15 JANUARY 2005, Page 13

Osama bin Laden is ... not dead

Mark Steyn admits he was wrong to say that al-Qa’eda’s commander-in-chief was dead, but not very wrong. Osama has been rendered powerless by America New Hampshire Just before the election, in a column over on this side of the Atlantic, I wrote, ‘As for this Bush-failed-to-get-bin-Laden business, two and a half years ago I declared that Osama was dead and he’s never written to complain.’ And this time it worked! My plan to flush him into the open by mocking him as a corpse year in year out finally paid off. Within 48 hours, bin Laden had popped up to admonish the American people and in a curious passage — suggesting he’s been spending way too much time in the cave boning up on the electoral college and has become something of a convert to states’ rights — promised that any state which voted for Kerry would not be targeted by al-Qa’eda. So skip Florida this summer and try Hawaii.

This was the late Osama’s first appearance since I proclaimed him dead in a piece for this magazine called ‘Dust Bin’ back in 2002. To judge from the ‘Quotes of the Year’ round-up I saw in the Observer the other week, the collapse of my confident prediction has evidently caused some amusement among my colleagues in Fleet Street. A spot of post-election ill health prevented me addressing the subject and prompted a lot of mocking emails from jeering readers who thought I’d gone skulking off to find my own cave to lie low in for three years. On the other hand, a few loyal correspondents suggested artful ways that he could have left posthumous yet topical videos: it was obvious by 2001 that Kerry, not to mention Edwards and Dean and so forth, were going to run for president, so who’s to say he didn’t pretape various alternative messages to be played years after his demise?

Nice try, and technically possible. But it’s not the words themselves so much as the general tone: it mimics the Fahrenheit 9/11 talking-points so closely that I find it hard to believe the words were recorded earlier than summer 2004. Of course, they might be expertly dubbed by some Pushtun Mike Yarwood into the wedding video of him giving the bridegroom’s speech when he married Mullah Omar’s daughter, or his father-of-the-bride speech when his daughter married Mullah Omar. Or he might be an animatronic figure. But until any of those scenarios are proven, it seems I was wrong and he’s still with us.

But what exactly does that mean? He’s the face of the enemy, the visual shorthand — the picture you see proudly emblazoned, for example, on the T-shirts of various young Muslim men unloading tsunami relief supplies from American C-130s in Indonesia and Sri Lanka. But other than shifting the merchandising, what’s he doing? Is he still what this thing’s about?

A third of a decade after 9/11, it’s hard to maintain a war footing against a nebulous enemy. At the Senate confirmation hearings for Bush’s new Attorney-General, Alberto Gonzales, Democrats seem to have decided that the very concept of an ‘enemy’ is dubious, cheerfully cranking up their sanctimonious preening for CNN and berating Judge Gonzales for declining to extend the Geneva Conventions to captured terrorists. To be covered by Geneva, a combatant has to have (a) a commander who is responsible for his subordinates; (b) formal recognisable military insignia; (c) weapons that are carried openly; and (d) an adherence to the laws and customs of warfare. Islamist terrorists meet none of these conditions and extending the protection of the Conventions to them would simply announce to the world that, from a legal point of view, there’s no downside to embracing terror. Blow up a nightclub or a schoolhouse or a pizza parlour and you’ll still get full PoW status.

Ah-ha, say the Dems. But, if we don’t treat our prisoners with respect, America’s brave men and women in uniform will pay the price when they fall into enemy hands. Hello? Does anyone in the Democratic party still read the newspapers, other than the fawning editorials of the New York Times? If an American falls into the hands of the enemy, he’s going to be all over the Internet having his head hacked off for a recruitment video or dragged through the streets and strung up on a bridge in Fallujah. Max Hastings made the point last week that, in an age of overwhelming US military supremacy, asymmetric warfare — i.e., terrorism — is the only logical way for her enemies to go. But the urge by the Democrats and the media to raise them to the level of lawful combatants only makes things even more asymmetric: they can decapitate us while screaming ‘Allahu Akbar!’ and clean up on the DVD sales, while we’re only supposed to ask name, rank and serial number, two of which they don’t have and they’re flexible on the first. The wish to gentrify the enemy and, by extension, their tactics will only result in more kidnappings and more decapitations.

Back in October, I wrote that ‘the feelers put out by the Foreign Office to Ken Bigley’s captors ... confer respectability on the headhackers and increase the likelihood that Britons and other foreigners will be seized and decapitated in the future. The United Kingdom, like the government of the Philippines when it allegedly paid a ransom for the release of its Iraqi hostages, is thus assisting in the mainstreaming of jihad.’ The Telegraph declined to run the column. Fair enough. Their choice. But I think I was proved right a few days later when poor Margaret Hassan was seized in Baghdad and eventually murdered.

It’s depressing that after three years the Democrats seem incapable of any kind of characterisation of the enemy that approximates to reality. But it’s not surprising. In the landscape of modern progressive pieties, there are no enemies, just friends whose grievances we haven’t yet accommodated.

But out there in the field a good glimpse of how things really work was provided by Moayad Ahmed Yasseen, who was captured in Fallujah a couple of months ago and turned out to be full of interesting information. He was a colonel in Saddam’s Iraqi army and after the fall of the Baathists last spring was sent to Tehran, where he says he was received by Iran’s head honcho, Ayatollah Khamenei, and various Iranian intelligence officials. He returned with cash, weapons and car bombs for his new outfit something called Jaish Muhammad, which means Muhammad’s Army. It’s closely allied with Abu Musab al-Zarkawi, Insurgent Numero Uno in the new Iraq. A few weeks later, Saddam ordered Yasseen west, for a meeting with Syrian intelligence to procure more money and weapons from Boy Assad.

So who’s the enemy there? Take your pick. Saddamite remnants, Iranian theocrats, Syrian Baathists, ad hoc insurgents, a Jordanian terrorist commander; states, nonstate actors, Islamic fundamentalists, secular dictatorships, wily opportunists — you name it, Colonel Yasseen’s plugged into it. And even though Osama has anointed Zarkawi as his viceroy in occupied Iraq (somewhat post facto), it seems unlikely he or anybody close to him in the luxury caves with en suite latrine has anything to do with what’s going on in the Sunni Triangle, or Saudi Arabia, or Indonesia, or anywhere else. We were encouraged after Afghanistan to see alQa’eda as less of a hierarchical structure and more of a loose franchise operation. But it seems doubtful these days that it’s anything at all — except perhaps a meaningless media shorthand for a network of diffused autonomous Islamist groups operating from Central America to the Balkans to Southeast Asia, not to mention gazillions of British, Canadian and European Muslims who graduated from the Afghan terror camps and either returned home to await instructions or sallied forth to join the jihad in Chechnya, Gaza and Bali, plus various disaffected individuals who just got the Islamist fever, like the 4 July shooter at Los Angeles airport and, indeed, the Washington sniper duo, the younger of whom liked to draw pictures of planes crashing into skyscrapers, etc.

How would you label an enemy like that? They’re impressively diverse, to use the Queen’s new buzzword. In my 2002 Speccie piece declaring that Osama had bin Laiden to rest, I wrote: ‘Washington is in no hurry to pronounce him dead. In a celebrity culture, it’s useful to be able to put a face to what would otherwise be a shadowy menace.... Likewise, it’s the open-endedness of the Bush crusade [whoops] that rattles the Europeans: if Osama were dead, the Eurosophists would be saying, “C’mon, you got your man, you had your revenge, now declare victory and go home.” With the guy directly responsible out of the way, the European inclination to render terrorism as an impersonal abstraction born of “desperation” and “hopelessness” would be unstoppable.’ All that still holds. Indeed, it’s a rather better rationale than that proposed by Buzzy Krongard, the CIA’s recently departed number three. ‘You can make the argument that we’re better off with him,’ Krongard said this week. ‘Because if something happens to bin Laden, you might find a lot of people vying for his position and demonstrating how macho they are by unleashing a stream of terror.’ That’s classic Agency-think from the last half of the Cold War — whatever you do, don’t create a situation where you have to update your Rolodex; much better to manage the problem in perpetuity than solve it. The Islamist mind is a harder one to figure out than the Soviet mind — if you read the Arab press, you’ll know that Hindu-Zionist nuclear testing was responsible for the tsunami — but that being so you might as well catch and kill the enemies rather than construct logical consequences they’re too wacky to heed.

That’s the mistake I made. I assumed we were getting all these audio cassettes because Osama was in no shape to be seen on camera. At the back of my head, I considered the possibility that he was holding up on the next video appearance until he had something spectacular either to say or do. Instead, he staged the lamest comeback since George Michael’s last album. He waited three years for this? Nothing about the return of Andalucia, the new Caliphate, the betrayal of Palestine and East Timor, no calls for the infidels to lay off the fornication, homosexuality and gambling; just a lot of warmed-over Michael Moore material about Bush spending the morning of 11 September reading My Pet Goat to a Florida grade school. And unlike Moore, who just used the book’s title as a cheap gag at Dubya’s expense, Osama went to the trouble of mastering the plot. ‘It appeared to him,’ he scoffed of the President, ‘that a little girl’s talk about her goat and its butting was more important than the planes and their butting of the skyscrapers.’ Some evil masterminds have way too much time on their hands. Ask not for whom the goat butts, he butts for thee.

If I were the sort of insecure type who couldn’t admit a mistake, I’d say something slippery along the lines that, in a sense, Osama is dead: he made no demands, no threats, no invocations of Allah even. The real war is way beyond him now. If the Muslims reclaim Europe, it won’t be through butting skyscrapers but by the remorseless incremental gains they make month by month — the de facto piecemeal recognition of Sharia and polygamy, the new hate crimes law. Similarly, whatever tactical errors have been made in Iraq, the Bush strategy proceeds apace: elections in Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq — good enough by local conditions; small moves in the right direction in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Libya — the most important year in the region since Churchill drew the map of the modern Middle East in 1922. Osama bin Laden, dead or alive, is largely irrelevant to all of this, and his comeback video only confirmed it. Dressed like a Gulf foreign minister, sounding like a cross between a torpid Fifties secular pan-Arab nationalist and the last MoveOn.org member to get to a Fahrenheit 9/11 screening, Omichael bin Mooren’s message boiled down to: Honey, I shrunk the jihad.