Bin Laden's whereabouts remained unknown Thursday as anti-Taliban fighters continued to fight and negotiate their way up into al Qaeda's Tora Bora redoubt in eastern Afghanistan. He may not even be there; a report in the Christian Science Monitor speculated as much, quoting a close associate saying bin Laden left Tora Bora for Pakistan ten days ago. Of course, being an avowed comrade of bin Laden's, the Monitor's source has plenty of motive for tossing out red herrings. Whether or not bin Laden is among the fugitives holed up in the cave complex remains entirely a matter of speculation. Still, there are hundreds of men up there that Washington would like to see captured or killed.
[an error occurred while processing this directive]The terrorist mastermind's own movements are likely to depend on his game plan if he'd always intended to go down fighting in Afghanistan, there's a good chance his end is nigh. On the other hand, al Qaeda meticulously plans its operations years in advance, and the recent sequence of events has been quite predictable, particularly to someone who knows the Taliban's limits and capabilities as well as bin Laden does. If the Saudi terrorist wasn't fixing to die in Afghanistan, it's unlikely that he'd have waited this long before slipping away.
Who needs plastic surgery?
The Afghan tribesmen fighting at Tora Bora insist they've heard al Qaeda radio traffic suggesting bin Laden is in the complex. Some say they've even seen him on a white horse rallying his troops. Al Jezeera TV last weekend breathlessly reported claims that bin Laden has undergone plastic surgery, without bothering to ask why he'd need any by simply removing his turban, cutting his hair, shaving off his beard and donning a cheap knockoff Armani suit, bin Laden in the flesh would be unrecognizable to most of us.
Where would he go? Well, Pakistan may be a necessary port of call, but he would have wanted to move through it quickly. Countries on the U.S. watch-list such as Somalia, Yemen and the Philippines may be too "hot" for a fish as big as bin Laden. He might be more inclined to go where he's least expected countries where the government would never dream of offering him sanctuary, but where he may nonetheless have a few powerful friends capable of hiding him. Free advice from an uninformed amateur: If he's not found in Tora Bora, U.S. intelligence may want to keep an eye on the dialysis clinics of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.
But as U.S. officials have repeatedly warned, the war on terrorism is not about bin Laden. His capture or death would certainly deal a harsh blow to al Qaeda and destroy his carefully-constructed image as America's nemesis. But depriving the movement of its poster-boy icon and chief spokesman won't necessarily extinguish the threat it represents. Bin Laden has never been the network's operational commander, and although he is known to his acolytes as "the sheikh" he has no clerical standing, either. His contribution may have come primarily as a rainmaker raising funds among wealthy Gulf Arabs in his role as political leader. Bin Laden's death or capture would be a crucial symbolic victory, and dramatically diminish the morale of the remaining terror cells. But the dispersal and autonomy of al Qaeda's structures and alliances is designed precisely to ensure its survival even after its leadership is eliminated.
From the ropes, Al Qaeda needs to land a punch
In order to anticipate the next moves of al Qaeda with or without bin Laden, it is important to remember the history of the network. Al Qaeda was not built from the ground up as a tight, vertical structure leading all the way up to bin Laden and those around him. Instead, it evolved out of bin Laden's own core of Arab veterans of the Afghan anti-Soviet war merging with elements of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and other groups, engaging with local Islamic struggles from Bosnia and Chechnya to the Philippines and Somalia by providing trained fighters and funding, gradually building up an international movement with al Qaeda at its core. Islamist terrorism predated bin Laden; his unique contribution was to turn it, through a series of mergers and alliances, into a single movement with global reach.
Al Qaeda has relied on diverse and diffuse networks and local structures in order to extend its reach. Some militants of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group, for example, appear to have been persuaded to participate in al Qaeda schemes way beyond their traditional focus on terrorizing Algerians and Frenchmen. Many of al Qaeda's own structures, as well as allied networks, are probably still out there, their operational ability unaffected by the setbacks in Afghanistan. But those setbacks could cause a serious and potentially fatal morale problem for bin Laden or any other al Qaeda operatives looking to survive and fight on. Even before they set about trying to rebuild in new sanctuaries, they will be under pressure to hold their forces together by showing that despite the losses they've suffered, they're still able to strike back. And that's plenty good reason for the U.S. and its allies to maintain the highest state of alert. The U.S. military operation against al Qaeda's Afghanistan sanctuaries have surely dealt the network a heavy blow, and forced it to disperse. But that, in turn, will intensify the police and intelligence battle at home and abroad.