook. If it's the former, then we should be able to rationalize about why he acts the way he does. If it's the former, then it is indeed a worthless exercise.

Is it productive? I think so. What makes the "War on Terror" such a difficult exercise is that there are few obvious metrics for victory. We (at least the public...we don't really know what the intelligence community knows) don't know how much damage we've done to the infrastructure of al-Qaeda. We don't really know how much we've degraded their operational capabilities. Even killing leaders doesn't tell you much, because you don't necessarily know who replaces them. The only ways to gauge progress in this war are: 1) Have we been attacked?; and 2) What does bin Laden tell us about his organization? Given that we have few other means of determining, I think it can be useful to parse statements like this one.