Osama's Endgame

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October 15, 2001 Vol. 158 No. 17 Osama's Endgame

His aims are clear--to expel the U.S. from the Islamic world and unite Muslims in one empire


There is a word that gets attached to elusive international villains. The word is shadowy. Carlos the Jackal was shadowy. Abu Nidal was shadowy. One of the novelties of Osama bin Laden is that he is hardly shadowy at all. There is little mystery about bin Laden's life except his precise whereabouts now. For a terrorist ringleader, he has given a remarkable number of interviews. He has even played host at a press conference. Bin Laden has talked articulately about his history, his outlook, his strategy to defeat the U.S. What he hasn't told journalists he has laid out in fairly eloquent treatises. While the world was surprised by what bin Laden or his associates did on Sept. 11, it cannot be surprised by his intentions. These have been made clear for years by his many pronouncements.

What's He After? Bin Laden's ambitions in the short run are plain. His first goal is to compel the U.S. to withdraw its military forces (today numbering 6,000) from his native Saudi Arabia. The presence of foreign troops in the cradle of Islam is, for him, "the latest and the greatest" of all infidel aggressions against the religion in its 14-century history. By their very presence, he believes, the U.S. forces defile the Muslim holy land. "Now infidels walk everywhere on the land where Muhammad was born and where the Koran was revealed to him," he lamented to TIME in a 1998 interview.

Because the U.S. troops are in Saudi Arabia at the invitation of the Saudi government, which was frightened into the move by a threat of invasion by Iraq's Saddam Hussein in 1990, the Saudi regime, says bin Laden, "is fully responsible" for their presence. Thus he has called on his countrymen to overthrow the House of Saud. Still, he has targeted his attacks not on the rulers but on the Americans, noting that "the American enemy is the main cause of the situation."

To bin Laden, the U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia are the worst but not the only manifestation of U.S. ill will. Asked by CNN in 1997 whether their withdrawal would appease him, he said no. The holy war will not stop, he said, until the U.S. "desist[s] from aggressive intervention against Muslims in the whole world." Bin Laden counts as unacceptable the American military presence in other Arab states, including Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. He is offended by continued U.S. sanctions against Iraq as well as Syria, Sudan, Libya and Iran. And he objects to America's substantial support of Israel, which he considers a partner to the U.S. in a "Jewish-Crusader" conspiracy against Muslims.

Bin Laden stretches his definition of American aggression further. He blames the U.S. for the killing of Bosnian Muslims by Christian Serbs because of a U.N. arms embargo against Bosnia until 1994. He even counts in this category the 1992-94 mission by U.S. troops to mostly Muslim Somalia as part of a U.N. effort to assist a famine-starved population caught between battling warlords. In bin Laden's book, the troop landing was simply a show of force by the U.S. "to scare the Muslim world, saying that it is able to do whatever it desires." He asked, "How can we believe your claims that you came to save our children in Somalia while you kill our children in all those [other] places?"--meaning Iraq, Bosnia and, through the Israelis, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

And Then What? After the infidels have been expelled from the land of Islam, bin Laden, like other Islamic radicals, foresees the overthrow of current regimes across the Muslim world and the establishment of one united government strictly enforcing Shari'a, or Islamic law. This vision harks back to the age of the caliphs, the successors to Muhammad who ruled Islam's domain from the 7th century to the 13th. What might a caliphate look like today? In bin Laden's view, it would look something like the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which he has praised as "among the keenest to fulfill [Allah's] laws." Bin Laden may imagine himself to be a potential new caliph. One of the titles he uses is "emir," which means ruler. However, he swears allegiance to (and thereby ranks himself below) the Taliban ruler, Mullah Mohammed Omar, so whatever political ambitions bin Laden may have are not yet on display.

Some bin Laden watchers speculate that he particularly has his eye on Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, as they possess, respectively, 25% of all proven oil reserves and the Islamic world's only known nuclear bomb. Bin Laden has referred to the Saudi oil fields as "a large economic power essential for the soon-to-be-established Islamic state." Asked by TIME in 1998 about reports that he was trying to acquire nuclear and chemical weapons, he replied, "If I seek to acquire these weapons, I am carrying out a duty. It would be a sin for Muslims not to try to possess the weapons that would prevent the infidels from inflicting harm on Muslims."

But for bin Laden, the game is not as simple as taking Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Says Daniel Benjamin, a former National Security Council staff member now writing a book on religious terror: "He is looking for a world in which Islam regains the dominant role, and naturally that would include oil and nukes. But to say it's about oil and nukes suggests it's not a metaphysical struggle, which it is for him. He thinks this is a big moral battle in which he's got Allah's sanction to attack the West." In a 1996 proclamation, bin Laden asked, "O Lord, shatter their gathering, divide them among themselves, shake the earth under their feet and give us control over them."

What's His War Strategy? In the same treatise, bin Laden concludes that "it is wise in the present circumstances" that Muslim armies not fight a conventional war against the U.S. "due to the imbalance of power." Rather, he says, "a suitable means of fighting must be adopted, i.e., using fast-moving light forces that work under complete secrecy. In other words, to initiate guerrilla warfare."

Initially, bin Laden confined his target to the U.S. military. But in 1995 and '96, he observed that truck-bomb attacks on U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia served to provoke strains between the Americans and Saudis, a development he relished and thought brought him closer to his goal of expelling U.S. troops from the Arabian peninsula.

In 1998, bin Laden decreed that Muslims should kill Americans, including civilians, wherever they could. In interviews, he explained that American citizens were culpable for the sins of their government because they elected it "despite their knowledge of its crimes." He invoked the principle of reciprocity, saying Americans had killed Muslim women and children, so their women and children would die too.

This guerrilla war, with women and children as collateral damage, is part of a broader military strategy to ensnare the U.S. in a larger East-West conflict. Roland Jacquard, president of the International Observatory on Terrorism in Paris, believes that bin Laden intended the Sept. 11 attack to be so "audacious, impudent and massively inhumane" as to ensure a "massive, inordinate" U.S. retaliation that would further inflame Muslim opinion against the U.S. and against the Arab regimes allied with Washington. Says Jacquard: "His design is to create sufficient instability to bring about Islamic revolution."

That and a U.S. retreat. Bin Laden has repeatedly described Americans as easily scared into submission. He cites the pullout of U.S. troops from Beirut after a 1983 truck bombing there killed 241 Marines, and the withdrawal from Somalia after 18 U.S. soldiers died there. He plainly thinks a large enough number of attacks will lead the U.S. to withdraw entirely from the Arab world and even fall apart as a nation. He connects the crumbling of the Soviet Union to Moscow's defeat in Afghanistan at the hands of local Muslim rebels he aided. In 1998, bin Laden told abc reporter John Miller, "There is a lesson here. We are certain that we shall prevail over the Americans and over the Jews...Instead of remaining united states, it shall end up separated states."

That will seem preposterous to Americans, but like many Islamic radicals, bin Laden takes a long view of history. "Can bin Laden, a very intelligent guy, really think that he could end the U.S.?" asks Jessica Stern, Harvard lecturer and author of The Ultimate Terrorists. "He refers to historical periods when Muslims have conquered the West, so yes, perhaps he thinks he can accomplish that once again."


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), October 10, 2001


This guy is a real Looney Tunes character if ever I saw one. Unfortunately, he is a much more dangerous character than the Road Runner.

-- Loner (loner@bigfoot.com), October 10, 2001.

Well, Mr. Smarty Pants must have miscalculated a little bit on this one. He will have to think of other lies to get his followers to give up their lives. now he's gone and given America a good reason to be commited to fighting, unlike these other situations. He really is out of touch with reality, living in a dream world. If he ared about anyone's children he would have never did this, but he only cares about his own selfish agenda.

-- jimmie-the-weed (thinkasur@aol.com), October 10, 2001.

A simultaneous, massive, coordinated, and successful terrorist attack upon America's vital infrastructures could indeed bring about the end of the U.S., at least as a world economic superpower. The goal of the attacks would be to simulate a worst-case "InfoMagic" type Y2K scenario.

Now it is Autumn, and temperatures are relatively comfortable overall in the U.S., which renders the infrastructure more robust against massive disruption: The time to urban collapse without power and water is relatively long, so recovery due to help from foreign countries is reasonably possible.

But Winter is coming. Massive disruption of power and thus heating infrastructure would then result in the cities collapse in a much shorter time period than now. People would start fires in a desperate attempt to stay warm, and many cities would become then become engulfed in massive firestorms, as these fires get out of control, with no water or other means to control them.

This explains why there is now a lull in terrorist activity: The season is not yet right. Also, it takes time and effort to coordinate a massive attack, just as it took time for the U.S. response in Afghanistan to begin.

Be prepared for a worst-case "Y2K" type infrastructure failure event sometime early this Winter. In terms of effect (not cause) "Y2K" may well hit about two years later than dreaded in 1999. But there is only a reprieve, not a cancellation, of the dreaded worst-case scenario.

-- Robert Riggs (rxr.999@worldnet.att.net), October 10, 2001.

Killing Osama bin Laden will only create a martyr. Holding him prisoner will inspire comrades to take hostages to demand his release. Therefore, I suggest we do neither. Let the Special Forces, Seals, or whatever covertly capture him, fly him to an undisclosed hospital, and have surgeons quickly perform a complete sex change operation. Then we return her to Afghanistan to live as a woman under the Taliban.

-- ..... (...@.....), October 10, 2001.

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