Bin Laden remains holed up in Afghanistan under the protection of its ruling Taliban militia, which praised him Wednesday as a hero of Afghanistan's fight against the Soviet invasion and reiterated that it has no intention of handing him over for trial. And some of the Taliban's recent outrages against Buddhists blowing up their statues, forcing them to wear yellow patches on their clothing served as a reminder that bin Laden's hosts are singularly impervious to foreign pressure.
Last October's bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in Aden that killed 17 U.S. Navy personnel was a reminder that bin Laden's networks are far from inactive. And the anti-American rage inflamed throughout the Arab world by the Palestinian intifada suggests his pool of potential recruits will grow no matter how harsh the punishment meted out by a New York jury to the four men convicted of the East Africa embassy bombings.
Bin Laden's evasion of justice may be frustrating for the loved ones of his victims and the American public at large, but U.S. security and intelligence services have managed to foil a number of subsequent plots linked with the Saudi financier through patient intelligence gathering and cooperation with law enforcement agencies in foreign countries. Plans to wreak mayhem in Seattle and in Jordan at the dawn of the Millennium were thwarted by good police work, and there have, no doubt, been other successes that those in charge of the nation's security have chosen to keep secret.
The war on terrorism is primarily about intelligence being able to monitor your enemy's communications and anticipate his actions in order to confound his plans and keep him on the defensive. Bin Laden's network is large and diffuse, and its components are highly autonomous, meaning that simply lopping off its head is unlikely to eliminate the threat.
Sometimes, though, the patient gathering of intelligence and monitoring the usual suspects can be a hit-and-miss game: Wadih el Hage, one of the four men convicted of the East Africa bombings, had been under surveillance for two years before the bombings. A year before the attack, Kenyan and U.S. agents had even detained him for questioning at the Nairobi airport. And yet, according to the indictment, El Hage still managed to play a major role in organizing a bombing attack on the American embassy in Nairobi that killed 212 people.
The trial of El Hage and his associates is largely symbolic, sending a message to the American public and U.S. allies that Washington intends to seek justice for each and every perpetrator of a terrorist act. And, of course, the guardian's of the nation's security will be doubling their watch right now, in case the terrorists try to answer with a message of their own.