Osama bin Laden: more dangerous dead than alive?

The story coming out of Washington is incoherent. We are told that Al Qaeda at the time of Osama bin Laden’s death was a terrorist organisation with SMERSH-like global reach and capability with bin Laden as its directing mastermind. At the same time the US administration (falsely) depicted him as a coward who used his wife as a human shield, and showed him as a prematurely aged man living in physical circumstances verging on the squalid. As the story moves along they add further demeaning details such as claims that herbal Viagra was found in bin Laden’s medicine chest (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/al-qaeda/8502363/Osama-bin-Laden-was-a-user-of-herbal-viagra.html) and a large amount pornography discovered in the compound. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/al-qaeda/8513131/Osama-bin-Laden-dead-large-pornography-stash-found-in-compound.html).

Even as unabashed propaganda that is inept in a world which contains the Internet. Long gone are the days when contradictory propaganda messages could be delivered to different audiences safe in the knowledge that the “wrong” message would not end up in unintended ears and eyes. Not only that but the propaganda is remarkably crude. Successful propaganda does not smack you in the face and say “Hey, look at me!” Rather it suggests by circumstance and implication.

It is clear what the US wanted to achieve; to sell the story of a menacing and capable terrorist leader and his organisation to justify the raid to Western audience and to make bin Laden seem contemptible in the eyes of Muslims. It has achieved neither end as the multiple protests against the nature of the raid and bin Laden’s killing show and the outraged response of radical Muslims. The credibility of the propaganda was further eroded by the ineptitude of the bewildering number of alterations in the story told by Washington. The US Government has variously claimed there was fierce firefight then admitted that only one person fired at them and he was not in the main house; that bin Laden was shot whilst firing an automatic weapon then admitted he was unarmed when shot l); that bin Laden used one of his wives as human shield and she was shot while in that position which was changed to her not being used as a human shield and shot as she charged a Navy Seal. ( http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/pakistan/8489658/Osama-bin-Laden-was-not-armed-and-did-not-use-wife-as-human-shield.htm).

The most incredible change of story concerned the original claim by Washington that Obama, senior cabinet members such as Hilary Clinton and their advisers had watched the raid as it happened with a live feed from cameras attached to the Navy Seals’ helmets. (http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20110503/ap_on_go_pr_wh/us_bin_laden_obama_s_suspense) . A photograph of Obama and co watching agog adorned the front pages of newspapers until an abrupt about turn occurred and the story changed to Obama et al only having the live feed up to the time the Seals entered the compound. (Http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/al-qaeda/8493391/Osama-bin-Laden-dead-Blackout-during-raid-on-bin-Laden-compound.html). The story then changed again to there being no live feed from within the compound and then back to an admission that there was a live feed but Obama and co had not watched it. (http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/05/12/eveningnews/main20062410.shtml). Add to this nonsense the US claim that bin Laden had been buried at sea and the refusal to release either still photographs or video of bin Laden either dead or at the moment of killing and the White House could not have produced a better launching platform for conspiracy theories if they had tried.

Notwithstanding such  crassness, the most important question to decide is how far bin Laden and Al Qaeda represented a threat to the West. No significant terrorist attack attributable to Muslims, whether Al Qaeda members or not, has occurred since 2005. In the light of this it is reasonable to conclude that the ability and/or desire of radical Muslims to do serious damage to the West is next to non-existent at present. There have been a substantial number of arrests and trials of Muslims in the West on terrorist charges since 2005, but these have either been of people who were deemed to have been interested in making attacks without having the means to do so (the large majority) or farcically crude attempts at bombing with bombs which either did not explode or had no capacity to cause major damage.

To go six years without carrying out a single major attack or the discovery of any planned attack which would have been serious if it had been carried out strongly suggests that bin Laden and Al Qaeda were a spent force as far as the West was concerned. Islamic terrorism has continued on a large scale since 2005 in other parts of the world but it has been concentrated within Muslim countries. How far Al Qaeda has been responsible for that is debatable, but what it does indicate is that radical Muslims in practice really want is their form of Islam in Islamic countries, not the clutching at the dream of a universal Caliphate. Such a desire fits comfortably with human nature because what the overwhelming majority of human beings want is to live in a society with which they are familiar and in which they feel secure.

It is also questionable whether bin Laden was really intent on sabotaging the West for the sake of it , rather than undertaking and advocating terrorist attacks on the West to remove Western powers, especially the USA, from Muslim lands in North Africa and the Middle East. Bin Laden’s last known interview appeared in a Pakistan newspaper on September 28, 2001, and was translated by the BBC World Monitoring Service on September 29, 2001. In the interview, bin Laden says: “I have already said that I am not involved in the 11 September attacks in the United States. . . . Whoever committed the act of 11 September are not the friends of the American people. I have already said that we are against the American system, not against its people, whereas in these attacks the common American people have been killed. . . . The Western media is unleashing such a baseless propaganda, which makes us surprised, but it reflects on what is in their hearts and gradually they themselves become captive of this propaganda. . . . Terror is the most dreaded weapon in the modern age and the Western media is mercilessly using it against its own people.” (http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=24697).

If that was his true intent, bin Laden was essentially in the same position as the Provisional IRA, namely, a man willing to use violence to achieve clear practical and finite ends. That does not in any way excuse his support for the killing of those without power or influence or any practical part in the ills he perceives from Western action and influence in the Muslim world, but it does radically alter the threat which is offered to the West.

To the objective fact of an absence of serious Islamic terrorist action in the West for six years, can be added the evidence of the circumstances of the compound in which bin Laden died. When the news of his death broke he was described by the as living in luxury. In fact photographs and videos of the exterior of the compound and the interior of the main building show it to be hastily erected without any concern for aesthetics and the interior shots showed rooms having the type of disorganised squalor characteristic of squats. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/al-qaeda/8500525/Osama-bin-Laden-home-video-terrorist-leader-shown-as-frail-figure-watching-himself-on-TV.html) .

We are told there was no phone or internet connection in the compound and that “a mother lode” of data from computers and a mountain of memory sticks was taken by the Navy Seals. The early reports said that the data was unencrypted. In addition, bin Laden left videos of himself, both out-takes from videos intended for public consumption and those showing him relaxing in his hideaway watching a television showing programmes about him. Very strange behaviour for an arch criminal mastermind with supposedly considerable resources, material and human, to call upon.

To this can be added the strange lack of security in the design of the bin Laden hideaway . Imagine you are planning a secure bolthole which is going to be built from scratch. Living in a compound with plenty of open space is an obvious security breach, because apart from the possibility of helicopters landing inside the walls, it would be vulnerable to ground assault. A much safer bet would be a building which incorporated the exterior wall of the entire plot with a courtyard in the centre to provide recreation. The courtyard could be covered to prevent surveillance from the air. There would not have to be windows in the exterior walls. In the main building in the compound there were substantial windows , an obvious danger from both the point of view of surveillance and forced entry. Such a building would also be much less obvious as a place designed for defence.

As for accommodation, would you choose to live at the top of a building, as bin Laden is reported to have done, or in a basement? At the top you are exposed and the accommodation can be readily seen and attacked. Build a basement and you are hidden away from exterior view and the entrance can be disguised from those entering the building. It would also be possible to have disguised room leading from the first basement to another basement. A basement would also give the opportunity to provide an escape tunnel if the builder could be trusted not to divulge the fact. At the very least a panic room would have been expected somewhere in the building.

The picture painted by bin Laden’s physical circumstances and lack of proper security is that of a man who far from being hyper-cautious and security conscious was (1) decidedly naïve about security beyond the obvious step of not having a broadband connection or phones and (2) surrounded by those who were equally clueless. This suggests a lack of sophistication and intelligence in both bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Add that picture to the absence of serious Islamic terrorist action in the West since 2005 and it is reasonable to conclude that bin Laden did not represent any credible threat to the West at the time of his death and for years beforehand.

The US authorities have claimed that evidence of planned attacks on the West, including ideas in bin Laden’s handwriting, were found during the raid. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/al-qaeda/8499211/Osama-bin-Laden-dead-bin-Laden-was-masterminding-fresh-atrocities-from-compound.html). Even if that is true, it does not mean they were credible plans. Rather, they smack of the type of fantasy recorded in Hugh Trevor-Roper’s Table Talk which contained conversations recorded by various people involving Hitler in social gatherings during the last World War. Hitler envisaged vast schemes such as clearing the Ukraine of Ukrainians to allow the land to be settled by Germans and building a railway from Germany to India. They never got beyond his dreams. The same seems to have been true of any plans bin Laden had for further major terrorist action in the West .

It will be interesting to see exactly how many arrests or killings of Al Qaeda or other Islamic terrorists are made or claimed by the US Government over the next few months. If the cache of information found in the bin Laden compound is as great a find as the US Government is claiming, it would be reasonable to expect considerable numbers of Islamic terrorists to be quickly removed from active service. If that does not happen, it will be reasonable to assume the bin Laden cache was rather less than a defining moment t in the “war on terror”.

The killing of bin Laden is simply a continuation of the mistake the Americans made after 911 – assuming it was a mistake rather than a calculated act to provide either an excuse to intervene in the Muslim world or to create an enemy to justify greater governmental authoritarianism – of treating the event as an act of war. Suppose the attack had been undertaken by the likes of the Oklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh rather than foreign Muslims, what would have happened? The USA would have simply treated it as a crime. They would have called for the abridgement for civil liberties, white separatist groups and militias would have probably received a hard time for short a while and the proponents of gun control would have shouted ever louder, despite the absence of firearms in the attack. But the American Government would not have said it was an act of war or have decreed that every nation on earth must cooperate with the USA in rooting out “terrorism with global reach” as defined by the American Government or be an enemy of the USA, let alone declare a “war on terrorism”.

Far-fetched? Well, consider what happened after the Oklahoma bombing, which was mass murder on a dramatic scale in its own right – several hundred died, including women and children, and many more were injured. The US government did not say it was an “act of war” although there was as much if not more reason to call it that as there was to describe the 11 September attacks in that manner – McVeigh was indubitably mounting war against the US Government if the WTC attackers were judged to have done. Yet the US government did not declare a “war on terrorism”.

Neither did they, for all the illiberal noises made by politicians at the time, generally abridge civil liberties. Instead they treated the perpetrators as criminals and brought just two people to court and tried them. No one else – although it is odds on that more were involved – has been charged with a capital offence in connection with the crime. Whether the trials were entirely fair or whether the US government was not keen on delving deeper because of federal penetration of the group which planned the bombing (or even conceivably for some more sinister reason) are open questions. What is certain is that the American public were able to accept this action as adequate in terms of retribution.

That no group claimed responsibility for the 911 attacks of itself provided an opportunity to keep the official response within bounds. Had the US government treated the event as a criminal act internal to America, the group responsible for the hi-jackings would either have had to claim it or would have been left in the media cold. By taking the initiative in defining the status of the act, the Bush government played into the hands of the hijackers and their associates. They should have treated the attacks of 911 as a crime. They should have grabbed hold of the fact that the immediate perpetrators of the crime had suffered self-inflicted capital punishment and kept a very firm grasp on it.

Once the 11 Sept attacks were defined as an “act of war” the whole psychological shape of the event altered. If you are at war, the enemy gains a quasi-formal status. Let them remain criminals and everything is simpler, both psychologically and practically. Because the hijackers were killed, the declaration of “war” meant that another enemy had to be sought for punishment. As the Hijackers were Muslims who had operated within the USA for some time before the attack on the World Trade centre, that immediately raised a severe difficulty, namely, what to do if there were other members of the terrorist group still being active in the US. This was a hideously delicate matter even if only foreign Muslims were in the extended group, but it became infinitely more so if native born US Muslims were found to have some involvement. If the arch enemy was recognised as being within the US, the US would have to act in a way which was likely to inflame all Muslims in America and probably increase racial tension generally. The immediately safer option was to choose an enemy abroad, who could be made the font of all responsibility and evil. Hence, the choice of Osama bin Laden as a demon to hate and a demon, moreover, supposedly controlling an international conspiracy aimed at destroying the West. Sherlock Homes’ arch foe, Professor Moriaty, comes irresistibly to mind.

The need for a focus of evil is still with the US Government. Only days after bin Laden’s death the Barack Obama’s National Security Adviser Tom Donilon declared al-Qaeda’s second in command Ayman al-Zawahiri to be the world’s “number one terrorist” thus providing a replacement demon to epitomise the Islamic terrorist threat (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/al-qaeda/8501294/Osama-bin-Laden-dead-Ayman-al-Zawahiri-the-worlds-number-one-terrorist.html) . Because the US demonised bin Laden and his organisation, that gave him not merely immense publicity but also a greatly enhanced status and credibility amongst Muslims (and one suspects in the Third World generally), a credibility which may well be enhanced by his death. All the Muslims (and much of the non-Muslim Third World) see is a man made a martyr and hero by a country possessing more firepower and resources than any other in history. Bin Laden may well be more dangerous dead than alive.

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