How to Beat Bin Laden

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Washington may never have declared war on Osama Bin Laden, but he has been at war with America for the better part of a decade. Now, with the Saudi terrorist-financier a prime suspect in the World Trade Center attack, President Bush has vowed that the U.S. will devote all necessary resources to beating Bin Laden. This is no easy task. If Bin Laden is in fact responsible, the most important thing is to know right now is: who is he? How does he operate? And why does he seem to have so much support?

Understanding the enemy This will be a protracted, complex and unconventional war in which many of the tactics of war as we know it are superfluous. The "Powell Doctrine" — the theory that wars are best won by deploying "overwhelming force" — doesn't apply here, for the simple reason that the enemy has hardly any visible military assets or civilian economic infrastructure, and may not even be ultimately dependent on his current territorial home base. And applying such force in territories where he has sought support or shelter could open up a protracted, costly and difficult conflict. The battle with Bin Laden is more likely to combine conventional military tactics with unconventional ones. Because Bin Laden is no ordinary foe.

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Osama Bin Laden is a man, not a state. And he wields very little by way of conventional military power. Estimates of the number of men under arms in his Afghanistan camps at any one point seldom range above 2,000. But those men are extremely well-trained, well-funded and have shown a fanatical willingness to die in order to inflict pain on their enemies. Technology and globalization have made their reach almost boundless, and they are linked to a vast network of terrorist groups throughout the Muslim world from western China and the Philippines all the way across to Algeria.

Bin Laden's is hardly the first terrorist group to operate well beyond home base, but it is the first truly global terror operation. And where Cold War-era terrorist groups invariably relied on the support of "rogue" states, Bin Laden's is independent. It is able to finance itself and provide sophisticated training to its own men — and build its operational alliances by providing such training to like-minded groups. And it has already demonstrated an ability to relocate its headquarters from one country to another.

Targeting America

The foundations of Bin Laden's network were laid during the Afghan war, during which the wealthy Saudi heir had been the prime organizer of volunteers for the 'jihad' against the Soviet invasion. That made him a key player in an effort backed by the CIA and the intelligence agencies of Egypt and Saudi Arabia to funnel aid, equipment, training and volunteers to the Afghan mujahedeen. Many of the "Arab Afghans," as the volunteers became known, had been radical Islamist dissidents in their home countries, and their pro-Western governments were only too happy to ship them off to fight the Russians. But the 'jihad' experience forged unprecedented bonds among the world's radical Islamists, turning them in spirit and in direct combat experience into a single army of 'holy' warriors.

Bin Laden emerged from the Afghan experience determined to overthrow Saudi Arabia's pro-Western rulers and institute a radical brand of Islamic rule. And when those rulers invited U.S. troops onto Saudi soil to defend them against Saddam Hussein, Bin Laden began to call for a global 'jihad' against the U.S. because of its support for Israel and for moderate Arab regimes.

He set up camps in Afghanistan and the Sudan — two states that the end of the Cold War left in conditions of near collapse — to keep his "Arab Afghans" together. And he combined his own personal fortune with funds raised throughout the Arab world to maintain his "Al Qaida" ("The Base") organization, which began sending fighters to Bosnia, Chechnya and to Muslim insurgencies all over East Asia. Bin Laden also extended his reach by turning his camps into a terrorism college providing highly specialized training to Islamist fighters from all over the world.

Bin Laden began attacking the U.S. in 1993, claiming responsibility in retrospect for the ambush that killed some 17 U.S. soldiers in Mogadishu that year. Although he had no direct role in the first World Trade Center bombing, he later sheltered its perpetrator, Ramzi Yousef, after the attack.

The U.S. hits back

The U.S. military finally put Bin Laden in its sights following the 1998 East African embassy bombings. President Clinton ordered cruise missile strikes on camps associated with Bin Laden in Afghanistan and on a factory linked with him (possibly erroneously) in the Sudan. But those strikes did little to impair Bin Laden's operational ability, and the U.S. reverted to containing his operations through cooperation with Arab intelligence agencies to foil planned attacks and round up and prosecute the perpetrators of the embassy bombings. Washington also sought to use Pakistan's close relationship with the Taliban to press Bin Laden's hosts into extraditing him, but to no avail.

The Bush administration has promised a full-blown war against Bin Laden following Tuesday's attacks, but the key to winning that war and eliminating the terrorist threat may lie in the extent to which the terrorists can be isolated.

Isolating Bin Laden

Without the layers of support he has mustered in the Islamic world, Bin Laden would be nothing more than a crazy killer who could be hunted down and brought to trial or simply eliminated. Instead, his relatively tiny organization has menaced the world's largest military power largely because of its ability to capitalize on growing anti-American sentiment in the Arab world.

Reports of funds interdicted en route to Bin Laden in recent years suggest that he continues to enjoy the support of some wealthy Arab businessmen, who either directly support his beliefs or else are inclined to hedge their bets on the outcome of his battle with the U.S.

Anti-American anger on the Arab streets — fueled by the ongoing campaign against Iraq and by Israeli military actions against the Palestinian uprising — provides Bin Laden with a growing pool of potential recruits, often highly educated and skilled young men who are willing to die for his cause. And the passions on the street also make it more difficult for even pro-U.S. governments in the Arab world to be seen to be working too closely with Washington.

Isolating Bin Laden may require ongoing efforts to repair and maintain Washington's relations with its Arab allies, whose security services remain the front line of the battle against Bin Laden.

Building a coalition

While NATO's support improves the U.S. striking power and widens political and diplomatic consent for any counterstrike, the crucial allies in the battle against Bin Laden remain the governments and security services of the Islamic world — because it is intelligence, rather than air power or armor, that wins the war on terrorism.

Despite the ability of U.S. satellites to intercept cell-phone and email messages, human intelligence remains the most effective way of staying forewarned of Bin Laden's plans and movements. That's not going to be easy. There are distinct limits on the ability of U.S. agents to directly infiltrate Bin Laden's networks, which are often based on family and other kinship ties. Such operations would require agents able to blend in ethnically and spend years away from their American lives in the extremely harsh conditions of Bin Laden's mountain camps. Plainly, the U.S. needs the active support of allied security services closer to the action. And the need to maintain such alliances also affects the range of options for responding to the latest outrage.

Why not simply bomb Kabul?

Although the U.S. will very likely seek to punish the Taliban for hosting Bin Laden in Afghanistan, Afghanistan long ago ceased to function as a state. The Taliban are simply its dominant militia, and to the people of Kabul, they are outside occupiers.

While determined to hit hard against both the perpetrators and their protectors, U.S. officials will also be mindful of the danger of taking actions — particularly any that cause suffering among innocents — that widens the anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world on which Bin Laden feeds.


Others have asked why the U.S. doesn't simply round up a Gulf War-style posse to invade Afghanistan, overthrowing the Taliban and putting an end to the country being used as a safe haven for terrorists. But that would require tens of thousands of allied troops deployed in an open-ended commitment to keep a heavy troop presence in an extremely unfriendly environment. If the decision is made to take down the Taliban, that may be more likely to be attempted in concert with its regional enemies — including Russia and possibly even Iran — in support of the Northern Alliance opposition forces.

The Pakistan dilemma

The trickiest aspect of the Bin Laden equation may be Pakistan. Despite being a close ally of the U.S. during the Cold War, Afghanistan's nuclear-armed neighbor is also a hotbed of anti-American Islamic radicalism. Pakistan has reportedly promised full support for a U.S. retaliation against Bin Laden, including allowing Pakistani airspace to be used by U.S. planes to strike Afghanistan. But President Bush's comment that Washington would have to wait and see what that means suggests the U.S. is not sure of the extent of Pakistan's commitment to the battle against Bin Laden. But Pakistani intelligence agents are probably closer than any other to Bin Laden's operations on the ground, and their cooperation may be acritical element of the war against terrorism.

A war not won in a day

"Let's not think that one single counter-attack will rid the world of terrorism of the kind we saw yesterday," said Secretary of State Colin Powell on Wednesday. Indeed, it is to be anticipated that the Bush administration will develop a layered response of short-term and long-term actions to bring to bear military, economic and political pressure to isolate and neutralize not only Bin Laden himself, but the movement that would almost certainly seek to continue even if he were eliminated. And that's a war in which the U.S. needs its allies more than ever.