Gunning For Bin Laden: As U.S. Forces Zero in on Bin Laden, Will The Elusive Terrorist Run or Try To Die Like a Martyr?
The possible endgame--and the future of Al Qaeda
by Evan Thomas
November 26, 2001
In the night sky above the Afghan city of Kabul last week, an unmanned Predator drone spy plane "painted" a house with a laser beam. Some seconds later a bomb launched by a carrier-based F-18 warplane demolished the building. Killed by the blast, according to U.S. intelligence intercepts, was Muhammad Atef, the 6-foot-6 former Egyptian policeman who went on to become one of the top commanders of the global terror network Al Qaeda. Atef, whose daughter is married to Osama bin Laden's son, had been one of bin Laden's two most trusted advisers. He had reportedly been instrumental in planning a number of terrorist attacks, including those on September 11. As bin Laden moves from cave to cave, he knows that he could be next. A reporter who was granted what may have been bin Laden's final interview two weeks ago was struck by how much the terrorist mastermind had changed since their last meeting in Kabul, three years before. Taken blindfolded to a mud hut somewhere in the Afghanistan mountains on Nov. 7, Pakistani editor Hamid Mir noticed that the normally thin bin Laden had gained weight, his beard had gone gray and his skin, once weathered and swarthy, had become pale, almost white--possibly, Mir thought, from all those months spent hiding in caves. The boss of Al Qaeda appeared confident, but he was more aggressive and louder than the creepily calm figure familiar to viewers of his propaganda videotapes. "This place may be bombed," bin Laden declared to the visiting reporter, who could hear the sound of antiaircraft fire in the distance. "And we will be killed. We love death. The U.S. loves life. That is the big difference between us."
Bin Laden's love may soon be consummated. Last week, as the extremist Taliban regime appeared to collapse, bin Laden was the harried quarry of a massive manhunt. From the sky, U.S. satellites and spy planes combed the mountains of southern Afghanistan. On the ground, U.S. Special Forces joined in the chase. The American commandos "are killing Taliban who won't surrender and Al Qaeda [who] are trying to move from one place to another," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
What a difference a week can make. Silenced, for the moment, were the pundits predicting quagmire and the talk-show experts comparing the Taliban to the Viet Cong. Vindicated, at least for the time being, were administration officials who had counseled patience. Predictably, the critics instantly began warning that the surprising victory march of the Northern Alliance could quickly degenerate into a bloodbath. When a reporter suggested that Northern Alliance soldiers were committing atrocities by "telling the Arabs who are there that you can surrender and be killed," Rumsfeld cut him off, perhaps not hearing exactly what the reporter said. "Come on now!" the Defense secretary fairly shouted. "It is perfectly proper for the Northern Alliance and anyone else, including American soldiers, to tell people either surrender or be killed."
The military must still deliver on George W. Bush's promise of bin Laden "dead or alive." If bin Laden--whom the president calls "the evil one"--is captured, his trial could be a circus, cause for hostage taking and more terrorism. (That may be one reason that the president last week signed an order permitting foreign terrorists to be tried and executed by military tribunals; such summary justice would allow bin Laden to be quickly disposed of.) If, on the other hand, bin Laden is killed in a bombing raid but his body is not recovered, he could live on forever in myth, an inspiration to future mayhem makers. Administration officials are worried that bin Laden's martyrdom could provoke a vengeful spasm of violence. The demise of bin Laden and his top lieutenants would seriously weaken Al Qaeda, but it would not be the end for a diffuse terror network spread through 60 countries. And it's not a sure bet that bin Laden will choose martyrdom. He may try to run to live to fight again another day.
Indeed, last week's turnabout may not even mark the end of the beginning of the war on terror. While the FBI leans toward a homegrown source for the anthrax letters mailed to politicians and media figures, it can't rule out a foreign plot. (Last week another poisoned missive was found, postmarked on Oct. 9 and addressed to Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont.) The Bush administration is a long way from taking on the truly formidable threat of Iraq's Saddam Hussein and his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. Yet some close observers of Middle Eastern sensibilities are sensing an important psychological shift. They predict that bin Laden may be remembered less as a martyr than as a loser. Rage turns quickly to disappointment in the Arab world, and already last week some of the hot air that had buoyed bin Laden's jihad against the West had begun to chill. As headlines flashed the rout of the Taliban, sophisticates in the cafes of Beirut and on the beaches of Dubai were relegating bin Laden's name to the dubious pantheon of leaders who've raised Muslims' hopes, only to send them crashing down: the suave nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s and '60s; the fierce-eyed Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini in the 1980s; Saddam Hussein in 1990, and now Osama. A market researcher in the United Arab Emirates told NEWSWEEK: "People are too jaded, they are too tired. They were willing to celebrate [bin Laden] for a little while, and then 'Enough! There goes another one'."
Some intelligence sources interviewed by NEWSWEEK doubted that bin Laden is truly ready to die a martyr's death. They believe that he still fancies himself as the next ruler of the Muslim world, the grand caliph in charge of a worldwide Islamic theocracy. Rumsfeld speculated that bin Laden might try to escape Afghanistan in one of several helicopters he has supposedly hidden away--or on a mule, crossing the long and mostly unguarded border. A smuggler interviewed by NEWSWEEK shrugged and said that bin Laden would have "no trouble" slipping into Pakistan, though the Pakistanis are heavily stepping up border patrols.
If bin Laden does manage to escape Afghanistan, he will have trouble finding sanctuary. The madrasas, the Islamic fundamentalist schools in northwestern Pakistan, were Taliban seedbeds. But with a $25 million bounty on bin Laden's head, there may be a competition among his former loyalists to sell him out. Bin Laden could possibly make it to his ancestral home in Yemen, but President Ali Abdullah Saleh will not welcome a rival power base. Sudan has already kicked out bin Laden once before, in 1996, and while the radical Islamist group Al-Itihaad might harbor bin Laden in Somalia, it's hard to see how long they could hold out against a concerted American attack. It's even doubtful that Saddam Hussein would be so foolhardy as to allow bin Laden to take up residence in Iraq. At the moment, there is virtually no international support for a new war against Baghdad. Bin Laden's presence in Iraq could change that attitude in a hurry.
If bin Laden is prepared to die, he may want to take as many infidels as possible with him. During one of his spooky tirades broadcast over the Arab news channel Al-Jazeera, bin Laden claimed that he had obtained nuclear weapons as a "deterrent" against being nuked by the West. During his interview in November with Hamid Mir, bin Laden was almost offhand about the ease of obtaining nuclear weapons. "It's not difficult, not if you have contacts in Russia and with other militant groups," said bin Laden. "They are available for $10 million to $20 million." Bin Laden's chief strategist, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, interjected, "If you go to BBC reports, you will find that 30 nuclear weapons are missing from Russia's nuclear arsenal." He added, "We have links with Russian underworld channels." Interviewed by the BBC last week, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar made apocalyptic warnings about "the destruction of America. The plan is going ahead and, God willing, it is being implemented," he ranted. "It is a huge task which is beyond the will and comprehension of human beings. If God's help is with us this will happen in a short period of time. Keep in mind this prediction." These may be the threats of a cornered and desperate man; U.S. intelligence officials told NEWSWEEK they believe that the one-eyed mullah is becoming increasingly unhinged.
But bin Laden has to be taken seriously, says Peter Bergen, author of "Holy War, Inc.," and a CNN commentator who has interviewed the terrorist mastermind. It was a mistake to dismiss as bluster bin Laden's 1998 fatwa instructing Arabs to kill Americans; likewise, "it is naively optimistic not to take him at face value" when he threatens to use nuclear weapons, says Bergen. "I think he's going out in a blaze of nuclear glory."
Could he? According to testimony from the trial of men accused of bombing U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, bin Laden has been trying to acquire a nuclear weapon since at least the early '90s. In October 2000, Larissa Vdovichenko, a member of President Vladimir Putin's Security Council, told a symposium that the Taliban approached a nuclear scientist from one of the Central Asian republics to engage him to work on its nuclear program. More worrisome, perhaps, is the case of two Pakistani nuclear scientists, Sultan Bashiruddin Mahmoud and Abdul Majid, who have been arrested by the Pakistanis at the urging of the United States because of their ties to bin Laden and the Taliban. The men admit that they discussed nuclear weapons in general terms with bin Laden during two meetings in Kandahar in the last 18 months, though they insist the purpose of their trip was humanitarian relief.
Building a bomb would be exceedingly difficult, even with bin Laden's financial resources. Buying or stealing one is more plausible. In October, a high-ranking Russian officer, Col. Gen. Igor Volynkin, disclosed that on two occasions this year Russian authorities had discovered that terrorists had staked out a secret nuclear-weapons facility where arms were stored. The Russian general suggested that the outlaws had been caught. Still, there have been persistent reports--stoutly denied by Moscow-- that Russia cannot account for all its so-called suitcase nuclear weapons. "The Russians are now admitting things are not perfect in their own backyard," an official of the International Atomic Energy Agency told NEWSWEEK. "They had no idea what they had. The Russians just threw a lot of stuff away and now we're flying over to find it. Imagine how easy it would be for some of that to get out."
Russian suitcase bombs were "more like footlockers, not a suitcase," says Rose Gottemoeller, who was assistant secretary of Energy in the Clinton administration and worked closely on nuclear proliferation. "They were man-portable, but with a three-man team. And it would have been no trivial matter to detonate these things, or maintain them." A small nuke might be more effectively used as a crude radiological bomb--not detonated, but blown up by conventional explosives so the radioactive core could be spread around an area of several blocks. Such a "dirty bomb" would kill far fewer than a nuclear blast, but its psychological impact would be severe and it might render its target--say, the area surrounding the White House or Manhattan's financial district--uninhabitable for decades.
The Bush administration seemed very heartened by all the good news last week. In particular, Rumsfeld, who pre-September 11 had seemed beleaguered as peacetime secretary of Defense, has emerged as a chesty, defiant minister for war. A throwback to an earlier steak-and-martinis era of cold-war brio, he radiates a kind of reassuring confidence at an uncertain time. But the fear of a dirty bomb gnaws at top officials. Vice President Dick Cheney is moving back into what the Secret Service calls "an undisclosed location" believed to be outside the fallout range of a small nuclear weapon. Elsewhere on the home front, Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida raised concerns about a suicide plane's plowing into nuclear power plants along the Florida coast. Some lawmakers are considering putting Stinger missiles mounted on Humvees to protect their power plants.
Any kind of a nuclear attack would take exceptional planning and resources. The intelligence community is split on whether Al Qaeda would be capable of such bold strokes without its top leadership. "A lot of it depends on what you think Al Qaeda is," says one Justice Department official who has been investigating the terror network for almost a decade. "If you think it's a highly centralized organization and its operatives take orders from the top, then this may be a death blow. But the majority of intelligence experts still think it's much more diffuse than that--more of a movement than an organization. If you kill the most visible leadership you might embolden the people further down to act in revenge."
Killing or capturing bin Laden and his top lieutenants would deprive Al Qaeda of decades of experienced leadership in the art of terror. Al-Zawahiri, who is believed to be at bin Laden's side, has been at the terror business for at least two decades. The attacks planned by Atef--the U.S. Embassy bombings in 1998, the suicide boat that hit the U.S. destroyer Cole, the September 11 hijackings--were all patiently and meticulously planned. Will the putative successors of Atef--the Taliban denied he had been killed--be so careful and clever? The ringleader of the September 11 hijackers, Mohammed Atta, is dead, along with the rest of his 19-man suicide squad. Still, there are dangerous foot soldiers still on the lam. Last week the FBI identified Ramzi Binalshibh as the missing "20th hijacker." The G-men believe that Binalshibh was supposed to be the fifth hijacker on Flight 93, the plane that crashed in a Pennsylvania field after the passengers heroically fought back. Binalshibh never made the doomed flight because he failed at numerous attempts to obtain a visa. Close to ringleader Atta, he was a member of the Hamburg, Germany, cell where the attacks were planned. NEWSWEEK has learned that Binalshibh attended a key terrorist summit with two of the September 11 hijackers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in January 2000, where he was surreptitiously videotaped by Malaysian security. One senior law-enforcement official told NEWSWEEK that Binalshibh's efforts to obtain a U.S. visa were rebuffed because of suspicions that he was tied to the bombing of the USS Cole. He disappeared from Germany six days before September 11, and investigators believe he flew to the United Arab Emirates before vanishing for good on Sept. 10.
There are well-established Qaeda cells from Indonesia to Europe (and, possibly, the United States). "There is not a hierarchy," says Italian prosecutor Stafano Dambruoso, who has spearheaded his country's effort to break up several key Qaeda cells. "These groups are coordinated by bin Laden but not directed by him. Every one of them has its own ethnic and other peculiarities." Some of the groups--Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Algeria's Armed Islamic Group (GIA), for instance--existed before the rise of bin Laden and could survive his demise. French authorities are particularly concerned about a spinoff of GIA, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, or GSPC. The group is recruiting among young Europeans with North African ties, disaffected young men from the housing projects and industrial slums of French cities.
Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan have been bombed into rubble, but the United States will have to keep watching to make sure they do not pop up again--in war-torn Afghanistan or in remote areas like the jungles of Indonesia. The massive crackdown on Al Qaeda's global financial network will strap but not shutter dependent organizations. "There's no question the money is important," the top Justice official told NEWSWEEK. "But remember, we're not talking about a lot of money here. It's seed money. Mostly these guys support themselves and their missions with odd jobs and petty thievery."
The remaining Qaeda cells could be in position to merely execute terror plots long planned and paid for. As recently as October, Al Qaeda seemed to be passing Internet messages in symbolic code. One Muslim cleric who served in Afghanistan told intelligence officials that he believed images of flowers, especially roses, were code for anthrax. Images of hawks and falcons, he suggested, were a reference to airline hijackings. Another image showed a plane flying at a very low altitude under the Golden Gate Bridge; yet another displayed a cartoon of several Arabs entering a mosque and being told to turn off their pay phones and pagers. A warning to jihadists to avoid the use of phones for sensitive communications?
Worried Qaeda watchers are encouraged that the Arab "street" has so far not erupted in the kind of riots and demonstrations that many had feared. Al Qaeda's more-obnoxious cheerleaders have gone silent. According to sources close to British intelligence, some of the radical Muslim organizations in Britain which traditionally served as mouthpieces and recruiting organs are visibly shying away on the ground that bin Laden's over-the-top behavior has discredited legitimate causes like the plight of Palestinians or Muslims in Indian-controlled Kashmir. They figure, says one British investigator, "there's no point going down with a sinking ship."
Still, the conditions that produced bin Laden--poverty, decades of humiliation, repressive and corrupt local regimes, backward-looking religious extremists--remain and fester. And as reporters were allowed to roam around an abandoned Qaeda "safe house" in Kabul last week, they were reminded firsthand of the breadth and reach of bin Laden's diabolical designs. Lying on the floor was a document in Arabic entitled "Before and After Precautions for Using Chemical, Biological, and Nuclear Warfare." Brightly painted coded maps identified targets all over the world, with little American, French and British flags representing ships and bases. Another map showed the location of power plants in Europe, Africa and Asia. In the yard, still in packing cases, were advanced high-tech French antitank rockets. A page torn out of Flying magazine listed flight schools in America. Were these just the stuff of sinister dreams? Or plots that have already been launched, in anticipation of bin Laden's martyrdom?
With Christopher Dickey in Paris, Rod Nordland in Jalalabad, Ron Moreau in
Islamabad and Daniel Klaidman, Mark Hosenball, John Barry and Debra Rosenberg
© 2001 Newsweek, Inc.
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