Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Osama Card: Expect the Republicans to use the specter of the terror leader to frighten voters ahead of the elections.

The Osama Card
Expect the Republicans to use the specter of the terror leader to frighten voters ahead of the elections.
By Eleanor Clift

Aug. 18, 2006 - It will soon be five years since the 9/11 attacks thrust America into a state of perpetual anxiety, and the man who inspired and masterminded the carnage that awful day remains at large. He’s almost certainly in Pakistan, way up on the northern border, almost to China, and with the November elections approaching, the name of Osama bin Laden will once again surface as a powerful symbol of who’s with us and who’s against us.

A Republican Senate hopeful in New York is already linking Hillary Clinton to Osama in a television ad that attacks Clinton for voting against the Patriot Act and speaking out against the administration’s unauthorized wiretapping. Former Yonkers mayor John Spencer has no chance of unseating the New York senator, but for Democrats, Osama is the wild card. They remember how he surfaced in a video the weekend before the ’04 presidential election, reminding the country of 9/11 and helping turn fearful voters toward President Bush, who was seen as the tougher of the two candidates.

Now Democrats have a good chance of winning back one or both houses of Congress, and they’re wondering whether this election’s October surprise could be capturing Osama. Peter Bergen, one of the few Western journalists to interview the terrorist leader, spoke at a panel in Washington this week after a preview screening of a new CNN documentary, “In the Footsteps of Bin Laden.” Bergen said the administration has a pretty good idea where bin Laden is—based in part on the vegetation that appears in his video. Bergen also wondered why, with all the money the administration is spending, it isn’t staking out the offices of the Al-Jazeera offices where the tapes are dropped off for more clues to Osama’s whereabouts.

Bush once vowed to capture bin Laden dead or alive. Now he and Karl Rove only haul him out when he’s politically useful.

Bin Laden has been eclipsed and overtaken by Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizbullah and the new voice of Arab anger. Bergen was asked, “If Osama is eliminated, what then?” He replied that “Binladenism” is the worry now, and it’s far more dangerous than the man himself. It’s unlikely that bin Laden would be taken alive. He has said repeatedly, “Better a grave than an American prison.” Martyrdom is such a powerful force in the Arab world that death would only enhance bin Laden’s mythical status.

The CNN documentary, with Christiane Amanpour reporting and narrating, attempts to answer the question of why bin Laden, a shy, polite boy from a wealthy Saudi family, became the leader of radical Islam. He didn’t always despise the West. Interviews with 21 people who knew him, from his English teacher to a brother-in-law, chart the transformation of a religious ascetic who spurned material goods into a warrior hardened by battle with global ambitions. The year 1979 was crucial: The ayatollahs took over Iran, signaling the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. The Saudi royal family sent troops to quell an Islamic uprising at a holy site, blasphemy in Osama’s eyes. And the Soviet Union, godless communists, invaded Afghanistan, a Muslim country.

The documentary pulls together the threads of Osama’s early life. His father rose from a common laborer to head one of the biggest construction companies in the Middle East. The bin Laden name is everywhere. The senior bin Laden had 20 wives and more than 50 children. Osama had little contact with his father, who died when he was 10. His mother, a Syrian, kept him apart from the family, and he did not attend school in the West like all of his brothers. One friend recalls Osama as a young man living in a bare basement apartment, sleeping on the floor and spurning air conditioning. Yet when the first of Osama’s more than 20 children had a medical problem, he traveled to the West, either the United States or Britain, it’s not certain, to have the boy treated. He would later recall how people stared at him in the airport because he wore traditional Arab dress—“like in a zoo,” he said.

It may surprise viewers to learn that the 9/11 attacks were criticized by Al Qaeda “insiders” who saw them as a strategic and tactical mistake. The American retaliation cost Al Qaeda its base in Afghanistan and ousted its protector, the Taliban. Osama’s son declared the attacks a disaster and left his father’s enterprise in Afghanistan, declaring in Bergen’s colloquialism, that Al Qaeda now had an 800-pound gorilla after it. Bin Laden was forced into hiding in the Tora Bora Mountains, where American forces had an opportunity to capture him. They could hear him on his radio apologizing to his followers for having led them into this trap. But there were more journalists than soldiers on the battlefield, a former CIA agent observes in the documentary, and Osama, looking frail and much older than his 44 years, escaped. The Qaeda leader has a $25 million bounty on his head, but the war against terrorism is not about money, it’s about motivation—theirs and ours.