here is always that scene in the horror movie when you know the monster is dead. It could not have survived. It is lying on the ground in a puddle of steaming goo and everyone looks relieved. The music softens. People tell jokes. Then a claw moves slightly, the tip of the tail shifts, one of several eyes opens. Certainty gives way to uncertainty. You realize with creeping dread that the thing is unstoppable. Screams erupt. Panic ensues. The world is still a few scenes shy of a happy ending.
The monster who gave us September 11 is also preventing the United States from rolling the credits. These days he is part zombie, part invisible man. No one can see him, and he really ought to be dead, but he just will not stay in the grave. In the last few months, there have been all manner of reports that Osama is still among the living. They come from al Qaeda spokesmen, assorted radical sympathizers, foreign officials, and unnamed American-intelligence sources. Al Qaeda spokesman Sulieman Abu Gaith promised that his leader would make an appearance last July, but he was a no-show. They pushed the date back to September 11, but again nothing. They then stated he would appear after the next big attack, which we are still awaiting. There have also been a number of statements released in his name, and audiotapes of his voice. Yet, anyone can sign a letter, and the tapes lack the specificity necessary to date them. If he wants to prove he is still out there, why not release a new video holding a recent newspaper? Or make reference to current events, like "How 'bout them Angels?"
Of the recent Osamagrams, the October 26 "Letter to the Americans" stands out, particularly the statement, "We regret to inform you that you are the worst civilization in the history of mankind. ...from the very core of our soul we despise you." Not exactly a love letter. According to Osama, our problems include separating church and state, charging interest on loans, drinking alcohol, permitting women to wear revealing clothes, and countenancing debauchery. "Who can forget your previous president's immoral acts committed in the Oval Office?" the letter asks. Who knew bin Laden was part of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy? But rather than taking the various statements at face value, let's assume for a moment that Osama is dead. If so, these communiqués can be read as evidence of a power struggle in the al Qaeda leadership. There is a natural tendency for extremist groups to splinter even when times are relatively good; with the unifying force of Osama removed, the infighting would be intense.
One would look for various things to indicate that a global terror network is in disarray. One indicant would be missing money. The al Qaeda network moved assets in ways that made them invisible to most technical means of detection, for example relying on middlemen to shift funds physically from place to place, doing so in non-monetary form such as diamonds and gold, and keeping few records as to who had what. One can guess that the middlemen were not as committed to the struggle as the ideologically driven leaders and the suicidal soldiers, so when the action got a little too hot, they vanished with their bags of untraceable diamonds. After all, they didn't sign up for that kind of hurt, and with key leaders being buried in caves, who would know where the money went anyway? This aspect of system breakdown is difficult to detect, but one small example, recently $2.5 million went missing from an al Qaeda bank account in Pakistan after the account holder was killed, which led to some finger-pointing but no resolution. Remember, these are basically criminals, and looting the system can be rationalized as personal jihad by other means.
Another symptom of system breakdown is the inability to coordinate action. The recent fall offensive is a case in point the terrorists are pulling off some attacks, but most are not large scale (Bali being the exception), and many have been unsuccessful. Of course, al Qaeda is highly decentralized anyway, and if the objective is simply to disrupt, attacks do not have to be coordinated precisely. Yet, in the October 12 al Qaeda statement on the anniversary of our attacks on Afghanistan, "Osama" ordered that efforts should be concentrated on the U.S. and Israel, and not on other countries while also congratulating the Yemeni bombers of the French oil tanker. A few days later a rambling statement was issued under his name in which he said either the Yemen bombing was al Qaeda's responsibility, or it wasn't; he was not telling, and it was bad for the United States either way. "We leave [the enemy] to drown in all the assumptions and possibilities," he wrote. If his intent was to confuse, mission accomplished.
These are only a few of the bewildering series of messages in recent weeks and months that indicate that al Qaeda is in turmoil. The messages are uncoordinated, sometimes contradictory, varying in tone and style. Many come out in bin Laden's name, others only refer to him, and some, significantly, do not. Last summer a statement was issued that Osama bin Laden's eldest son Sad had taken over day-to-day operations of al Qaeda while his father was recovering from illness. Sad is a twentysomething with computer skills who allegedly controls the bin Laden audio and videotape archives. (Mohammed bin Laden, seen by many as the favored son to succeed his father, was reportedly killed months ago, paving the way for Sad's power grab.) This was followed quickly by another statement that Osama was feeling much better and was back in charge. The abortive move reportedly raised the hackles of other more seasoned al Qaeda leaders, particularly the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda's number two. Zawahiri was reported dead by the Russian press in early October, and rushed out a few statements and an interview to show he was still alive and fighting the infidels.
This is the necessary background to understand Osama's will, dated December 14, 2001, reportedly in the possession of the London-based magazine Majallah. In it, he denounces the Taliban for betraying him when the battle against the Allies went worse than expected. "The situation was overturned as we saw the coward Crusaders and the humiliated Jews remain steadfast in the fighting while the soldiers of our nation lift a white flag and surrender to their enemies like women may God give us strength only the very few from the [Taliban] remained steadfast." He instructs his sons to have nothing to do with them, al Qaeda, or with the World Front for Fighting Jews and Crusaders the organization which he co-founded with Zawahiri. He further instructs that attacks should be halted "until you purge your ranks of the cowards and stooges."
Meanwhile, Ramzi Bin al-Shiba, who claimed on al-Jazeera to have masterminded the 9/11 attacks and presented himself as the al Qaeda military commander, was arrested shortly after the interview aired, based on a tip. The terrorists who were killed attacking U.S. Marines in Kuwait wrote a statement in praise of Kuwait-born Abu Gaith, the al Qaeda spokesman. In fact they named him as their inspiration four times, but didn't mention Osama at all. Shortly thereafter a new spokesman appeared, Abd al Rakhman al-Rashid, saying Osama is alive and well, and has put on weight. Abu Gaith has not been heard from in months. Taliban leader Mullah Omar issued a statement October 7 in which he claimed that the Afghans are God's chosen people and vowed that jihad would continue. He too did not mention Osama or al Qaeda. Yet, the October 12 al bin Laden statement mentioned above praises both the Taliban and al Qaeda, despite the contents of the will.
So is the will for real? If so, Zawahiri better watch his back. And if it is being executed, it implies that Osama is dead. But if so, why try to keep him alive? For inspiration, to sustain momentum, and to give a public face to the jihad until they sort out their differences. Osama was a charismatic unifier, and if he is gone, they have few reasons to stick together, and his followers have no particular reason to keep following. (Not to mention the terrorists have to admit that the Americans scored a big win.) Moreover, it is dangerous to make a leadership bid. There is a lot at stake, and after all, these are terrorists, they aren't afraid to play dirty. Sad has legitimacy based on the name and bloodline. Other contenders like Zawahiri have age, experience, and personal support networks. None will make a decisive move until he is certain it will succeed. In the meantime, they wage a positional war though statements issued under the revered leader's name. They keep him alive through scraps of heavily edited audio and videotape, through rumors and whispers, and fleeting sightings in Afghan valleys and Arabian sands. And all the while he met his end in the cold winter darkness, in the mountain fastness in which he sought his final sanctuary, a frail, spiteful wretch consumed with thoughts of revenge against a world that failed to recognize his genius, now a collection of broken bones moldering under tons of uncaring rock.
Or... perhaps... HE LIVES.
James S. Robbins is a national-security analyst & NRO contributor.