Accessibility links

Breaking News

U.S.: Analysts Say Evidence On Bin Laden Persuasive

The U.S. may have amassed enough evidence to convince the American people that military strikes against suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden are justified. But can it convince the leaders of predominantly Muslim allied countries -- and the people who live there? RFE/RL senior correspondent Andrew F. Tully spoke with some defense analysts about the challenge and filed this report from Washington.

Washington, 5 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. and its allies in the campaign against international terrorism say intelligence gathered since the 11 September attacks in New York and Washington is creating a growing mountain of evidence that Osama bin Laden is responsible for the bloodshed.

Washington has been sharing the evidence with its allies, particularly those with large Muslim populations who may need to be convinced that a military strike against bin Laden is not a latter-day crusade against Islam. One such country is Pakistan, a neighbor of Afghanistan, where bin Laden is believed to be hiding.

Bin Laden -- the leader of the suspected terror network Al-Qaeda -- has been operating in Afghanistan at the hospitality of the Taliban, a militia that controls most of the predominantly Muslim country and has imposed a severe form of Islam on its inhabitants.

Since the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the U.S. Defense Department headquarters in Washington, U.S. President George W. Bush has been portraying bin Laden as the chief suspect. More recently, he has begun to share the evidence that the U.S. and friendly nations have gathered against the Saudi exile.

Yesterday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair posted on the government website a document that gives a detailed account of how Washington and London believe bin Laden and Al-Qaeda carried out the 11 September attacks and previous acts of terror. But the document did not say how the evidence was collected, to protect the sources of the information and the methods used to gather it.

Blair also told the British Parliament in London that his government has no question that bin Laden was responsible for the attacks in America.

"Our findings have been shared and coordinated with those of our allies and they are clear. They are, first, that it was Osama bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda, the terrorist network, which he heads, that planned and carried out the atrocities on the 11th of September. And secondly, that Osama bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda were able to commit the atrocities because of their close alliance with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which allows them to operated with impunity in pursuing their terrorist activity."

Pakistan went even further in endorsing the evidence. Foreign Ministry spokesman Riaz Khan said in Islamabad that the data were nearly conclusive.

"We have seen the material that was provided to us by the American side yesterday. This material certainly provides sufficient basis for indictment in a court of law."

Khan's statement was a major and perhaps surprising shift for Pakistan. Earlier this week, that nation's government called the evidence strong but not conclusive. One analyst interviewed by RFE/RL says he believes that this new, more positive appraisal was based on fresh evidence provided by the United States. He is James Phillips, a research fellow specializing in terrorism studies at the Heritage Foundation, an independent policy institute in Washington.

"I think the evidence was more compelling. Probably when they [Pakistani officials] looked at the details and perhaps what was said [by Al-Qaeda members] after the attack, and -- if it was a phone, the number that was called, the Pakistanis have a pretty good knowledge of, you know, who's who inside Afghanistan. I think they were able to use their own intelligence sources probably to confirm the U.S. evidence."

But another analyst says this shift came from the pressure that the U.S. has been putting on Pakistan since bin Laden and Afghanistan became the focus of the antiterror campaign. He is Ivan Eland, the director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute, another Washington research foundation. Eland said:

"The U.S. has said, 'Either you're on our side or you're not.' So I don't think Pakistan really wants to run afoul of us. But on the other hand, they have this Islamic population, so they are caught in [between] a rock and a hard place. And I think they'll cooperate if you give them enough incentives to do so, either positive or negative, and I think that's probably what happened here."

Another reason that Pakistan's sudden endorsement of the evidence against bin Laden is surprising is that even senior U.S. officials have said it is not conclusive. Secretary of State Colin Powell said in an interview published on 3 October in "The New York Times" that the evidence is not good enough to present to a judge.

Eland and Phillips say evidence to support the waging of war does not need to be as conclusive as that needed in a court of law. First, they say, building a case meticulously may use precious time needed to strike back effectively at an attacker. Second, they say war is essentially a political act, and it is enough for a country to convince its people -- and not a more demanding court of law -- that a war is justified.

Phillips says that when it comes to building a case to support waging war, the evidence can be more instinctual than conclusive. He put it this way, reciting an American aphorism about phenomena that are self-evident:

"If something looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and acts like a duck, then chances are it's a duck. And if this is a duck that's attacked you again and again, you know, you're not going to consult a lot of books to see if in fact it is a duck or maybe it's a goose. If it's attacking you over and over again, you take action against it. Later, you can decide exactly what it was."

But Eland emphasizes that in the current campaign, the evidence must have a higher threshold for credibility because some of the nations that Bush wants to have as loyal members of his antiterror coalition have populations that are predominantly Muslim. He says that without convincing evidence, these people may perceive the war as being against Islam itself.

"We do need to have a certain amount of evidence because we are, you know, taking this to the Islamic world and saying, 'Hey, we're not attacking Islamic people in general, we're attacking these people who perpetrated this [11 September] attack.'"

Eland says it is unlikely that the U.S. could have gathered truly conclusive evidence so quickly. He notes, as many analysts have, that since the Cold War, Washington has relied too much on satellites and other technology to gather information, and neglected what are known as "human assets" -- spies who can penetrate an organization like Al-Qaeda and report on the group's activities in detail.

Still, Eland says a lack of agents capable of penetrating Al-Qaeda has not meant an absolute drought of intelligence from Afghanistan.

"They sort of keep track of these people, you know, law enforcement keeps track. They get it from a variety of sources -- electronic, tips from various people, not necessarily penetrating the organization."

In fact, Eland says, it is possible that the U.S. has agents in the area whose identity, naturally, is not known to critics who say that American intelligence is inadequate. And he says it is likely that these agents provided at least some of the evidence pointing to bin Laden.

But even so, Phillips says, the U.S. still needs to increase the quantity and quality of its agents spying on terrorists because the agents already in place could only identify those responsible after the attacks that killed about 6,000 people. According to Phillips, America would have been better served if the spies had been able to prevent the attacks altogether.