Why Are We Not Appealing to the Vanity of Bin Laden and Al Zawahiri?


I just read a passage written by Peter Bergen, my colleague at the New America Foundation and a contributor to Anderson Cooper’s AC360.
Bergen, who has been the lead chronicler of the iconic Islamic terrorist now joined by my other colleague Steve Coll who recently authored The Bin Ladens, says little new in his commentary on the “long, fruitless hunt for Bin Laden” that he hasn’t said before.
He does reflect on the seeming disregard bin Laden has for either his much discussed health problems or America’s dogged hunt for him.
What is so strange to me is that Bergen has to keep saying what he has been saying over and over and over again. Bergen’s piece, in my view, includes a thread by which to find bin Laden.
He writes:

Seven years after 9/11 the author of the largest mass murder in American history is free, almost certainly living in Pakistan, which is, at least nominally, a close ally in the US-led ‘war on terror’. As he no doubt savors the anniversary of his greatest “triumph” Osama bin Laden seems untroubled by serious kidney illness as was once rumored, nor does he appear to be troubled by American efforts to find him.
Since his disappearance at the battle of Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan in mid- December 2001 US intelligence agencies have not had any definitive information about the al Qaeda’s leader’s whereabouts. While there are informed hypotheses that he is in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, on the Afghan border, perhaps in one of the more northerly areas such as Bajaur, these are simply hypotheses not actionable intelligence. In other words, American intelligence agencies have nothing of any substance on bin Laden. Given the hundreds of billions of dollars that the ‘war on terror’ has consumed the failure to capture or kill al Qaeda’s leader has been one of its signal failures.
That said, it is worth bearing in mind that finding any one individual can be hard. Think of Mohamed Aideed, the anti-American Somali warlord who was known to be in Mogadishu, the capital city of Somalia in 1993, yet some 20,000 US soldiers deployed there were not able to find him. Think also of Radovan Karadzic, the alleged Bosnian Serb war criminal arrested in July in Belgrade who it took more than a decade to track down after the end of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and he was hiding in a relatively small country in Europe, not the badlands of the Afghan-Pakistan border.
And given the fact that bin Laden is not making obvious errors such as talking on phones the signals of which can be intercepted and the fact that no one in his immediate circle will rat him out for the long-advertised cash rewards for his head it is likely that al Qaeda’s leader could evade detection for years or even decades.
There are, however, areas where al Qaeda’s leader is vulnerable. The most obvious being his continuing penchant for releasing audio- and videotapes. He has released around twenty since 9 /11. Those tapes give strategic guidance to al Qaeda and the wider militant jihadist movement, but they also provide a window of opportunity to find bin Laden as the chain of custody of those tapes eventually leads back to him.

Let me restate that last bit.
Osama bin Laden’s chief vulnerability is “his continuing penchant for releasing audio- and videotapes.”
Bergen is right — and to the best of my knowledge, all has not been done to capitalize on the natural vulnerabilities of the media wing of the bin Laden/al Qaeda operation. I’m sure we are trailing al Jazeera types in foreign countries, monitoring their phones, and trying to piece together how bin Laden so regularly ascertains video production capabilities and tapes and distributes these to Arab media. But clearly, we have not been able to apply the intelligence resources needed to penetrate this complex challenge. And we should have been able to years ago with painstaking observation, coding of purchased tapes in the Arab region, and other strategies that might have yielded better results than we have achieved thus far.
Early in the post-9/11 bin Laden chase, I thought he might be possibly lured out by a Unabomber-like appeal to the Saudi terrorist’s vanity and the opportunity for him to talk about his objectives.
I believed that an organization — perhaps a think tank — in Washington could generate a platform — and invite the likes of Vice President Richard Cheney, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz or Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, former President Bill Clinton, perhaps Colin Powell or other luminaries like Jimmy Carter, James Baker, and the like into a top tier discussion about America’s role and place in the world. Behind a cloak might be a large screen labeled “Special Guest.”
You probably know who that “special guest” could have been.
The think tank or NGO could have tried to work through the various Western and non-Western journalists who had had contact with al Qaeda to offer bin Laden an opportunity to appear “virtually” on stage with the key leadership of a nation he had decided to attack. In this theoretical scenario, the organizer would have told his contacts that they could do all they could do to anonymize and hide bin Laden’s digital whereabouts — and that the organization would not announce his identity until bin Laden was ready to speak.
Both to prevent the organizer from being charged with some crime and because the mission of capturing and/or killing bin Laden was legitimate, the organizer/think tank would have given national intelligence authorities everything they had in the hopes that the nation’s defense/intelligence capacity could overwhelm any of the measures al Qaeda was taking to anonymize and hide his live performance.
This never happened — but I thought a long time about it. I thought it could work.
Much later, I thought that this scenario — which may sound silly or naive to some — nonetheless would be great in a high-action sitcom drama or in an intel thriller on the Middle East. But I’m realizing that David Ignatius is filling that role for the moment.
I agree with Peter Bergen that bin Laden himself both matters and doesn’t matter. He matters because he has become an iconic figure whose myth grows, like Jesse James’ reputation did, the longer he defies the market expectations that he will one day be caught and shut down.
He doesn’t matter on another front as his operation, both the direct al Qaeda groups who seem loyal to and depend on him for inspiration and perhaps support and those that self-organize in the Middle East and around the world seem to not need him and his organizational genius to pursue their objectives and generate damage.
Again, my scenario never happened — but Peter Bergen’s notion of exploiting the vulnerabilities of a complex media operation probably require fewer innocents-killing bombing campaigns and more hard thinking, laying of traps, and ingenuity.
— Steve Clemons


15 comments on “Why Are We Not Appealing to the Vanity of Bin Laden and Al Zawahiri?

  1. dada says:

    In Peter Bergen’s story, there’s no talk of bin Laden using the Afghan/Iran or Pakistan/Iran border. Is that a far fetched possibility? This story from Newsmax’s Ken Timmerman on the links between Al Qaeda and Iran with respect to 9/11 seem to lend some credence to that possibility.
    Would you discount it Steve?. The link –


  2. lurker says:

    A Creative scenario, Steve.


  3. Steve Clemons says:

    Thank you to readers — many who emailed me about an error now fixed.


  4. questions says:

    What in heaven’s name would we do with the guy if we caught him? A trial — which risks gaining him sympathy? Summary execution — which risks gaining him sympathy? Parading him half-naked — which risks gaining him sympathy? Life in prison — which risks gaining him sympathy? Death penalty — which risks gaining him sympathy?
    I kind of think there’s a preference for leaving him in a cave somewhere w/o a lot of direct power. Less sympathy that way.


  5. jalexei says:

    I thought even in 2004 producing Bin Laden as an “October Surprise” would be a potentially risky move, given the growing cynicism both about the war and our president.
    I’d have to think in 2008 his capture close to the election would strike enough people as the painfully transparent last gasp of an unliked lame-duck to take it off the table – then again, rationalism is a dangerously unreliable prism to view things through these days…


  6. wrensis says:

    Regardless of the outcome, Bin Laden has watched the United States self destruct itself with wars, financial disaster,poor planning and diminished respect among other nations. He could not have accomplished more himself.


  7. Paul Norheim says:

    I must admit that I think your scenario was a bit naive, Steve.
    However, I would be surprised if Osama Bin Laden doesn`t
    show up in a video just before the US election in November.
    The question is: will he warn especially against (and insult)
    Obama/Biden, or McCain/Palin? (And the point here being: The
    one he insults and attacks will get more votes – which may be
    tactically intended).
    If I was him, or al-Zawahiri, I would certainly go for
    McCain/Palin. They seem to be more belligerent in Iraq AND
    Afghanistan, as well as towards Iran and Russia. This would
    clearly serve the interests of al-Qaeda. (Especially an attack on
    Iran would be good news for al-Qaeda; they hate the leaders in
    If Obama concentrates his efforts a little bit more on
    Afghanistan/ North-Western areas of Pakistan, that`s bad news
    for al-Qaeda (but not necessarily good news for America…)
    Conclusion: don`t be surprised if bin Laden shows up in a video
    very soon, attacking and insulting both candidates, but
    especially McCain and his female VP candidate from Alaska…


  8. Dan Kervick says:

    Well, some of those audio and visual releases have been quite goofy and suspicious. Maybe some are fakes, part of the purpose of which is to draw Osama or his remaining followers out by releasing statements in his name with which they disagree?
    In any case, I have stopped wither believing or disbelieving anything I see or hear about Osama Bin Laden. I simply suspend all judgment on the matter. I strongly suspect we are all collateral damage in a campaign of psychological warfare about which we won’t get the whole story for at least 20 or 30 years.


  9. Mr.Murder says:

    For those who did not fill up on gas last night when I recommended it, it’s expected to spike here to 5.00 a gallon, counting the hurricane speculation and Chavez deporting an American ambassador.
    That’s a 42 cent jump in a day.
    Who knows how much gas would cost if we didn’t invade Iraq to make oil cheaper! (/Wolforat)


  10. koreyel says:

    Did you read Juan Cole yesterday?
    Bin Laden hasn’t released a video in 4 years.
    Check out the quote below. He makes a rather compelling argument for this lede:
    “That original al-Qaeda has been defeated.
    Usamah Bin Laden has not released an original videotape since about four years ago. There was that disaster with the cgi black beard. There was the old footage spliced in by al-Sahab. But nothing new on videotape. I conclude that Bin Laden, if he is alive, is so injured or disfigured that his appearance on videotape would only discourage any followers he has left.”


  11. Mr.Murder says:

    For a while his statements mirrored a lot of what Karl Rove’s blackberry wanted to put out as talking points.
    Certainly we could network them in conference.


  12. rmp says:

    Not Obama! Osama!!!! 🙂
    No smiley! Bad smiley!


  13. DonS says:

    In any case, the military efforts to “get him” have increased, to wit the increased predator drone attacks (with “collateral damage”) and even the recent US military incursion into NW Pakistan, with seeming blowback from the Pakistanis (need to throw them some more money).
    Either the administration is putting on a full court press to get Osama before the election — perhaps to add a wiggle factor as they seek to fraudulently control the election by any means — or because they have already gotten him and are doing a build up for the roll out later in Fall.
    I think Steve’s idea makes a neat fictional scenario more than a realistic one, but I expect the overall premise that more human and psyops methods could have paid off.


  14. Mr.Murder says:

    Put the pipe down. Step away from the teleconference.
    If we wanted him we would of had him already. See also Noriega.
    Karadzic had the active protection of people in the government of an allied nation.
    See also Osama.


  15. Dan Kervick says:

    He does reflect on the seeming disregard Obama has for either his much discussed health problems or America’s dogged hunt for him.
    Not Obama! Osama!!!! 🙂


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