Bin Laden Rides Again: Myth vs. Reality

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Finessing his image: A clip from Bin Laden's video

That It Boy of international terror, Osama Bin Laden, is back in the news. Headlines from just the past week: "Russians Reveal Bin Laden Plot to Kill Bush at G8 Meeting." "Bin Laden Video Claims Responsibility for Cole Bombing." "Yemen Foils Bin Laden Plot to Kill U.S. Investigators." "Bin Laden Group Planned to Blow Up U.S. Embassy in India" And finally, at week's end, U.S. forces all over the Gulf confined to barracks and ships put to sea because of a "non-specific but credible threat" from Bin Laden's group. Vile acts and wretched conspiracies reported from all over the world, all carrying the imprimatur of the Saudi terror tycoon skulking in the hills of Afghanistan, his name now the globally recognizable shorthand for Islamist terror in the same way that "Xerox" has become for "photocopy."

In the language of advertising, Bin Laden has become a brand — a geopolitical Keyser Soze, an omnipresent menace whose very name invokes perils far beyond his capability. To be sure, his threat is very real. Bin Laden is a financier of considerable means who maintains a network of loyalists committed to a war of terror against the U.S. And he has put his money, connections and notoriety to work in attracting a far wider web of pre-existing Islamist groups to his jihad against Washington.

If Bin Laden didn't exist, we'd have to invent him

Still, the media's picture of Bin Laden sitting in a high-tech Batcave in the mountains around Kandahar ordering up global mayhem at the click of a mouse is more than a little ludicrous. Yes, the various networks of Islamist terror have made full use of the possibilities presented by technology and globalization. But few serious intelligence professionals believe Bin Laden is the puppet-master atop a pyramid structure of terror cells. It's really not that simple, but personalizing the threat — while it distorts both the nature of the problem and the remedy — is a time-honored tradition. Before Bin Laden, the face of the global terror threat against Americans belonged to the Palestinian radical Abu Nidal. Or was it Colonel Ghaddafi? Ayatolla Khomeini, perhaps? And does anyone even remember the chubby jowls of Carlos the Jackal, whose image drawn from an old passport picture was once the icon of global terror?

Personalizing makes it seem more manageable. Bin Laden may be out of reach right now, safe in the care of Afghanistan's Taliban rulers. But by making him the root of the problem, we hold out the possibility that his ultimate removal from the scene will make the world safe from Islamist terror. A comforting thought, but a delusion nonetheless.

The dangers are real. The Cole bombing, and this week's indictments handed down in the Khobar Towers attack, are brutal reminders of the vulnerability of U.S. personnel stationed in the Arab world to attack by extremists. Last Saturday, Indian police arrested a group of men allegedly planning to blow up the U.S. embassy in New Delhi and quickly turned up evidence linking the plot to Bin Laden. Two days later, an unrelated plan, involving suicide bombers killing U.S. agents investigating the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, was foiled in Yemen; their trail, too, leads back to Bin Laden. He was in the news again the following day after Western reporters were shown a Bin Laden promotional video in which he appeared to claim responsibility for the bombing of the Cole in a macabre poem.

Then there is the sublime: For sheer diabolical genius (of the Hollywood variety), nothing came close to the reports that European security services are preparing to counter a Bin Laden attempt to assassinate President Bush at next month's G8 summit in Genoa, Italy. According to German intelligence sources, the plot involved Bin Laden paying German neo-Nazis to fly remote controlled-model aircraft packed with Semtex into the conference hall and blow the leaders of the industrialized world to smithereens. (Paging Jerry Bruckheimer) The Russians, who believe a Bin Laden attack in Genoa is more likely to be carried out by their old enemy, the Chechens, have sent an advance team of anti terrorism experts (armed, we hope, with small-scale anti-aircraft weapons).

But Bin Laden's role has always been that of facilitator. That was his function in the 'Islamist International' formed, with the active encouragement of the CIA and Egyptian and Saudi intelligence, to recruit volunteers to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. His considerable wealth (and ability to raise funds from others) and his organizational expertise played a key role in helping the "Arab Afghans," as the volunteers became known, play a creditable role in the war against the Soviets. And once that war was won, he continued to play the same role, keeping its veterans together and maintaining an infrastructure to arm, train and fund Islamist warriors for deployment in Muslim armies in places as diverse as Bosnia, Chechnya, Western China and the Philippines.

He's not ducking blame, he's demanding it

Having come under the influence of radical Egyptian Islamists in Afghanistan, Bin Laden found himself in conflict with the pro-Western regime in his native Saudi Arabia. The Gulf War proved to be his breaking point with the Saudi royal family. Driven by a desire to expel the U.S. from the Gulf region and overthrow a royal family he denounced as corrupt apostates, he turned his fire increasingly against America. The World Trade Center bombers may have been motivated by similar concerns — and they may have been inspired by some of the same militant teachings of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman — but the two don't appear to have been directly linked.

Bin Laden subsequently claimed his men were behind the 1993 debacle in Mogadishu, where 17 U.S. servicemen were killed in a botched raid on a local warlord. Whether or not there's any basis to the claim, Bin Laden wants to be held responsible for that and any other attack for which the media is prepared to blame him. The reason he has spent the past decade offering assistance to a wide range of pre-existing Islamist groups is precisely because he wants to paint himself as the personification of the considerable anti-American sentiment inflaming much of the Arab world, a latter-day Salah el Din driving out the imagined Crusaders. The Western need to personalize the terrorist menace plays into his hands. Indeed, most experts agreed that President Clinton's 1998 cruise missile strikes on Bin Laden were probably the single most important PR boost in the Saudi's career. And the fact that his name is cited by way of explanation for the fact that the world's most powerful military has moved into defensive positions all over the Gulf certainly doesn't do his carefully cultivated image any harm.

Even when groups involved in malfeasance around the world have had dealings with Bin Laden or those close to him, intelligence experts don't believe that the Saudi financier is necessarily pulling the strings when they act. What Bin Laden may in fact personify is the coming together of diverse Islamist groups during the Afghan war, and their identification of the U.S. as their primary enemy during the decade that followed. So lop off the head, and the body continues to function, because it remains a diverse and diffuse set of groups and cells with their own internal structures, driven by a common sense of implacable grievance. That menace will remain, even if Bin Laden is removed. We may simply have to find a new name and face for it.