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IS BIN LADEN DEAD OR ALIVE?
by Amir Taheri
Gulf News
March 14, 2007

Last Saturday marked Osama Bin Laden's 50th birthday. However, instead of the fugitive cutting any cakes in the company of friends, the occasion inspired fresh speculation about his fate.

"May God have mercy upon him," commented one of his nephews, using the Arab formula reserved only for reference to the dead.

When the Pakistani military captured Mullah Obaidallah Akhund recently, one of their first questions was: Where is Osama Bin Laden?

The mullah should have known. As defence minister in the Taliban government, he had been Bin Laden's controller until December 2001 when the terror mastermind vanished.

According to Pakistani sources, Obaidallah claimed that Bin Laden was "alive and well". However, when asked whether anyone had seen him, the mullah was less certain.

"I know of no one," he replied.

Obaidallah is not alone in speculating about the fate of the Saudi-born fugitive. Seif Al Adl, Al Qaida's senior military commander until 2001, is certain that Bin Laden is dead.

Hiding in Iran along with his father-in-law, Mustafa Hamid (aka Abu Walid Al Masri) a theoretician of the "Arab-Afghans", Al Adl insists that Bin Laden could not be alive and yet refuse contacting his associates.

"He has either abandoned the cause or died," Al Adl said in a telephone interview from Tehran. The last time Bin Laden, or whoever pretends to be him, was heard of was April 2006 when an audiotape message was broadcast by the Qatari TV channel, Al Jazeera.

Had Bin Laden been alive he would not have allowed former associates, including the Egyptian Ayman Al Zawahiri, to alter his strategy.

It is clear that the man in charge of whatever is left of Al Qaida is Al Zawahiri. It is also clear that he has a different strategy.

Bin Laden based his strategy on the theory of ghazva or holy raids, spectacular attacks against "infidel" powers, notably the United States, designed to break their will.

The strategy worked in the 7th century when Muslim ghazis (holy raiders) launched spectacular attacks against Byzantine and Persian empires, bringing them down in a matter of years. The theory was that Byzantines and Persians had become fat, corrupt and afraid of death, while Muslims did not fear death because they would go to paradise.

Strategy

Bin Laden believed that the strategy helped defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and would lead to the destruction of the United Sates and its European satellites. The 1993 attack on the World Trade Center in New York was a major test of that theory.

Bin Laden's strategy had critics from the start.

One was the "Godfather of Jihad", Palestinian-Saudi Abdullah Al Azzam who insisted that "holy warriors" should focus on Muslim lands rather than attacking "infidel" territory. In 1989, Al Azzam was murdered in Pakistan - a crime his relatives blamed on Bin Laden.

Between 1989 and 2001, Bin Laden was the sole architect of jihadist strategy, tested in dozens of attacks including 9/11 in the United States. Bin Laden dubbed his strategy Qat'e al-Raas, (chopping off the head), meaning that the global system must be defeated by attacking its head, ie the US.

Al Zawahiri, however, has revived Al Azzam's strategy of focusing on Muslim lands. He calls his strategy Khal'ee Al-Yadd (chopping off the hand), designed to destroy the tentacles of the "infidel" in Muslim countries.

He divides Muslim countries into five circles of "possibilities". The first consists of Afghanistan and Iraq which Al Zawahiri believes Al Qaida can capture, once the Americans run away.

In the second circle, are Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, along with Algeria.

The third circle includes Israel-Palestine, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.

In the fourth circle are Chechnya, Uzbekistan, East Turkistan (Xingjian) and Thailand.

The fifth circle includes all other Muslim states, or states with large Muslim minorities such as India and the Philippines, which Al Zawahiri hopes to conquer.

Al Zawahiri has taken other measures that indicate that Bin Laden is either dead or no longer in control.

He has replaced key commanders of Al Qaida linked groups, including in Iraq and Algeria, by Egyptians close to himself and with no history of ties to Bin Laden.

"You could say the Egyptian mafia has taken over," says one expert. Al Zawahiri has acknowledged Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban leader, as Emir Al Momeneen (commander of the faithful) and caliph of a putative Islamic empire. This ends Bin Laden's position as the "shaikh" and ultimate authority for jihadists.

Bin Laden's name has almost disappeared from jihadist propaganda.

Al Zawahiri has also abandoned Bin Laden's rule of never making deals with Shiites, whom he regarded as heretics and Sunni Salafists such as the Muslim Brotherhood whom he branded as "compromisers".

Adopting a more pragmatic approach, Al Zawahiri has evoked tactical alliances with the Islamic Republic in Iran and its clients such as the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. He has also sent feelers to Hamas, a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, to coordinate strategies.

Politically, Bin Laden and his strategy appear to be dead. Physically, however, although there are indications that the fugitive is dead, no one can be sure.

The evidence that he might be dead includes:

  • No one claims to have seen Bin Laden since December 3, 2001 when he slipped through the American net in Tora Bora mountains in Afghanistan
  • His long-time Pakistani doctor, Anwar ul-Haq, issued a statement on December 12, 2001 announcing Bin Laden's death and burial on December 5.
  • Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf claimed on two occasions, in 2001 and 2003, that the fugitive had died. (Later Musharraf retracted, stating that he was not sure.)
  • The one videotape and three audiotapes attributed to Bin Laden since December 2001, remain a matter of controversy among experts. Some believe these were made from old material.
  • Between 1990 and March 2001, Bin Laden received an average of $700,000 a month from his mother. That stopped in 2001 and Bin Laden's share of the family fortune transferred to his sons in Saudi Arabia.
  • Saif Al Islam Gaddafi, son of the Libyan ruler, has referred to some of Bin Laden's wives and children, who have received refuge in Libya, as "widows and orphans", implying that the terrorist is dead.

Bin Laden could be the latest of a series of Islamist luminaries who have hidden in the mountains of North Waziristan, part of an autonomous region close to the Himalayas. The most notorious was the Akhund of Swat, whose followers fought the British for decades in the 19th century, long after he had disappeared, presumed dead.

The part of Waziristan, where Bin Laden may be hiding, covers an area of 5,600 square kilometres and has a population of 250,000. Despite the physical difficulty of the terrain, however, it is hard to hide a fugitive such as Bin Laden in so small a territory without someone hearing something.

This is why many regional experts believe that Bin Laden has passed away. Some conspiracy theorists, however, suggest that he may be in Iran, Yemen, or even the United Sates under an assumed identity!

The man maybe dead, but the myth lives.

Iranian author Amir Taheri is based in Europe.

 

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