Apr 15, 2003

Is Al-Qaida’s Power Waning After U.S. Victory Over Iraq?

Investor's Business Daily April 15, 2003 Tuesday SECTION: SECTION ISSUES & INSIGHTS; Q & A; NATIONAL EDITION; Pg. A15 LENGTH: 1030 words HEADLINE: Is Al-Qaida's Power Waning After U.S. Victory Over Iraq? BYLINE: BY PETER BENESH BODY: On April 8, the day before U.S. Marines toppled Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad, an Algerian gave The Associated Press in Islamabad, Pakistan, a 27-minute tape. He said it came from Osama bin Laden. The voice on the tape called on Muslims to rise up against Arab regimes that are "agents of America." The tape called for suicide attacks on U.S. and U.K. targets to "avenge the innocent children" of Iraq. The tape is evidence of al-Qaida's weakness, says Peter Bergen, author of "Holy War, Inc." and producer of the documentary "Al Qaeda 2.0," which is airing on the digital cable Discovery/Times channel. Bergen spoke with IBD. IBD: What should we make of the timing of bin Laden's latest taped message? Bergen: The Iraq war is the most important event in the Middle East in the past decade. If the best that al-Qaida can do timed to the war is release one audiotape from Osama bin Laden, I think this is a sign of real weakness in the organization. Clearly al-Qaida wanted to pull off a terrorist attack timed to the war. So far they haven't done it. The fact they have not pulled off any kind of terror attack shows they have been seriously disrupted. If they don't get in the game in the next week or so, that would indicate that we have really disrupted them. IBD: It's odd that bin Laden's latest inspirational message coincided with the Arab world's shock and awe at U.S. Marines toppling Saddam's statue. Bergen: Making a statement, smuggling it through a series of cutouts on the Pakistan northwest frontier to either Islamabad or Karachi doesn't happen easily. It takes time. If we've heard nothing more from bin Laden before the war is over, that would indicate he is either incapacitated or that the organization cannot pull off even the simplest thing -- such as getting an audio tape out. IBD: What do you know about bin Laden's condition and whereabouts? Bergen: Reports of his kidney disease are overblown. We know he has low blood pressure and diabetes. Some people think he has Marfan Syndrome, an unusual disease that attacks tissues and particularly affects tall, thin people. The last time we saw him in a videotape shown on al-Jazeera was Dec. 27. He's only 46, but he looked like he was in his late 60s. He was wounded in the shoulder in the battle of Tora Bora. It can't help his condition that for the last year and a half he's been on the run. But in two audio tapes he got out three weeks before the war started, his voice sounded strong. But the messages were generic and could have been six months old. The second tape spoke about the Indonesia blast. It could date back to November 2002. Most people think he's in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier province. The Pakistanis have been pretty good about arresting the top al-Qaida leadership. But the arrests show that all the top leadership is in Pakistan. IBD: We've heard much debate about what to do with Saddam if he's alive. What about bin Laden? Bergen: None of the options are very attractive. If he's killed in a public manner or takes his own life as a result of some joint Pakistani-American operation, that would make him a huge martyr. Capturing him and trying him might work. The international community might want to set up a forum to try him. His crimes span a lot of countries -- the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Kenya, Tanzania, Tunisia and Indonesia. A trial could puncture his mystique. But it could also turn into a total circus. The best solution with bin Laden would be if he just faded away or died of some health-related condition. IBD: News reports say bin Laden has 27 children by four wives. If bin Laden dies or goes to prison, who might succeed him as head of al-Qaida? Bergen: There's a son called Abdullah under a form of house arrest in Saudi Arabia. There's a son Hamza and a son Mohammed. Another son, Saad bin Laden, is 22 and thought to be living in Karachi, and he is supposed to be either a B-team leader or the future leader of al-Qaida. IBD: Is that a terror dynasty in the making? Bergen: Other people in the organization are important, like Ayman al-Zawahiri and Saif al-Adel. But al-Qaida is not the Gambino crime family. If you took out all the Gambinos, it would go out of business. Al-Qaida is a bigger operation. If you arrested the top leadership, that would disrupt the organization. It's more than a criminal enterprise, more than an organization. It's an ideology with wide dissemination. It's on its way to becoming a mass movement. It's not just pan-Arab. It's pan-Islamic. A lot of that will be influenced by what the United States does or does not do in Iraq. IBD: One bin Laden goal is expulsion of the U.S. troops from the Prince Sultan air base in Saudi Arabia. If the U.S. does pull out, will bin Laden hate the U.S. any less? Bergen: An ironic outcome of the Iraq war will be U.S. bases all over the region. So we won't need the Prince Sultan base. Will that satisfy bin Laden? I don't think so. He has a laundry list of complaints. Al-Qaida wants to change every U.S. policy toward the Middle East. When that's done he wants to change the regimes in Indonesia, Chechnya and Kashmir. He wants to install Islamic states. His goals are enormous. IBD: As you say, the U.S. now has bases all over the region. Do you see them as targets for terror? Bergen: Obviously the U.S. will occupy Iraq for some time to come. That means a large number of American troops in fixed bases. Those are inviting targets right in the heart of the Middle East. It's a dangerous neighborhood. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, they set up bases that became inviting targets for guerrilla forces. The attackers may not be Iraqis, but people from around the region. We've seen reports of jihadis coming into Iraq to fight. The Iraq war is only the opening act of a much longer story. A U.S. occupation of Iraq will provide tempting targets for al-Qaida if they can infiltrate. IBD: How does Saddam's downfall affect bin Laden's campaign for holy war? Bergen: I don't see this as a positive for bin Laden. The script is not playing out as he wanted. The Iraqi people did not rise up in jihad against the U.S.