Has bin Laden bin forgotten?

America's ever-shifting attitude towards bin Laden tells us far more about the confused war on terror than about bin Laden himself.

by Brendan O’Neill

POSTED APRIL 25, 2002 --

‘The goal has never been to get bin Laden’, said General Richard Myers, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, on 6 April 2002. President George W Bush might have declared on 17 September 2001 that bin Laden was ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive’ – but Myers told CNN that a far more important aim than bin Laden’s head on a platter was the ‘capture, killing and scattering’ of ‘mid-level al-Qaeda operatives’ 1. ‘The goal [in Afghanistan] was never after specific individuals’, he claimed 2.

But four days later, on 10 April 2002, army secretary Thomas White said that one of America’s ‘strategic objectives’ in Afghanistan is ‘to get bin Laden…and we are pursuing that’ 3. Asked if the war on terror could only be hailed a success once bin Laden was found, White said yes – claiming that ‘no one said it was going to be easy’ 4.

‘I truly am not that concerned about him’, said President George W Bush on 13 March 2002, after being asked the million-dollar question ‘where is bin Laden?’ once too often 5. ‘Deep in my heart I know the man is on the run, if he’s alive at all’, said Bush, brushing bin Laden off as ‘a person who has now been marginalized’ 6.

But a week later, on 21 March 2002, US commanders claimed that bin Laden and co are ‘still a threat in the new Afghanistan’. Major-general Frank Hagenbeck warned that ‘there are al-Qaeda operatives in Paktia right now, who are going to great lengths to regroup’ 7 – while CIA director George Tenet claimed that bin Laden remains an ‘immediate and serious threat’ 8.

On 8 April 2002, US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld said bin Laden’s threat had been ‘neutralized’. ‘Our goal was to stop terrorism to the extent that we could’, said Rumsfeld – claiming that ‘enough pressure’ had been applied to al-Qaeda leaders to make them ‘so busy surviving’ and ‘moving from place to place’ that they no longer have time to plot terrorist attacks 9.

But on the same day, one newspaper claimed that ‘bin Laden managed to escape hours before a joint team of FBI and Pakistan commandos raided an al-Qaeda hideout in Faisalabad in the Punjab province on 28 March, which resulted in the capture of his lieutenant Abu Zubaydah’ 10 – leading to concern in the ‘American camp’ that bin Laden is ‘safe and well and planning new terror attacks’ 11.

What’s going on? Is bin Laden still the big bad threat to world peace that President Bush once wanted ‘dead or alive’ – or has he been ‘marginalized’ out of the picture? Has al-Qaeda’s threat been ‘neutralized’ – or are they plotting further terrorist attacks and ‘secret guerrilla warfare’? Is getting bin Laden one of America’s ‘strategic objectives’ – or was it never a priority in the first place?

Since the start of 2002, America’s hunt for bin Laden has verged on the farcical. On 7 January 2002, an exasperated military spokesman said the USA would stop ‘chasing shadows’, after yet another round of ‘where’s bin Laden?’ questions from assembled journalists 12.

At the end of December 2001, ‘informed Afghan, Iranian and US government sources’ apparently believed that ‘bin Laden managed to escape to the eastern region of Yemen’ 13. But on 6 January 2002, Bob Graham of the US Senate Intelligence Committee said bin Laden and his henchmen ‘had escaped and are probably over the border in Pakistan’ 14. On 14 January US officials were reported to believe that al-Qaeda leaders ‘are crossing the borders into Iran’ 15. But the following day, intelligence expert and former CIA chief Vince Cannistraro said: ‘I think most intelligence experts are absolutely convinced…that bin Laden has slipped the noose and has left Afghanistan and Pakistan’ 16.

Absolutely convinced? Not quite. Cannistraro suggested that bin Laden might have escaped Pakistan by boat and be hiding out somewhere in the Arabian Sea, but nobody knows for sure.

In mid-January 2002, secretary of state Colin Powell tried to knock all the bin Laden rumour-mongering on the head – but only showed up the USA’s dearth of intelligence. ‘I have seen nothing that suggests we know where he is, whether it’s Afghanistan, Pakistan or somewhere else’, declared Powell 17 – even though by then, US military and intelligence forces in Afghanistan had been looking for bin Laden for three months. But, Powell assured us, US forces are still in ‘hot pursuit’ of him 18.

So was the USA going to stop ‘chasing shadows’ or was it still ‘hotly pursuing’ a man who could be anywhere in Central Asia, Asia, the Middle East, north Africa or the surrounding seas? There was no point asking man-in-charge-of-the-US-war-machine Donald Rumsfeld, who says looking for bin Laden is ‘like looking for a needle in a haystack’ 19.

The US authorities’ lack of intelligence on bin Laden, Muhammad Omar (remember him?) and the rest of the al-Qaeda and Taliban rumps revealed much about the uncertain nature of their war against terror – a war with ever-shifting aims and uncertain goals. So how did the Bush administration respond to the New Year revelations that their intelligence agencies didn’t have a clue where bin Laden is? They changed their war aims. Again.

‘American military chiefs have made a subtle change in Washington’s war aims to help mask their continued failure to capture bin Laden’, said one report on 14 January 20, as former leader of the US armed services committee and senator John McCain tried to make not knowing where bin Laden is sound like a success story. ‘He’s on the run now…a far different scenario than the one where he had sanctuary and was able to operate’, boasted McCain. 21 In the same week, President Bush declared that bin Laden ‘is on the run…. I mean this is a guy who three months ago was in control of a country’ – seeming to have confused bin Laden with Taliban leader Omar.

So America’s war aim went from getting bin Laden ‘dead or alive’ to bringing him to justice to dismantling his organization to giving him the runaround as a means of foiling his dastardly plan. Never have so many war aims been targeted at so few people in so little time.

The confusion over bin Laden’s whereabouts is a reflection of America’s confused war – not an indication that the wily bin Laden is outwitting US intelligence by secretly jetting from one part of the globe to another, as some would have us believe. Just consider some of the places bin Laden has been ‘spotted’ or rumoured to be hiding in since 11 September:

IRAN…. Apparently ‘extensive investigations’ by one newspaper in December 2001 revealed that bin Laden had ‘crossed the south-west border into Iran, where he is being sheltered by dissident Iranian guerrilla fighters’ 22.

KASHMIR…. An Italian TV station claimed on 22 December 2001 that bin Laden ‘has fled to Kashmir with the help of Pakistan’s secret services’ 23.

UGANDA…. In April 2002, Ugandan villagers ‘mistakenly arrested a man they thought was bin Laden, hoping to claim America’s $50million reward’ – only to discover that the man was an Arab-looking ‘mental patient’ 24.

THE WORLD…. On 20 December 2001, the US authorities announced that the hunt for bin Laden ‘has widened into an international effort that [will] require time, creativity and a new deployment of resources’, extending beyond Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia, Yemen and even ‘further afield’ 25.

And consider some of the headlines from the international press over the past six months: ‘He may be dead, he may be trapped’, ‘Bin Laden still in Kandahar’, ‘Bin Laden’s trail is lost’, ‘Osama bin Laden no longer exists’….

Then there was the debate in January 2002 about whether bin Laden was still alive. On 18 January CNN.com ran the headline ‘Pakistan’s Musharraf: Bin Laden probably dead’, after Pakistani President Musharraf said ‘I think now, frankly, he is dead, for the reason he is a kidney patient’ 26. Then one week later, CNN ran the headline ‘Bin Laden probably alive, White House says’, after top Bush officials said that bin Laden is ‘likely alive and will be caught’ 27.

So is bin Laden ‘probably alive’ or ‘probably dead’? Is he in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Georgia, Uganda or somewhere else on the planet? Or has he had plastic surgery to change his look? According to the San Francisco Chronicle, an unnamed Northern Alliance official told an Iranian newspaper: ‘We have concrete reports that [plastic surgeons from Pakistan] were hired on heavy expenses. They have totally changed bin Laden’s look….’ 28

The truth is, nobody knows. None of the claims about bin Laden’s health or whereabouts is based on hard facts or figures, because US intelligence in the war on terror is so bad. And it is precisely the confused nature of America’s war that gives the space for so much wild speculation about what’s going on and where bin Laden might be hiding.

After admitting in January 2002 that they didn’t have the first clue where bin Laden is (and changing their war aims to suit this new reality), US officials shifted gear again in February – by claiming that they no longer care where he is.

There was Bush’s ‘no longer concerned about bin Laden’ speech and Rumsfeld’s ‘bin Laden has been neutralized’ claim – followed by US vice president Dick Cheney’s claim that ‘Bin Laden himself isn’t that big a threat’ 29. As one report pointed out, ‘Top Pentagon officials have increasingly argued that – alive or dead – [bin Laden] is irrelevant’, quoting one Defense Department official as saying, ‘Everybody wants to know where bin Laden is. The next question is, who cares?’ 30. (Those affected by the 11 September attacks – who have been told from day one that bin Laden was responsible and that the USA would pull out all the stops to catch him – might care.)

The ‘not caring’ about bin Laden tells us much about the war on terror – where even this one central aim, getting the guy that America claims was behind the 11 September attacks, can be remoulded and reworded to suit the unfavourable reality of war on the ground.

At last, in February 2002, there seemed to be some success on the bin Laden front. On 4 February 2002, the US authorities boasted about killing an al-Qaeda target who was ‘over six feet tall and wearing Arab clothing’ 31. Unfortunately, as the Washington Post pointed out a week later, 'Mir Ahmad was a little tall. But he was not Osama bin Laden. Villagers…said Ahmad and two other local men were peasants gathering scrap metal from the war [when] they were killed [by] a US Hellfire missile' 32 US forces are so low on intelligence that they can't seem to tell one 'towel-head' from another. As some Afghans told a US journalist, 'the Americans do not really know who they are aiming at' 33.

Things got worse in April 2002, when ‘the Bush administration…concluded that bin Laden was present during the battle for Tora Bora late last year and that failure to commit US ground troops to hunt him was its gravest error in the war against al-Qaeda’ 34. In short, US forces let bin Laden slip right past them in December 2001.

According to the Washington Times, the world media has ‘revelled’ in the search for bin Laden 35. ‘It has become the perennial “Osama bin Laden whereabouts” story’, said the Washington Times. ‘For months, the press has pondered his fate – pestering officials, connecting conspiratorial dots and plying insiders for clues.’ The paper estimates that the question of bin Laden’s whereabouts has been covered in 992 newspaper stories, 24 magazine accounts and 510 newswire reports over the past six months.

All those miles of newsprint and speculation, and still we’re none the wiser. Nothing better illustrates the failure of the war on terror than the fact we know less about bin Laden now than we did on 12 September 2001. At least then we knew he was alive and in Afghanistan….now he could be alive, dead, sick, well and just about anywhere.

-- 30 --

Brendan O’Neill is assistant editor of spiked. He is co-organizing the spiked conference After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West in London on 26 May 2002.

Also by Brendan O'Neill:

When Nation-Building Destroys

The Strange Battle of Shah-i-Kot

America's Axis-Tential Crisis


1. No large anti-Taliban operations in Afghanistan looming, Gen Frank says, AP, 5 April 2002

2. US: Missing bin Laden is neutralized, AP, 8 April 2002

3. US troops in Afghanistan for long haul: Minister, Times of India, 23 April 2002

4. US troops in Afghanistan for long haul: Minister, Times of India, 23 April 2002

5.Bin Laden doesn’t concern Bush?!, The New American, 8 April 2002

6. US will take action against Iraq, Bush says, Washington Post, 14 March 2002

7. General warns of unwinnable guerrilla war, Daily Telegraph, 22 March 2002

8. CIA chief defends actions, says al-Qaeda still a threat, Seattle PI, 7 February 2002

9. US: Missing bin Laden is neutralized, AP, 8 April 2002

10. Laden narrowly escaped US raid in Pak: Report, Times of India, 8 April 2002

11. (11) Bin Laden safe, planning new attacks: Report, Times of India, 10 April 2002

12. US ‘chasing shadows’, continues Afghan bombing, Reuters, 17 January 2002

13. Bin Laden reportedly escapes to Eastern Yemen, Report, 27 December 2002

14.Al-Qaeda quietly slipping into Iran, Pakistan, Christian Science Monitor, 14 January 2002

15. Al-Qaeda quietly slipping into Iran, Pakistan, Christian Science Monitor, 14 January 2002

16. CIA: Bin Laden escaped Afghanistan, ABC News, 15 January 2002

17. CIA: Bin Laden escaped Afghanistan, ABC News, 15 January 2002

18. CIA: Bin Laden escaped Afghanistan, ABC News, 15 January 2002

19. We’re looking for a needle in a haystack: Rumsfeld on Osama, Indya.com, 26 October 2001

20. America quietly changes war aim, The Times (London), 14 January 2002

21. Pentagon warns of war lasting six years, Daily Telegraph, 13 January 2002

22. Bin Laden traced to Iran, Asia Times Online, 19 December 2001

23. Bin Laden has fled to Kashmir: TV Report, Times of India, 22 December 2001. http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow.asp?art_id=2080062164&prtPage=1

24. Ugandan villagers jump the gun on bin Laden bounty, ABC Online, 14 April 2002

25. Bin Laden, Omar hunt suddenly goes global, Detroit Free Press, 20 December 2001

26. Pakistan’s Musharraf: bin Laden probably dead, CNN.com, 18 January 2002

27. Bin Laden probably alive, White House says, CNN.com, 27 January 2002

28. Nip here, tuck there, new bin Laden, SF Gate, 18 December 2001

29. Bin Laden probably alive, White House says, CNN.com, 27 January 2002

30. Does bin Laden matter anymore?, Christian Science Monitor, 11 March 2002

31. Al-Qaeda target over six feet and wearing Arab clothing, Washington Times, 20 February 2002

32. Casualties of U.S. Miscalculations, Washington Post, 11 February 2002. http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A55268-2002Feb10?language=printer

33. Casualties of U.S. Miscalculations, Washington Post, 11 February 2002. http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A55268-2002Feb10?language=printer

34. US concludes bin Laden escaped at Tora Bora fight, Washington Post, 17 April 2002

35. Media revel in search for Osama, Washington Times, 1 April 2002


bin forgotten?