Oct 30, 2004

The new bin Laden tape

Since the 9/11 attacks bin Laden and his chief deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, have released more than two dozen audio and videotapes, an astounding average of one tape every six weeks. Tracing back the chain of custody of these tapes is the one guaranteed method of finding the location of al Qaeda's leaders. However, despite the fact that most of these tapes have been released to the al Jazeera television network, US intelligence services are seemingly incapable of tracing the custody of the tapes; an abject failure of intelligence-gathering. The release of yesterday's videotape was no exception to this pattern. According to Reuters, on Friday morning, Ahmad Zaidan, the Pakistan bureau chief of al Jazeera received a package at his Islamabad office containing the bin Laden videotape. Zaidan had received a similar bin Laden audiotape two years ago following the terrorist attacks on tourist sites in Bali, Indonesia that killed two hundred people. CNN's Barbara Starr reported Friday that Pentagon officials were not surprised that bin Laden would issue such a statement around the time of the US presidential election, yet there is nothing to indicate that American intelligence agencies were staking out the most obvious recipient of such a tape: Al Jazeera's bureau in Pakistan.

The new videotape is significant for what it demonstrates about bin Laden's health and state of mind. Reading from behind a desk bin Laden, appears relaxed and unhurried as he delivers his message to the American people in a Halloween parody of an Oval office address. The last on camera statement that bin Laden made was released almost three years ago on December 26, 2001, a statement that was quite different in tone and content than Friday's videotape. In the 2001 videotape bin Laden, then aged 45, appeared to be decades older, while his left side was completely immobilized, giving additional credibility to reports that he was wounded in the left shoulder at the battle of Tora Bora in early December 2001. Mortality also seemed to be very much on bin Laden's mind in 2001 when he said, "I am just a poor slave of God. If I live or die, the war will continue." No such downbeat statements were made in Friday's videotape in which bin Laden appears to have recovered from his shoulder wound and seems in reasonable health, an indication that reports that he is suffering from kidney disease are erroneous.

A key visual message of the tape was how it presented bin Laden as an elder statesman, rather than as the leader of a paramilitary organization. That message was communicated by the fact that for the first time in one of his videotaped statements there was no weapon by bin Laden's side. That non-belligerent visual message mirrored what bin Laden said when he made a direct appeal to the American people saying that al Qaeda would suspend its attacks if there was a change in US foreign policy in the Muslim world. This appeal mirrored a similar kind of offer that bin Laden made following the terrorist attacks in Madrid in March when he offered a "truce" to European members of the coalition in Iraq if they followed Spain's lead and withdrew from Iraq. This past year bin Laden has increasingly tried to present himself as a strategically-minded political leader although he stepped on that message somewhat in Friday's tape by directly admitting for the first time his leadership role in the 9/11 attacks.

However, the most obvious message of Friday's videotape is that bin Laden is alive and well. Ayman al-Zawahiri, also released a videotape last month, which aired on the third anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The fact that both of al Qaeda's leaders have recently had the leisure to make videotaped statements suggest that they are feeling secure, wherever it is that they are hiding. Which raises an important question: Is Senator Kerry correct when he said on Friday: "I regret that when George Bush had the opportunity in Afghanistan at Tora Bora he didn't choose to use American forces to hunt down Osama bin Laden"? President Bush responded to Kerry's charge by saying, "My opponent tonight continued to say things he knows are not true...it is especially shameful in the light of a new tape from America's enemy." So is Senator Kerry correct about what happened at Tora Bora? The preponderance of evidence indicates that al Qeada's leader was indeed at Tora Bora, and there is no disputing the fact the Tora Bora battle was "outsourced" to Afghan warlords of questionable competence and loyalty, as Senator Kerry has repeatedly charged.

According to a widely-reported background briefing by Pentagon officials in mid-December 2001 there was "reasonable certainty" that bin Laden was indeed at Tora Bora, a judgment based on intercepted radio transmissions. Indeed, General Tommy Franks, the overall commander of the Tora Bora operation, recounts in his autobiography, American Soldier, that in Waco, Texas in December 2001 he briefed President Bush saying, "Unconfirmed reports that Osama has been seen in the White Mountains, Sir. The Tora Bora area." Writing in the New York Times last week, General Tommy Franks, a Bush supporter, now says, "We don't know to this day whether Mr. bin Laden was at Tora Bora,". However, Luftullah Mashal, a senior official in Afghanistan's Interior Ministry, told me that based on conversations he had with a Saudi al Qaeda financier and bin Laden's chef, both of whom were at the battle, bin Laden was at Tora Bora. In June, 2003 I met with several US counterterrorism officials who explained, "We are confident that he [bin Laden] was at Tora Bora and disappeared with a small group." And the editor of Al Quds Al Arabi newspaper, Abdel Bari Atwan, a consistently accurate source of information about al Qaeda, has reported that bin Laden was wounded in the shoulder at Tora Bora. Indeed, in an audiotape released on al Jazeera television last year bin Laden himself recounted his own memories of the battle. "We were about three hundred holy warriors. We dug one hundred trenches over an area of one square mile, so as to avoid the huge human losses from the bombardment." In short, there is plenty of evidence that bin Laden was at Tora Bora, and no evidence indicating that he was anywhere else at the time.

That being the case: Did the U.S. military throw away a golden opportunity to capture or kill bin Laden, during the one moment in the past three years that his location was known? All the contemporaneous media accounts of the battle demonstrate that US "outsourced" the Tora Bora operation to local Afghan warlords. Commander Muhammad Musa, who commanded six hundred Afghan soldiers on the Tora Bora frontline, explained to me that while the American bombing campaign was very effective, US forces on the ground were small in number and ineffective: "There were six American soldiers with us. My personal view is if they had blocked the way out to Pakistan, al Qaeda would not have had a way to escape." And that's the key problem. There were only a relatively few American "boots on the ground" at Tora Bora, enabling bin Laden and hundreds of other members of al Qaeda to melt away and fight another day.

Why did the United States military--the most powerful armed force in history-- not seal off the Tora Bora region, instead relying only on a handful of US Special Forces on the ground? Historians will no doubt be debating that question for many years, but part of the answer is that the US military was a victim of its own success. Scores of US Special Forces soldiers calling in air-strikes, in combination with thousands of Afghans on the ground, destroyed the Taliban army in a few weeks of fighting; a textbook case of unconventional warfare. However, this approach was a failure at Tora Bora where large numbers of Americans on the ground were needed to throw up an effective cordon around al Qaeda's leaders. An implicit recognition of this fact can be seen in how the Pentagon approached Operation Anaconda three months after Tora Bora. In the Anaconda operation, the very name of which suggests an effective cordon, as many as a thousand US soldiers were deployed into an area near Gardez in eastern Afghanistan.

Apologists for the US military failure at Tora Bora will no doubt provide several compelling reasons why this was the case, including a lack of airlift capabilities from the US base in neighboring Uzbekistan. However, such explanations are hard to square with the fact that scores of journalists managed to find their way to Tora Bora, a battle covered on live television by the world's leading news organizations. If Fox News and CNN could arrange for their crews to cover Tora Bora it is puzzling that the US military could not put more boots on the ground to find the man who was the intellectual author of the 9/11 attacks. Sadly, there were probably more American journalists at the battle of Tora Bora than there were US troops. And in that sense, Senator Kerry's charge that Tora Bora was a missed opportunity to bring bin Laden to justice is an accurate reflection of the historical record.