The intensive hunt for Osama bin Laden has been underway for months but the man blamed for masterminding the September 11 terrorist attacks appears to have vanished into thin air. Nevertheless, the illusive al-Qaida leader and his organization remain the subject of contradictory and conflicting speculation.
Osama bin Laden is probably dead, says FBI counter-intelligence chief Dale Watson. Bin Laden is alive and preparing the next attack, says al-Qaida operative Sulaiman abu Ghaith. Bin Laden is alive but recovering from a shoulder wound, says Abdel-Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based Al-Quds Al Arabi newspaper.
So take your pick, says John Pike, director of Global Security.org, a defense policy group. But he adds it does not matter all that much. "There is a tendency to think in terms of James Bond or movie villains, where it is a single evil genius who is the problem. But the reality is that it is a network of dedicated, committed people who are prepared to give up their lives in support of their political agenda. That is what the threat is to the United States, not Osama bin Laden," he says.
Mr. Pike admits it is hard to know just how much of a threat al-Qaida poses. Estimates of its membership range from hundreds of thousands to a few hundred. He says it is important to distinguish sympathizers from operatives who do the damage. We will have a better idea, unfortunately, when the next attack occurs. In the meantime, al-Qaida is definitely on the run, says Larry Johnson, former deputy director of the State Department's office of counter-terrorism. "There have been some significant and positive developments in disrupting the capabilities of al-Qaida - tearing apart the financial support network in the United States, incarcerating people, destroying terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. So overall, I think their ability to conduct operations is substantially reduced compared to what it was prior to 9/11."
Since 9/11, al-Qaida has claimed credit for only one successful attack, the bombing at a synagogue in Tunisia, in revenge, said its planners, for the suffering of Palestinians.
Mr. Johnson thinks al-Qaida was behind two attacks in Pakistan, where they still have a substantial base and ties to the state intelligence service.
Al-Qaida rallies supporters on the internet, says Mr. Pike, with various websites that come and go. "Al-Qaida is not simply a monolithic organization like the U.S. Marine Corps, but rather it is more of a social movement. And there are obviously a lot of people around the world who think America is the problem and armed struggle against America is the solution," he says. "So the internet has provided an opportunity for a lot of these people to get together, to communicate, to spread their message and potentially to recruit."
But terrorists recruited in this fashion tend not to be very reliable, says Mr. Johnson. Take for example, the shoe bomber who fumbled his mission on a plane last December. Enthusiasm is no substitute for training.
Inept as these terrorists may be, Mr. Johnson thinks the United States does not pursue them vigorously enough. The CIA has lifted restrictions on recruiting shady characters overseas to gain intelligence, but Mr. Johnson does not expect speedy results. "These are problems that are longstanding, and you do not fix them overnight. Putting intelligence sources, human sources on the ground is something that takes some time," he says. "You do not just wave a magic wand and all of a sudden magically have people show up that are qualified to speak the language and capable of penetrating these organizations."
Larry Johnson says the best way to stop terrorists is to get as close as possible to them to track their movements. The means to do this are not always politically correct.