Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Bin Laden's Reign of Terror

ISLAMABAD: The United States may be expanding its war against Al-Qaeda, but experts warn that prize target Osama bin Laden has become a symbolic icon whose liquidation alone would not destroy the terror network.

The Saudi-born mastermind, now in his 50s and rumoured to be in poor health, is the world's most-wanted man with 25 million dollars on his head. But intelligence on his whereabouts is vague and contradictory.

The received wisdom is that he is out of reach in mountains on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, which Washington says is Al-Qaeda's chief sanctuary, thick with Taliban and tribesmen fiercely hostile to outsiders.

General Stanley McChrystal, the commander overseeing a surge in Nato and US troops in Afghanistan, warns that taking bin Laden out would not spell the final demise of Al-Qaeda.

‘I believe he is an iconic figure at this point whose survival emboldens Al-Qaeda as a franchising organisation across the world,’ McChrystal said last week.

‘It would not defeat Al-Qaeda to have him captured or killed, but I don't think that we can finally defeat Al-Qaeda until he's captured or killed.’

Many experts believe bin Laden is now little more than a guiding light for extreme militant cells operating across the globe.

‘Ayman al-Zawahiri is more the target today — the real number one of the network, the most active and most radical,’ one Western counter-terrorism official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Pakistani authorities say a CIA missile just missed Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda's Egyptian ideologue, in January 2006 in Bajaur, in the semi-autonomous tribal belt near the Afghan border. Since then, he has disappeared.

Writing in The New York Times, anthropologist Scott Atran said bin Laden and company had not directly commanded a successful attack in the United States or Europe since September 11, 2001.

‘The American invasion of Afghanistan devastated Al-Qaeda's core of top personnel and its training camps,’ he wrote.

‘The real threat is home-grown youths who gain inspiration from Osama bin Laden but little else beyond an occasional self-financed spell at a degraded Qaeda-linked training facility.’

Under President Barack Obama, the United States has stepped up drone attacks against Taliban and Al-Qaeda suspects in the tribal belt.

National Security Advisor James Jones believes bin Laden is somewhere around the Pakistani region of North Waziristan, ‘sometimes on the Pakistani side of the border, sometimes on the Afghan side of the border’.

The border features some of the most inaccessible terrain in the world, with its towering mountains, plunging valleys, narrow ravines and network of caves.

‘It's a real black hole, where Western and Pakistani intelligence services have no presence at all,’ said the Western official.

His safety lies in a mix of adoration, ignorance in a tribal population cut off from the outside world, and absolute terror, likely in an impenetrable area totally in Al-Qaeda's hands.

‘There are valleys so narrow, especially in Waziristan, that drone attacks are impossible because they can't fire vertically,’ the official added.

A senior Pakistani counter-terrorism official said the tribal belt was ‘well known to (bin Laden) and his followers’.

‘It is out of bounds for intelligence agents to penetrate,’ he told AFP on condition of anonymity.

In September, bin Laden appeared — in a still image only — on a video released by Al-Qaeda around the eighth anniversary of the September 11 attacks and purportedly called on Americans to rethink their policies.

‘Osama is so cautious about his security, he doesn't meet people and moves very little,’ said Rahimullah Yusufzai, one of the few journalists to have interviewed bin Laden, twice in 1998 in Afghanistan.

‘He doesn't use fax, phone, mobile or anything else. His followers are very loyal,’ the Pakistani correspondent said.

The Al-Qaeda supremo is protected both by his inner circle and a wider reign of terror. People are beheaded on the least suspicion and video evidence distributed as a warning to others, Pakistani officials say.

Bodies are regularly found dumped on the roadside, their chests etched with the words ‘American spy’.

Source: Pakistan Dawn

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