October 18, 2004,
At a press conference on October 10, Major General John Cooper, deputy commander and senior-most British officer in the Coalition forces in Afghanistan, officially stated what many had suspected; Osama bin Laden is over, passť, yesterday's news. "From the Afghan point of view we don't want to focus too much on Bin Laden," he said. "He is not necessarily the major player. He will be caught one day, but his whereabouts today won't have a huge effect." Not the major player? It must be breaking Osama's heart. All that work, all that carnage, and now he is reduced to the supporting cast. Meanwhile task forces sent to find bin Laden are being redeployed to other more pressing duties, and his wanted posters are no longer being distributed. What does a terrorist mastermind have to do to get a little respect?
Bin Laden has also been pushed out of the headlines. He used to be a media darling; in the first two weeks of October, 2001, the New York Times and Washington Post between them published 693 stories that made mention of Osama, 23 per day per paper. Al Qaeda would closely monitor coverage of their exploits, and in those days Osama's clipping service must have been snowed under. However, in the same period in 2004 the total was down to three per day per paper, and if you removed stories related to the presidential debates, where he was frequently mentioned, it goes down to one per day per paper. This is merely double the amount of attention he got in the months before the 9/11 attacks, and these days even serial decapitator Abu Musab al- Zarqawi gets that much press. I can see Osama grumbling, "That wannabe used to work for me!" In fact there had been something of a rift in the movement for the last eight months, but on October 17 Zarqawi posted a statement on the web pledging allegiance to bin Laden. He explained it was coincident with "the start of Ramadan, the month of victories and a time when Muslims need more than ever to close ranks, to gouge out the eyes of the enemies of Islam." It could also be that the Coalition is closing in on Zarqawi and he can no longer afford to be out there on his own.
But some of Osama's other friends have been seriously snubbing him. Ayman al Zawahiri did not mention bin Laden in the annual 9/11-anniversary video, after doing so regularly in years past. Rumor had it that Zawahiri was captured two weeks ago, soon after the death of his compatriot Amjad Farooqi. A few days later a Zawahiri audiotape was released addressed to the radical Islamic youth, in which he tells them not to wait for instructions but to begin to carry out operations whenever possible. Again, no mention of Osama, but he concludes, "O youth of Islam, this is our message. If we are killed or taken prisoner, continue along the path after us." Intriguing notion why did he think those instructions necessary? And why the plural? Maybe bin Laden will never turn up. There has been no confirmed new video of him since December 26, 2001, leading many including me to believe he is dead. After all, a man that vain would have to pop up at some point, if only to taunt his enemies and inspire his followers. If he is alive, he will have to prove it soon or suffer the same slow descent to obscurity as his predecessor, Nana Sahib.
Who was Nana Sahib, you ask? Surely, for some he was the Osama of his times, a well educated, Hindu radical who was instrumental in the Sepoy revolt of 1857. In June of that year he seized the town of Cawnpore and proclaimed himself the Peshwa. After a three-week siege of the redoubt the British garrison and citizens surrendered, almost 1,000 in number, having been promised safe passage down the Ganges to Allahabad. Yet, for reasons unclear, the promise was not kept. Most of the men were shot down outright. The women and children were imprisoned and later methodically hacked to pieces over the course of one evening, their body parts thrown down a well. These gruesome events shocked the conscience of the British people, and sparked bloody retaliation. "Cawnpore!" became the rallying cry of the British soldiers, and Nana Sahib's forces soon were routed. He fled over the mountains to Nepal, his name having become a byword for brutal, pitiless mass murder. A search commenced. A bounty was placed on his head. Letters periodically appeared supposedly authored by Nana Sahib. There were occasional sightings, and rumors abounded. However, the leading terrorist of his day remained elusive. He had some impact on popular culture; Nana Sahib was brought to the stage by 19th century sensationalist Dion Boucicault who, in his role as the archvillain, dared the audience to throw things at him. Jules Verne wrote a novel about him. An Indian magician toured the U.S. under his name, "whose exhibition of occultism is said to be beyond belief," the Washington Post noted. Then, 17 years after the events at Cawnpore, Britain thrilled to news of the capture of Nana Sahib, only to find out later the man was an imposter. His true fate is unknown. One report had him dying soon after fleeing India, another that he passed away in 1926 at the age of 102. By then he was mostly forgotten in the West. However, true to the adage, Nana Sahib was another man's freedom fighter, and after independence, the government of India honored him with a stamp.
Major General Cooper's point is understandable. If bin Laden is alive, he has been marginalized. He probably no longer has control over al Qaeda operations, if one can properly speak of al Qaeda at all any more, with 75 percent of its original leadership apprehended or killed. He would have to expend most of his energy simply to survive. It is satisfying to think of him slowly losing his grip, the Norma Desmond of terrorism, denouncing the nobodies who have succeeded him as the focus of the war, retelling stories of the triumphs of his youth to his dwindling coterie, endlessly planning his comeback, rewriting his script, making ready for his close-up.
James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council and an NRO contributor.