Person of the Week: Osama bin Laden

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An Al Jazeera satellite channel broadcast of Osama bin Laden from Oct. 6, 2002

Back before President Bush spoke of an "Axis of Evil," he spoke of "the evil one" behind the September 11 attacks. And even as Washington's focus has shifted to its looming confrontation with Iraq, Osama bin Laden popped up again this week to confirm that he survived Year 1 of America's war on terror — and to warn that more mayhem awaits the U.S. and its allies. Announcing himself rather meekly, via an audio cassette delivered to an al-Jazeera TV correspondent in Pakistan rather than through one of the promotional videos his global audience has come to expect, bin Laden nonetheless U.S. legislators decrying the failure of the government's efforts to roll up his al-Qaeda network and prompted the FBI to warn U.S. law enforcement agencies to expect a catastrophic terror strike designed to inflict "mass casualties, severe damage to the U.S. economy, and maximum psychological trauma."

Not bad for a few minutes' garbling into a tape recorder.

But Bin Laden has, rightly or wrongly, come to symbolize America's continued vulnerability to terror attacks — simply by his ability to remain alive despite the efforts of the world's most powerful military and intelligence services, assisted by the security services of most of the European, Arab and Asian worlds, to eliminate him. The fact that bin Laden is alive underscores not only a sense of the limits of U.S. achievements in Afghanistan — achievements in danger of being reversed, the Pentagon has warned — but also the vitality of his movement. If bin Laden is alive, it can safely be assumed that considerable numbers of people are prepared to risk an awful lot to protect him. Reports of continued infusions of cash certainly suggest that there are plenty of wealthy people somewhere in the world willing to make an exceedingly risky investment in al-Qaeda. Even more troubling are the signs that scores of supporters, from Bali to Pakistan, Yemen to Europe remain ready to give their lives to murder others in the name of bin Laden's cause.

It should come as no surprise that bin Laden survives, since we had no reason other than his radio silence to believe otherwise. Nor should it be particularly surprising that his movement is alive, since it is a diffuse network of networks loosely tied by a broad set of beliefs and hatreds, preying on real and widely-held grievances throughout the Arab and Muslim world.

Winning the war on terrorism was always going to be a two-fold process — systematically eliminating the leadership and personnel of the terror networks, and transforming the political environment that had nurtured them in order to prevent a new generation of terrorists taking their places. Draining the swamp, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld called it, rather than only swatting the mosquitoes. Plenty of mosquitoes have been swatted, of course. But there are plenty more buzzing around, waiting to pick their targets. More importantly, perhaps, the swamp is looking nastier than ever. Hostility to the U.S. is more widespread and more intense than ever in bin Laden's traditional recruiting grounds, fueled by Washington's moves against Iraq and ongoing Israeli-Palestinian violence — it's hardly any coincidence that he makes those two issues the key talking points of his latest propaganda offering (adding an appeal to Indonesian nationalist sentiment on East Timor as a reminder that southeast Asia remains a key emerging market for al-Qaeda).

Beating terrorism is not about a man, and never was. If bin Laden were spotted by a Predator drone tomorrow and vaporized by a Hellfire missile, his supporters would suffer a blow to their morale. Then again, they appear to have managed fine over the past year without hearing a word from their leader, and his elimination would give the FBI little reason to diminish its threat assessment. Still, the fact that bin Laden remains not only alive, but sufficiently emboldened to open a new season of propaganda diatribes on al-Jazeera is a reminder of how much remains to be done.