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U.S.: Bin Laden Still At Large, But U.S. Holds Important Al-Qaeda Operatives

The United States is systematically hunting down suspected Al-Qaeda terrorists in a bid to choke off future terror attacks. But its chief target, Osama bin Laden, remains elusive. Analysts say, however, that by capturing his chief aides, the U.S. can marginalize the Al-Qaeda leader.

Washington, 25 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The United States may not have captured or killed Osama bin Laden yet, but some analysts say it has done something that may be nearly as important, in capturing key aides and field commanders responsible for some of Al-Qaeda's most notorious attacks.

U.S. President George W. Bush has cautioned repeatedly that no one should expect bin Laden to be found quickly, and that the war against international terrorism will be long because the enemy is elusive.

Yet some critics say Bush is frustrated that bin Laden has managed to escape the grasp of U.S. forces. They say this is reflected in the shift of his focus in recent months from terrorism to Iraq. And they cite a recent audiotape indicating that the Al-Qaeda leader is still alive.

But Bush restated his stand in a recent interview with RFE/RL: "Whether it's him [bin Laden] or somebody else, they're plotting an attack, no question about it. That's why we've got to get them. But this issue is bigger than one person."

In fact, American intelligence services and armed forces, as well as forces of countries collaborating in Bush's war on terrorism, have managed to capture or kill several significant members of Al-Qaeda and allied terrorist organizations.

Most recently, Americans captured Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri three weeks ago. Nashiri is believed to be responsible for Al-Qaeda's operations in the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea, including the attack on the USS Cole in October 2000, in which 17 U.S. sailors were killed.

The U.S. government had announced the capture of a leading Al-Qaeda official when al-Nashiri was caught, but did not reveal his identity until last week (21 November). At about the same time that al-Nashiri was apprehended, an unmanned "drone" aircraft operated in Yemen by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency fired a missile that killed another leading Al-Qaeda figure, Abu Ali al-Harithi, and five of his colleagues.

Also in U.S. custody is Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who is said to have been one of the coordinators of the 11 September attacks, and Abu Zubaida, who is described as being bin Laden's senior coordinator of terror cells around the world.

What is most important is that al-Nashiri, bin al-Shibh, and Zubaida are said to be giving their interrogators at least some information about Al-Qaeda's operations. Analysts interviewed by RFE/RL say the apprehension of these men -- and the help they are said to be giving to American investigators -- could be nearly as helpful to Bush's war on terror as tracking down bin Laden himself.

Ted Carpenter specializes in defense and international affairs issues at the Cato Institute, an independent policy-research center in Washington. Carpenter said capturing or killing bin Laden would certainly be a great victory for the United States. "It would be a great psychological blow to Al-Qaeda to lose bin Laden. Secondly, it's not clear what would happen to all the financial resources that bin Laden controls. Would those resources continue to flow to Al-Qaeda, or could that perhaps cause a major disruption as well?"

But, like Bush, Carpenter said neutralizing bin Laden's aides and those who carry out attacks on his behalf can be an equally effective way to disrupt his organization and prevent further acts of terror. "One can kill a spider by cutting off its legs just as readily as smashing it, and if enough of bin Laden's lieutenants are captured or killed, he is just an isolated fanatic at that point."

But Carpenter said the Bush administration should not limit its efforts to capturing current Al-Qaeda leaders. He says preventing future attacks also requires disrupting the network's recruiting efforts. And this would be difficult because of the loose way in which Al-Qaeda is organized, said Carpenter, who compared the terror network to a business franchise. "You have a corporate brand name, you have training coordination, you have some financing, but you have technically independent owner-operators handling the business from day to day, and that's what bin Laden has done. He is the McDonald's of international terrorism."

Several other analysts have made the same comparison, but there is an alternative view to how bin Laden's network operates, according to retired U.S. Army General Edward Atkeson, a former intelligence officer stationed in Europe. Atkeson said Al-Qaeda appears to be even more loosely organized than a franchise, and that it is more like a family. "The pattern, I think, under which they operate is more like an elderly uncle, and they'll [terror cells will] go to him and say, 'We need money for this, we need documentation [passports] for this, we need weapons, we need explosives,' and the center -- the bin Laden outfit -- will provide that if they think it's a worthwhile objective."

Atkeson also questioned how much Al-Qaeda operatives are cooperating with U.S. officials. He said intelligence agencies may have ulterior motives for saying their captives are sharing sensitive information about their plans. "One reason we may say that these guys are 'singing like birds' is so that any plans that they had participated in would now have to be trashed because their colleagues would think that he's telling all about what their plans were."

Atkeson said false public disclosures about purported "cooperation" were common in Europe when he was an intelligence operative. Similarly, enemy captives were sometimes released so they could lead American agents to more important quarry. But Atkeson said it is unlikely that the Al-Qaeda suspects will be freed.

Despite the importance of having Al-Qaeda operatives such as al-Nashiri and Zubaida in custody, Atkeson said there is really no substitute for hunting down bin Laden himself. "He's [bin Laden is] important psychologically, he's important financially, he's important from a representational point of view." Without bin Laden, Atkeson said, Al-Qaeda may find another leader, and it may manage to have access to bin Laden's money. But he stresses that a new leader for the terror network can never have the mystique, the special influence that bin Laden holds over angry young Muslim men.