As America thrills, naturally enough, to the capture of Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, the man once considered public enemy number one by Washington, remains at large; and the undeniably good news from Iraq doesn’t make bin Laden any less elusive, or dangerous. Whatever Saddam’s sins — and they are numberless — OBL has, to say the least, the more direct tie to global terrorism. (Nobody doubts his link to 9/11.) “In terms of the war against terrorism, bin Laden would be the bigger catch,” said Pentagon terrorism consultant, Dr. Ruth Lavin. “Outside of Iraq, Saddam’s capture won’t have much impact at all.”
Which may be overstating things. And yet, as the Australian notes, bin Laden’s significance in the war on terror, at least as originally conceived, is greater:
“During his televised address yesterday, the U.S. President did not directly refer to bin Laden, whose defiance of a superpower’s manhunt has elevated the terror mastermind to near mythical status in the Islamic world, beyond pledging that the U.S. would press forward ‘capture by capture, cell by cell, and victory by victory’. But the architect of this 21st-century holy war between the West, and its allies, and Islamic fundamentalism casts a large and daunting shadow across the Bush presidency and the American psyche.
The effect of Hussein’s downfall seems largely symbolic as he appears to have had no operational role, seemingly having spent his time burrowing into holes to avoid capture, as opposed to bin Laden, who continues plotting worldwide terrorism cabals. Joseph Cirincione, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, characterised the dictator’s capture as ‘largely irrelevant in the larger war against terrorism’.
‘Saddam means nothing to al-Qa’ida and all the al-Qa’ida-like forces,’ he said.
Interestingly, the Pentagon said yesterday it would not rush back to Afghanistan the 600 specialised troops – from linguists to commandos and CIA paramilitary units – pulled from the hunt for bin Laden earlier this year and redirected to Iraq. That could be because the US expects Iraq, with or without Hussein’s loyalist Baathists, to become perhaps the primary battleground in the war on terrorism.”
Hussein’s link to 9/11 has never been proved; bin Laden’s is uncontested, least of all by him. There is also evidence that bin Laden is involved in plotting and coordinating new terrorist operations. In fact, one of the Turkish men charged over a wave of deadly car bombings that killed 62 people in Istanbul told a judge that he received orders from Bin Laden personally to carry out the attacks.
Many have been beginning to wonder about why bin Laden, who is believed to be hiding somewhere along the 1500-mile-long Afghan-Pakistani border, is so much harder to catch. U.S. officials conceded on Sunday that it was easier to get Hussein, pointing first and foremost to the vast differences of the Iraqi and Afghani landscapes. While Saddam was found in flat farmland, bin Laden is said to hide in some of the most impenetrable terrain in the world – an area which bin Laden knows well, having lived there for the last decade.
The Scotsman points out that bin Laden also has much more experience in being on the run:
“… for bin Laden being a fugitive is a way of life. He is highly skilled in keeping safe by staying on the move, using modern technology to maintain contact with supporters and build up a powerbase, which now extends around the world. And it is his charisma and zeal – and not just ready money – which inspires his followers to support, and die for, his cause.”
The New York Times reports that far more resources were dedicated to finding Hussein:
“There are 12 times as many American troops in Iraq as there are in the mountainous border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan where Mr. bin Laden is believed to be hiding. He has chosen far better terrain in which to hide. He also appears to have more loyalty from his close circle of aides than Mr. Hussein did, and therefore has confounded efforts to track him.
‘It seems to me they are back at square one,’ said Peter Bergen, a terrorism expert and author of ‘Holy War, Inc.,’ on the rise of Al Qaeda. ‘My impression is that they are not devoting a lot of resources to it. It seems to be forgotten. Maybe the capture of Saddam will lead them to become interested in it again.'”
The Chicago Tribune writes that while both Hussein and bin Laden had a had a $25 million bounty placed upon them, it isn’t likely that bin Laden will get ratted out:
“Whereas Hussein and his coterie always were vulnerable to betrayal by their fellow Iraqis, bin Laden remains protected by Pashtun customs as well as Islamic loyalties on both sides of the border.The offer of a $25 million reward, an unimaginable fortune in this impoverished region, means nothing against the rigid code of tribal honor that requires tribesmen to offer hospitality to any stranger in need, said Mohammed Omar Babrakzai, a Pashtun who is Afghanistan’s deputy minister for border and tribal affairs.
No Pashtun could afford to betray a guest, for he would become an outcast from his tribe and family forever, he said ‘They have to obey their customs, and if they were offered hundreds of millions of dollars, no Pashtun would hand over even an enemy,’ Babrakzai said.”
As Time magazine editor-at-large Michael Elliott writes, Saddam’s capture is great, but until bin Laden is taken, the U.S. can’t truly be said to be winning the war on terror:
“The capture of Saddam [Hussein] helps, but so long as bin Laden remains at large, all the power and high-tech wizardry of the American armed forces are still losing the battle that is most important in the Islamic world – the struggle to convince ordinary Muslims that those who espouse terror and oppose liberal, modern social developments are bound, eventually, to lose.”