The big story in the news yesterday was that NATO officials had necked down the location of Osama bin Laden, along with his brethren, to a stretch of the lawless lands of Pakistan. The news was immediately followed by rejoinders of American officials about the accuracy of the reports. After recent admissions by our own CIA that we haven’t had any intelligence on bin Laden for years, it was another ghost story that left a majority of Americans scratching their heads. I mean, really, with all of our power, and all of our technology, why can’t we find that son-of-a-bitch?
I’ll tell you why: simply put, finding any human being anywhere in the world is a challenge, made much more difficult if the man doesn’t want to be found. Add in a search area with which we have little ability to operate within, and it’s fairly easy to see how bin Ladin stays outside the wrath of American justice. I suppose someone could read this as, “you were a part of that search, and we’ve failed up to this point, so here’s your excuse”, but it’s not an excuse, its reality.
“But we’re the United States of America! I’ve seen Will Smith in ‘Enemy of the State’. I know we could get him if we wanted!” And then come the conspiracy theories: We don’t want to find him, because it will prove we did 9/11, or whatever other ridiculous theory is out there.
Here are some facts: The tribal area of northwest Pakistan is some of the most rugged terrain on the earth. You couldn’t find a crashed airplane in that region if you were given free rein to look, which we most decidedly are denied.
“That’s just an excuse”.
Really? On September 3, 2007, famed adventurist Steve Fosset took off from an airfield in Nevada and disappeared. The largest rescue effort in the history of America was mounted to find him. They failed. This, when they weren’t looking for a man, but an airplane crash. His remains were found a year later by some hikers who stumbled upon the wreckage. Fosset was in an airplane with all safety beacons on, flying a recorded flight plan, on terrain that we owned, and yet we couldn’t find him. If Steve Fossett was alive when he crashed, make no mistake, he wanted to be found. Wanted to live. Now translate that to finding a man who knows he’s the world’s most wanted, and in terrain that’s worse. It took a year to find Fossett’s stationary aircraft in a country that we owned.
The answer usually given is, “Yeah, well, it wasn’t like the CIA or FBI were on the case. If we had used our true capability to find Fossett, we would have.” Like we have some magic bullet. Here’s another dose of reality. In 1998, a man named Eric Rudolph, was indicted for the Olympic square bombings and a host of abortion clinic attacks. He became the FBI’s Most Wanted with a one million dollar bounty on his head, and yet he evaded capture for five years. Despite a concerted search in our own country. A land where we spoke the language, knew the political landscape, and understood the realities on the ground. For a brief moment in time, Eric Rudolph was a folk hero. A man defying authority in our own backyard. A “regular guy” to the people who were helping him. Make no mistake; the United States government used every resource at its disposal to find him. Everything. Think about that for a minute. We couldn’t capture the most wanted man in America in our own country because he had a rudimentary support system. And people wonder why we can’t find bin Laden?
Try penetrating a tribal area where the language itself is a giveaway, where the dialect alone will get your head cut off. FBI agents went to North Carolina and asked questions – in English – of the people there. And were rebuffed. Try being an FBI agent in Waziristan. Doesn’t work. Along those same lines, Rudolph had a million dollar bounty on his head, yet nobody took it. He ended up getting captured in a random police encounter. Why? Because the people there had protected him. Someone knew where he was located, but didn’t turn him in. And we expect someone in the tribal regions of Pakistan to turn in bin Laden? A man revered for bringing about the Caliphate? In a land where honor is worth much more than any amount of money we offer?
Locating bin Laden is not as simple as Hollywood has inculcated in our population, but he will be found. It will take time and perseverance, but unlike Eric Rudolph, in order for his organization to survive he must do more than simply hide, and that will be his undoing. Every time he reaches out to the world, either through recorded messages or through terrorist attacks, he provides multiple clues to his location, and as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi found out, all it takes is one.
Question – Does it even matter if he is found? We got Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, but that is not what hurt the Sunni Insurgents in Iraq. What hurt them was that the population turned on them. If we get Bin Laden, what then? Will it just steel the resolve of his followers to keep perpetrating terrorist attacks? We need beat them at the Information Operations game. Getting Bin Laden won’t stop the movement.
Interesting question and I think the answer is yes, it does matter. Getting bin Laden will not be a panacea that solves the threat of al Qaida, but it is very much a part of the information fight you mention. Currently, people revere him as the man who has taken on the Goliath of the United States and survived, a projection of a faith that he can succeed, which is something every insurgent or terrorist organization needs. His downfall will pop that bubble and deal a psychological blow. Do I see it as being decisive, like Abimael Guzman in Peru, where his capture led to the wholesale destruction of the Sendero Luminosa’s ability to function? No, but it will have an impact, and I don’t believe it will be one that drives MORE people to attack. As for Zarqawi and Iraq, I completely agree that it wasn’t decisive either, but it DID have an impact. His organization was dismantled in short order, and we’ll never know how many Sunnis decided to join the awakening precisely because they had no strong leader to follow in the insurgency. It was a nascent organization in 2005, and gathered steam in 2006 right after Zarqawi’s death. In addition, it took a long time to get him. If he had been captured or killed early on, say in 2003, we might not have needed the awakening to begin with – which may also be a tactical benefit of getting bin Laden. We could stop a catastrophic attack in the planning stages.
Sir, a few questions; first, what do you mean by “we could stop a catastrophic attack in the planning stages”? Do you think that UBL is still highly influential in the planning of AQ/AQIZ ops? Also, when we do find him and kill/capture and then kill him, will that not just make him a martyr in the eyes of those who already see him as a folk hero? You say that you do not believe his demise will drive more people to attack, and I think you’re right, yet 60 Minutes has done a pretty good job of making it clear that it is no small demographic of Muslims who are sympathetic to bin Laden. In your opinion, what do you think some of the negative consequences of eradicating the planet of bin Laden may be? Lastly, if the story was that NATO had necked down the location of bin Laden, why isn’t there also a story about a Spooky pilot who blasted him into goat food?
LT Fraser, I’ll take your questions one by one:
a) Yes, I do think bin Laden is heavily involved in the overarching planning of large scale attacks. We just disrupted a synchronized attack in Western Europe by killing five German citizens with a predator strike in Pakistan. The Germans were in Pakistan for a reason: it’s the hub of AQ command and control. If bin Laden and his high command had no influence, they could have done all the planning in Germany. This indicates to me that bin Laden is still a player.
b) I don’t believe bin Laden’s death will cause any additional reaction. He will be called a martyr, like all fanatical deaths, but the true meaning of martyr is tied to the perceived injustice of the death, whereby people not inclined to protest or fight now become energized, such as the killing of the man in Sacramento by the police officer who thought he was using a Taser. The perceived injustice caused the average person in Sacramento to go nuts. There is very little chance that anyone in the Muslim world will be shocked or offended by bin Laden’s death, even if they agree with him. After 9/11 and all the other attacks, he’s recognized as a combatant, and the reaction will more than likely be, “Well, it was only a matter of time.” Yes, there will be a lot of screaming and gnashing of teeth, but at the end of the day, people not inclined to take up jihad won’t do so because of bin Laden’s death. The people doing the screaming will be the same people who were already on the path to jihad anyway. The true risk is not bin Laden, but us doing something horrendous to get him. Say we find bin Laden attending a wedding in some remote village in the world and drop a JDAM on the party. We get bin Laden, along with 200 other people. Those 200 will be the martyrs that cause the Muslim world to rise up, believing the propaganda bin Laden put out before he died. That’s a hypothetical, by the way, just to juxtapose the term “martyr”. Contrary to what some people want to project, the US Government goes far out of its way to prevent collateral damage. We would never do that.
c) The NATO report was “necked down” to several thousand square miles of some of the roughest terrain on the earth. It wasn’t granular enough to use for any attack purposes.
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