It is fair to say that most Americans knew very little seven years ago about a wealthy, bearded Saudi Arabian named Osama bin Laden.
It took the deadliest attacks in America’s history — on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 — to sear the al-Qaida leader’s name onto our nation’s consciousness.
Now, on the seventh anniversary of that awful assault, bin Laden is universally known as the alleged mastermind of the plot to fly planes into the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
But he has thwarted all efforts to capture or kill him. Thus, his mysterious shadow still looms prominently over our political debate and our security priorities. And the Bush administration is determined to hunt him down before the president leaves office.
Fresh political debate
One of the most stinging barbs that Sen. Barack Obama has hurled at his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain, came in Obama’s speech accepting the Democratic presidential nomination last month. Obama said that McCain had focused on Iraq rather than on the real terrorist threat to America, which is bin Laden’s al-Qaida hideout in the rugged mountains where Pakistan meets Afghanistan.
“When John McCain said we could just ‘muddle through’ in Afghanistan, I argued for more resources and more troops to finish the fight against the terrorists who actually attacked us on 9/11, and made clear that we must take out Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants if we have them in our sights,” Obama said. “John McCain likes to say that he’ll follow bin Laden to the Gates of Hell — but he won’t even go to the cave where he lives.”
McCain reacted in an interview with Charlie Gibson of ABC news: “Well, look, President Clinton [had] opportunities to get Osama bin Laden. President Bush had opportunities to get Osama bin Laden. I know how to do it and I’ll do it.”
Earlier, McCain had said at a town hall meeting at Pennsylvania’s Burlington County College: “I will look you in the eye and promise you that I will get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice.”
Bush’s time running out
If either of the candidates hopes to claim the glory that would come from capturing the elusive bin Laden, they had better watch out.
President Bush wants to beat them to the job while he’s still in the White House, according to a flurry of recent news reports.
Last week, U.S. ground forces crossed the border from Afghanistan and attacked suspected al-Qaida targets in Pakistan “as part of an aggressive new strategy to kill or capture Osama bin Laden before President Bush leaves office,” the Washington Times reported.
“I know the hunt is on; they’re pulling out all the stops,” the Times quoted an unnamed Defense Department official with knowledge of the situation. “They want to find bin Laden before the president leaves office and ensure that al Qaeda will not attack the U.S. during the upcoming elections.”
President Bush secretly approved orders in July that for the first time allow American Special Operations forces to carry out ground assaults inside Pakistan without the prior approval of the Pakistani government, the New York Times reported Wednesday.
“The classified orders signal a watershed for the Bush administration after nearly seven years of trying to work with Pakistan to combat the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and after months of high-level stalemate about how to challenge the militants’ increasingly secure base in Pakistan’s tribal areas,” the Times said.
Predators and Hellfires
The U.S. military also has intensified its use of the unmanned but lethal Predator drone spy plane in the mountainous region, the Washington Post reported.
“The number of Hellfire missile attacks by Predators in Pakistan has more than tripled, with 11 strikes reported by Pakistani officials this year, compared with three in 2007,” Post correspondent Craig Whitlock reported. “The attacks are part of a renewed effort to cripple al-Qaeda’s central command that began early last year and has picked up speed as President Bush’s term in office winds down.”
There has been no confirmed trace of bin Laden since he narrowly escaped from U.S. forces after the battle near Tora Bora, Afghanistan, in December 2001. The Post said that U.S., Pakistani and European officials are hunting for other al-Qaida leaders who have been sighted more recently, in hopes that their footprints could lead to bin Laden.
Bin Laden inspires al-Qaida
Al-Qaida remains the most serious terrorist threat to the United States, and bin Laden continues to play a major role, Ted Gistaro, a top government intelligence analyst, said last month at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“In spite of successful U.S. and allied operations against al-Qaeda, especially the death of important al-Qaeda figures since December, the group has maintained or strengthened key elements of its capability to attack the United States in the past year,” Gistaro said. Al-Qaida has strengthened its safe haven in Pakistan’s remote tribal areas, he said, and it has replenished its ranks of midlevel lieutenants who are capable of directing global operations.
As for bin Laden, Gistaro said: “bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, continue to maintain al-Qaeda’s unity and its focus on their strategic vision and operational priorities.”
Although security concerns likely have precluded them from running the organization day-to-day, he said, “Bin Laden remains al-Qaeda’s authoritative source for strategic and tactical guidance. Subordinates continue to see him as the group’s most inspirational force.”
The U.S. government’s efforts to catch 51-year-old bin Laden go back beyond 9/11 to 1998, when he signed a fatwa calling for attacks on Americans and ordered the bombings of two U.S. embassies.
“Today, seven years after he masterminded the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, bin Laden is believed to wear disguises routinely and takes extreme care to avoid electronic communications, relying on human couriers to pass messages,” the Post said.
Bin Laden also has gained support in Pakistan, where anger is flaring over unauthorized U.S. strikes inside the country.
“The CIA and the U.S. military have played into bin Laden’s hands by pursuing al-Qaeda with bombs and missiles,” the Post said, quoting officials in Pakistan. “Pashtun tribes along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, angry at the number of civilian casualties, see the United States as the enemy. … Despite a $25 million reward posted by the U.S. government, no one has been willing to turn in the al-Qaeda leader.”
On every anniversary of the 2001 attacks, the Bush administration is called upon to answer for failing to catch bin Laden. Like Obama, many critics accuse Bush and his supporters of making a fatal error when they chose to invade Iraq in 2003 rather than finish the job of hunting down al-Qaida’s leaders and securing Afghanistan.
“The Bush administration has failed to put the necessary resources and manpower into the hunt for America’s No. 1 enemy,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Wednesday, according to the Associated Press. “President Bush has rightly said that the war on terror is about more than just one man. Yet seven years after 9/11, the president has allowed that one man’s vast al-Qaida network to regroup.”
This week President Bush announced that he would cut the number of troops in Iraq by 8,000 during the final months of his administration and send an additional Army brigade and Marine battalion to Afghanistan.
White House press secretary Dana Perino told reporters on Wednesday that Bush has never let up on the hunt for bin Laden, AP said.
“This is not the movies. We don’t have super powers,” Perino said. “But what we do have is very dedicated people who are working with our allies and trying to bring (al-Qaida leaders) to justice.”
Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.