Are there bin Laden Doubles?

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Indonesian protesters wear masks displaying image of Osama Bin Laden

Kill one bin Laden and a hundred will stand up to take his place — that's been the boilerplate slogan among the Saudi terror mogul's worldwide supporters these past six weeks. But if the latest boast from al-Qaeda is anything to go by, they may mean it in more than just the I-am-Spartacus sense. The London-based Arab newspaper Al Hayat last Saturday quoted an al-Qaeda spokesman claiming that bin Laden has recruited at least ten lookalikes over the years, preparing them to play decoy in the same way that Saddam Hussein has reputedly done over the years.

"Even if the American attacks against Afghanistan succeeded in finishing the Taliban movement, they would not succeed in arresting bin Laden," one 'Abdul Noor' told Al Hayat on behalf of the terror network. "Not merely because that is difficult, but because bin Laden has 10 lookalikes. Two of them are north Africans and they all are in Afghanistan." The only physical differences between them, the al-Qaeda man reportedly warned, were birthmarks on their backs.

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Bin Laden is no easy clone. He's reputedly six-foot-four, although like NBA centers, terrorists may turn out to be a few inches shorter than their legends. Even at six-two, that would make him stick out like Shaq in downtown Kandahar. Not to mention the fact that he's reputedly traveling with three wives and various offspring in tow. Still, bin Laden's height doesn't exactly make him a freak in the parts of the world from which he hails — remember, his father was Yemeni rather than Saudi, and al-Qaeda could conceivably have recruited scores where bin Laden was born.

Two weeks ago Pakistani journalist and Bin Laden biographer Hamid Mir made headlines by publishing an interview with Bin Laden conducted at a secret location inside Afghanistan, in which the Saudi claimed to have nuclear weapons. Mir noted in passing that the bin Laden he met sounded more aggressive, even shrill than the soft-spoken terrorist he'd interviewed on a number of previous occasions. The Al Hayat claims about bin Laden doubles cast Mir's observation in a new light, at least for the conspiratorially minded.

Imagine the difficulties. U.S. special forces happen upon a cave entrance having been pointed there by a local Afghan warlord thinking about all the Toyota pickups he could buy with the $25 million reward. There's a fierce shootout and the terrorist-in-chief goes down in a hail of bullets. Or the Air Force is summoned to finish the job with a bunker-buster bomb. The moment of vengeance has arrived, even possibly "closure" for the loved ones of his victims. But two weeks later, there "he" is again on Al Jezeera, wearing the flak jacket and linens, AK propped up against he wall behind him, ranting about Lawrence of Arabia and how his nuclear and chemical arsenal is strictly a deterrent. Will the real Osama bin Laden please stand up?

The point may be illustrated by an anecdote concerning the Mexican Zapatista leader Subcommandante Marcos. Five years ago, he was visited in his jungle redoubt by Oliver Stone. The insurgent presented the filmmaker with a ski-mask and pipe just like his own, and the two of them rode off on burros side by side. Anybody can be Marcos, and similarly it could be quite possible for more than one individual to fill the flak jacket of Bin Laden. And it's not as if the DNA samples or dental records will be easily available to debunk the claims of pretenders. Or at least, that's what al-Qaeda's spokesmen evidently want us to believe.

But it may not be that easy, if legendary spy novelist John Le Carre is to be believed. "The stylized television footage and photographs of bin Laden suggest a man of homoerotic narcissism, and maybe we can draw a grain of hope from that," Le Carre writes. "Posing with a Kalashnikov, attending a wedding or reading from a sacred text, he radiates with every self-adoring geture an actor's awareness of the lens... greater than all of (his liabilities in evading his pursuers), to my jaded eye, is his barely containable male vanity, his appetite for self-drama and his closet passion for the limelight." Faux Bin Ladens, particularly those born outside of the privileges and entitlements the real one inherited, may find that a tough act to mimic.