Why bin Laden Isn't Worth Worrying About

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Al Jazeera / AP

Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden

Osama bin Laden has claimed responsibility for the failed bombing of a Northwest airliner on Christmas. That's not surprising, but what should be is that it took him nearly a month to do so. Either it took all of that time for news of the plan to reach him, or he's lying. And if he's lying, we need to consider that the man is completely irrelevant.

And why would bin Laden claim credit for a failed attack? The point of terrorism is to carry out your threats — that's what terrifies people. Take Lebanon's Hizballah, an organization whose early days were steeped in terrorism: it made a point of never botching an attack, bombing or kidnapping. So when Hizballah said it was not going to stop until it drove the West out of Lebanon, that threat carried a lot of weight. And the credibility of Hizballah's threat convinced U.S. President Ronald Reagan that Lebanon was lost, which prompted him to withdraw the Marines who were stationed there. In the Middle East, this is not stale history; and it's a history that bin Laden certainly hasn't forgotten.

The last major successful attack laid at the doorstep of al-Qaeda occurred nearly five years ago — the 2005 bombings on London's mass-transit system. But even in that instance, no one is certain that al-Qaeda was behind it. All we know is that the plot was somehow hatched in Pakistan, but the identity of the mastermind remains a matter of conjecture. Al-Qaeda certainly never provided proof that it had either foreknowledge or control of the attack.

The same is true for the Northwest Airlines bombing attempt: there's not a shred of evidence that bin Laden's al-Qaeda had anything to do with it. And the fact that bin Laden in his statement provided no inside detail of the attack pretty much says he wasn't involved. The Northwest attempt was homegrown, the would-be suicide bomber recruited in either Nigeria or Britain, the explosive device made in Yemen. His handlers call themselves al-Qaeda in Yemen, but there's no evidence that this group takes orders from the al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan's tribal belt.

Bin Laden's example may have been an inspiration for the Northwest attempt, but so what? If he didn't exist, there would be any number of historical figures who could be held up as inspiration, from the Prophet Muhammad to the four caliphs that followed him. It's little different from the extremists at Waco, Texas, who claimed their lunacy was inspired by Jesus Christ.

None of this is to say homegrown terrorism isn't a danger. Take, for instance, the firing device that nearly brought the Northwest plane down. It was a chemical initiator, four common chemicals that progressively speed up the detonation. Any competent chemist can build one. Only small quantities of the chemicals are needed, and they can be easily smuggled through airport security. As for the explosive used in the Christmas attempt, PETN, it's everywhere and difficult to detect with the current airport-security systems.

The Christmas Day bombing attempt tells us that anybody, anywhere can wage war on the U.S., with or without promoting or invoking bin Laden's name. But with each failure of al-Qaeda's, and with the mess al-Qaeda has left in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it should be clearer to the world that it's time to get over bin Laden and start dealing with more serious problems.