October 25, 2004


On Kerry, Bush and bin Laden: The still missing Osama bin Laden has become an issue in the battle for the US presidency, with just a week to go before the election. But was the Bush administration really at fault, as challenger John Kerry alleges, for losing bin Laden at Tora Bora by "outsourcing" the job of capturing him to Afghan warlords? Yes and no, notes B Raman, but other questions are far more important: Where is Osama now? Is he even alive? (B Raman, 10/25/04, Asia Times)

Before the start of the US-led invasion of Iraq last year and coinciding with the end of the Muslim fasting period, bin Laden issued a detailed message to the Iraqi people advising them as to how they should confront the Americans. In his message, which was broadcast by al-Jazeera on February 11, 2003, he described how al-Qaeda under his leadership had fought the Americans at Tora Bora and advised the Iraqis to emulate their example (see The new Iraq-bin Laden connection, Apr 1). Presuming what bin Laden stated was correct, a perusal of his message would show that the US military played an active role in the Tora Bora battle and that Kerry's contention is wrong. However, bin Laden did refer to the role of the Afghan warlords, whom he described as the "forces of the hypocrites, whom they prodded to fight us for 15 days non-stop".

The Tora Bora operation failed for two reasons. First, the warlords and the narcotics barons played a double game. While ostensibly helping the US forces, they kept bin Laden and his fighters informed of the US military movements. Second, Pakistan, on which too the US depended for sealing off its border with Afghanistan to prevent the escape of bin Laden and other jihadi terrorists into Pakistani territory, quietly let them pass.

In fact, bin Laden, who was incapacitated by a shrapnel injury at Tora Bora, was shifted to the Binori madrassa in Karachi, where he was under treatment until August 2002. Since then he has disappeared. He was keeping in touch with his followers through video and audio messages until this April. Since then, he has been observing even electronic silence.

He used to circulate at least three messages every year to his followers - on the anniversary of September 11, 2001, to pay homage to the terrorists who participated in the terrorist strikes in US territory; before the beginning of the Ramadan fasting period; and at the end of the fasting period. This year, he did not issue any message coinciding with September 11. Instead, there was a message from Ayman al-Zawahiri, his No 2. Nor was there a message before the start of the fasting period this Ramadan.

It seems most likely he died at Tora Bora, but even if he's alive somewhere what's the difference if he's been rendered this insignificant and al Qaeda is losing so badly?

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 25, 2004 9:29 AM

I am starting to wonder about Osama. My expectation was that we'd hear something from him after August 15 because that's the end of the season in Monte Carlo. It rains there too much in autumn to have too much fun.

Posted by: Bart at October 25, 2004 11:16 AM


We should quite some time ago already have begun calling him Osama "has-bin" Laden.

And you're right: regardless of whether his chest is still moving, he's a big zero in terms of our strategy planning.

Meanwhile, Kim Jong Il _is_ a factor, and he's being ridiculed at as only America can ridicule someone so craptacularly hideous and dangerous in the Team America movie. The fact that Kim (and not Osama has-bin Laden) gets the part as the leading antagonist in the South Park duo's marionette comedy on the Global War on Terror says it all. Matt Stone predicts Kim - a film and musical buff - will "see this movie ... and cry."

I myself think he will be secretly thrilled and watch it over and over. He'll wear out the rewind button on the scene in which he sings the lonely, heartbroken, misunderstood loner song.

To quote a funny line from an old movie . . . "Osama?! Osama is SO dead he's . . . dead."

Posted by: george at October 25, 2004 11:45 AM

The Usama Perplex
Do not miss the comments of John Kelly below. John, a filmmaker and Boston University prof, is an old Afghanistan hand and knows whereof he speaks. He thinks UBL's URL (as I enjoy calling it) is under a pile of Tora Bora rubble.

Some excellent comments here...especially those arguing that OBL is dead. He is in fact dead. I've posted on this point for years, with various proofs, both anecdotal and factual. (See Froggyruminations last week for a precis.) I've made a number of jouneys to Afghanistan and Pakistan since 9/11 and have recently returned from latest trip. OBL is in fact assumed dead by the people of Afghanistan and "Pukhtunistan" (beyond the Indus River to eastern Afghanistan...including the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Baluch/Waziristan.) I've lived with these people since the Soviet War, including a 6 month stint in the same little neighborhood as OBL in 1987 and am one of the few outsiders who've travelled into the private tribal lands into Waziristan. (Training the mujahideen in filmmaking and setting up the first media center in that region of the world. He was well aware, as my immediate neighbor, of the effort to train the mujahideen in filmmaking. OBL, of course, at that time became fascinated with the power of the video image and began documenting his own movement.)

Obits have been written [Egypt, Jordan, Al Jazeera,] eyewitness accounts collated and collaborated...even the date of his demise authenticated. I know the tribals of the area, visited the White Mountains and been given new--dated July-- photos of the interiors of the cave complexes that remain intact (with tons of weapons still inside) by Afghan bounty hunters. The latter are resigned to the fact that OBL has been among the deceased for nearly 3 years. Believe me, these are tough, scary and enterprising folks: were OBL alive, they would have cashed in by now--Pushtunwali's code of hospitality notwithstanding.

One thing I'd like to clear up...OBL isn't a hero to the Afghans nor is he welcome by the Pushtoons in NWFP or eastern Afghanistan. The Arabs were not well liked at all; they were crude and abusive of their hosts and whatever allegiances that were formed with the tribals were predicated solely on cash motives. [It is reported that a single day's 'hospitality' cost him many thousands of dollars US.] His cult is over, even in the NWFP. He's seen as a loser and Pushtoons hate losers, especially one who is hiding 'like a woman,' as one former Taliban commander from Kandahar put it. Weakness and cowardice is an intolerable sin and the fact that not a single videotape indicating his existence has been issued since late 2001 has convinced even the staunchest of his Arab allies still inside the region that OBL is deceased. There are many quite sensible tactical and strategic reasons for Musharaf and the US coalition to keep OBL 'alive,' not the least of which is to allow the US free access to regions of his own country where Al Qa'eda (ferengis: Arabs, et al,) Taliban (from Pakistan's madrasses) and traitors from his own ISI still operate. The Arabs want him alive as well, to prove that OBL survived the US' best shot. It's a fiction that benefits all.

The lack of OBL activity during the Loya Jirga and elections is sufficient proof to even the most skeptical that OBL is surely dead. He would never have missed this opportunity to at least release a call to arms through an authenticated tape.

That being said, there is a small, almost insignificant possibility that OBL is in fact alive, held under strict, virtual house arrest by the mullah-crazy in Iran...like Hekmatyar. It's the only place where his medical problems might be effectively treated. The thought of OBL hiding in the remote mountains of the NWFP, TAA or Waziristan with a dialysis machine is preposterous. It's far more likely that he's hiding--or under arrest--in a city in Pakistan (like Karachi) or Iran than running around the inhospital (without electricity or the most rudimentary medical facilities) mountain regions.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at October 25, 2004 1:09 PM

More From John Kelly:


I've been in Afghanistan a number of times since 9/11 and have pursued this question many times with the tribes, the Qwami Shura, NGO internationals, ISAAF, foreign journalists, jihadis, my associate, the German author of the best book on Bin Laden--the works. And posted on this since 2002. (Here, Daily Pundit and probably in my missives to Insta.) I also 'know' (i.e. saw on the street and lived in the same small neighborhood in UTown in Peshawar) as OBL in the 80s and know a bit about the man. I know his doctor during the 90s quite well, his family dentist (!) Zabir and can attest to the fact that those who knew him claim he's long departed from this earth. With no remains available...so little of him to scrape up that none can confirm his departure. Alas. Those bombs were a bitch. But they saw him in the cave, then the cave blew up. And all there was left were little pebbles.

I was overwhelmed in Afghanistan this summer with other work (and problems...'friend' Jack Idema was arrested) but I still had some time to meet with mullahs and tribal/political leaders, from Safi Nation to Zabul and Kandahar and the consensus remains OBL is dead. Even if he weren't dead, well, he'd dead. As Roger noted, an arrogant ideologue like OBL would not remain silent...or let his visage be ignored by the likes of vidiots at Al Jazeera. If he weren't dead, he'd be dead to the Afghans and Paks because he's a coward afraid to show his face; thus violating Pushtunwali...the codes of behavior that govern the regions where he is supposedly hiding.

That being said, Al Q'aeda is still a problematic presence, especially in Pakistan (where Musharaf is waging a heroic struggle against his traitorous ISI/madrassas) and the the indigent provinces of the Gulf States. I do demur from conventional wisdom on the growth of Al Q'aeda and the myth of Bin Laden in the Arab world. I was cheered in the oil emirates (the UAE) this summer to find--compared to 2002 and 2003--that Al Q'aeda's jihadist philosophy is losing steam and prestige. Basically, terrorism is bad for business and the Middle East is now an emerging financial power. It's widely accepted in the Gulf that if OBL were alive, he would have provided visual proof by now...absent that, he's no longer a factor, much less a hero. No pictures, no respect.

It was also quite clear in the UAE that the American effort in Iraq was gaining significant support...much to my surprise. Just a year ago, things were very different. Why Bush does not publicize or capitalize on these successes has always baffled me...from Afghanistan to the Gulf, pro-Americanism is ascendant. This is not, unfortunately, a media savvy administration.


Bush knows he's dead. He was told by those who were there. At the time, sans DNA, it wasn't a good idea to promote the idea ("Since OBL is dead, the WOT is over," was the argument of the vast majority...revenge was complete and all that.) It's a bit too late now to announce a death that's nearly three years old! Pretending OBL was alive allowed us to track traffic--cell phones, internet and human resources--that ensued after each 'new' OBL tape. Ever notice that after each fresh tape there followed a rocket attack on some installation, car caravan or the like? Each time. Thanks to tracking the movement excited by every pronouncement. Most importantly, keeping OBL alive allowed the US to tramp around the border area, the sacrosanct tribal areas and inside Pakistan itself. Pushtoonwali and all that...revenge is understood to be valid. Chasing OBL to his death trumps all possible objections by the Pushtoons, Pakistanis and Afghans. This is a code everyone acknowleges, lives by--and even ferengis like ourselves are honored in our pursuit of revenge. So until OBL is officially acknowledge as dead, everyone understands our pursuit is legitimate. What more could we want?

Also, most curious that in every case the Swiss voice analysts (arguably the best in the world) said they were cut and paste jobs and phony.

As was noted in the initial post, OBL is an egotist. Sound tapes are suspect compared to a live appearance on videotape that includes proof that he's still alive and functioning. He loves videotaping and filming his live and philosophy, as do all of the commanders and warlords. Take a look at the thousands of hours of tape of the mujahideen jihad against the Soviets post-1987 produced by the AMRC in Peshawar (not coincidentally, OBL's home for many years.) This is one of largest archives of a conflict and its affect on a nation ever recorded. (Archive now at Williams College, but seen recently at a large gallery show in NYC at the Asia Foundation and on ABC's Nightline. BTW, I appeared in both shows.)


The impact and destruction of OBL's cave (we spared nothing in the arsenal and then repeated it redundantly) made DNA recognition nearly impossible. Nothing bigger than a grain of sand, not much chance for DNA. What might be found in terms of blood specks on pebbles was undoubtedly forwarded back to the US to be typed against... what? Or whom? And whose bin Laden DNA is it anyway? OBL's son? Another son? Or a third in the cave with him at the time?
And who'd take our word for it, anyway?

Nonetheless, I'm sure that Pentagon wanted to go with the story based on very stong, credible eyewitnesses. Fortunately, Musharaf's position was factored in and the idea of publicizing the death notice of OBL was scotched in order to allow the Pakistanis to prosecute their own even more important war against Al Q'aeda. Musharaf is in a tenuous life and death struggle against the Taliban in his own administration and ISI, as well as Arab sponsored religious and military training in his country. Most Pakistanis understand that revenge against Al Q'aeda and especially OBL and give Musharaf a pass on his desire to help an ally. Were OBL dead it would be harder for Musharaf to make the case for the American presence inside Pakistan's sovereign territory and in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.


I do assent to your point about the risk to Bush, as well as your frustration, but years ago it was a great decision. Even in hindsight it remains a smart choice. It allowed Musharaf time to maneuver his position vis a vis the ISI traitors and galvanized public support among his own population who also fear intrusive Arab interference in their internal affairs. The world was outraged, the face of terror was Bin Laden and the will of America intimidated even the most ardent Taliban in his own country. With Bin Laden dead, the case was closed and America was expected to retreat from the region. This decision to allow Bin Laden his life in death was pragmatic as well. Without a body (the habeas corpus problem) even a DNA test would have been scoffed at by the Fisks of the world. His 'death' would have been put in sceptical scare quotes by Reuters. So what's the point? Who needed to hear Dean scream for months: "Bush lied. Who believes that blood splatter is really Bin Laden?" We killed Bin Laden to a degree of probability that any court would accept, though not to absolute, indisputable surety. The irony is we killed him too well, destroying the proof as well.

Most--if not all--journalists I knew in Afghanistan covering the beat after 9/11 believed Bin Laden was dead, especially the lefties from the British press who consistently bombarded this American in Kabul with complaints that Bush was purposely and cynically hiding the death of Bin Laden to remain in Afghanistan without any international philosophical/moral/political opposition. They were damn sure that Bush had outsmarted the world, a world they understood to be hostile to his administration. Without boogey man Bin Laden, these journalists would have unleased the fury of the press on Bush's illegitimate war and our illicit occupation of Afghanistan. Bin Laden 'alive' permits free rein to the US throughout the world; a fair trade for Bush. He loses bragging rights but gains far more. Given the phony righteousness and duplicity of the DNC and its MSM supporters, even if they all agreed OBL was indeed dead, they'd invent another issue to beat Bush with...so what's the loss?


BTW, the very small chance that OBL is indeed in fact alive centers on the possibility that he resides tightly guarded in Iran. That mullacracy is a closed state, typically inaccessible even to Islamic tourists so only they could keep such a secret silent. Compared to Iran, Pakistan has the open borders and free movement of America. OBL would have been outed a dozen times by now anywhere in that state of in Afghanistan. OBL, though it's not widely reported, has innumerable enemies among the Afghans in both that state and in NWFP in Pakistan...places where he is supposedly hiding. He wouldn't be safe there at all. In Iran, it's Bin Laden in a box.


Bush got important feedback on the possible effect of OBL's death on the Democratic party and its allied MSM when OBL's obiturary was printed in Egypt's largest daily (on the full front page) and broadcast on Al Jazeera. The Islamic press had journalists in the field with eyewitnesses quoted in their reports. The western MSM yawned, shrugged and said, in effect, 'move on, nothing to see here.'

Had our own media decided to investigate or take the Islamic press at its word, this would now be a dead issue. Bush couldn't have affected the story at all--it was now in the hands of the media and everything but the White House spin would have been out of his control. The potential of tremendous praise for Bush on this extraordinary success was simply too much to countenance, so the MSM passed on the story.


As to the query from Froggy, I've lived and worked with the Afghans since the 1980s, when I trained the mujahideen. (And we all lived in same neighborhood as Bin Laden for six or seven months.) I've got a couple of books relating to my work in Afghanistan.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at October 25, 2004 1:11 PM

Interesting. I've been over the same ground in my mind on this, excepting the detail provided by Johns' experience, and could reasonably buy all his scenarios.

I'm reminded of the Harry Potter series and can concieve of OBL as the "one whose name is unmentionable." Time will tell, but until then I remain, as most of us, undecided. If we don't hear from him by next February I will assume he truly has passed over the bar to OZ.

Posted by: genecis at October 25, 2004 2:29 PM