- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 17, 2001

This month, four men accused of conspiring to bomb U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 went on trial in Manhattan. Those attacks killed more than two hundred people, including 12 Americans. Jury selection is expected to take about a month, and the trial proper could last up to a year. Absent from the courtroom will be the alleged mastermind of the bombing, Osama bin Laden.

On one level, the fact these men have been brought to trial should be comforting for the U.S. government, its citizens and the victims of the attacks. Indeed, the jury will hear much about bin Laden's organization, not least that a prosecution witness is expected to testify that bin Laden showed him a photo of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya and "pointed to where a truck bomb could go as a suicide bomber."

Case closed? Not quite. First, the four men on trial are alleged to be, at best, only mid-level members of bin Laden's group. The key members of bin Laden's organization also indicted in the bombing conspiracy remain at large. They include not only bin Laden himself, but also his second-in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri; his military commander, Muhammad Atef; the operational leader of the Kenya bombing, Haroun Fazul and all but one of the conspirators in the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Tanzania. Indeed, of the 21 men indicted in the bombing conspiracy, only four are in American custody. Three of the others are in the United Kingdom, and may, or may not, be extradited to the United States. The other 14 are fugitives.

In addition, treating the bin Laden phenomenon as a law-enforcement problem, which can be solved by trials in New York, is a fundamental misunderstanding of how bin Laden's network does business. It does not operate like some Mafia family where Capo bin Laden orders a hit which is then faithfully executed by his foot soldiers. Rather bin Laden is the leader, spiritual guide and chief rhetorician of a loosely knit group of "holy warriors" who are conducting holy wars in more than 20 countries around the globe, from the Philippines to Chechnya to Yemen. Bin Laden sets the agenda and then thousands of militants around the world go out and follow what they regard as his religious directives.

Moreover, the bin Laden network continues to operate with impunity from its Afghanistan headquarters. The Taliban movement, which controls most of the country, has made it perfectly clear that it will never hand over bin Laden for trial in the United States. Graphic evidence that the bin Laden network is alive and well came on Oct. 12 2000, when a group of "Afghan Arabs," men who trained under the aegis of bin Laden in Afghanistan, blew a hole the size of a small office building in an American warship, the USS Cole, as it refueled in Aden, Yemen. The bomb killed 17 sailors and the bill for the damage to the ship is estimated to be a quarter billion dollars.

Yemeni and American investigators say the operational leader of the Cole attack, Mohammed Omar al-Harazi, is linked to the Kenya bombing through his cousin who drove the truck bomb into the U.S. embassy in Nairobi. U.S. investigators say that Harazi, now in believed to be in Afghanistan, gave the order to attack a U.S. warship after the embassy bombings.

In addition to conventional law-enforcement methods the United States has tried other approaches to dealing with bin Laden. Two weeks after the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Africa, President Clinton ordered cruise missile attacks on a bin Laden camp in Afghanistan and an alleged chemical weapons plant in Sudan linked to the Saudi militant. Those strikes were a failure on every level. Bin Laden was not in his Afghan camp; the Sudan plant was only a pharmaceutical factory and overnight bin Laden turned from a marginal figure in the Arab world into a world celebrity. On the diplomatic front, efforts by the United States to impose United Nations sanctions on the Taliban have done little but harden their resolve not to give up their "honored guest," and have had the unintended consequence of burdening the already desperately poor Afghan population.

Since the law-enforcement approach to the bin Laden problem has only, thus far, been a limited success and the military and diplomatic approaches have so far proven to be fruitless, what then can be done?

In the past two years the U.S. government has had some considerable successes on the counterintelligence front, averting attacks on other U.S. embassies around the world, and arresting militants from Seattle to Jordan with ties to bin Laden.

Incoming President George W. Bush might also consider using the bully pulpit to better advantage against bin Laden. Demonizing the Saudi militant does little more than increase his public profile, but the Bush administration could use the language of Islam itself to counter bin Laden's campaign of violence. The Koran strongly emphasizes the protections afforded to "People of the Book," the very Jews and Christians against whom bin Laden has declared his holy war. And the Koran is explicit in its condemnations of attacks on civilians, more than 200 of whom have already died in bin Laden's jihad.

Ultimately, however, the only way to end bin Laden's holy war would be the one thing that is not up for discussion amongst American policy-makers modifying U.S. policies in the Middle East. Bin Laden's followers have declared a war against the United States, not only for its support of Israel and Middle Eastern governments such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which they regard as "apostates" from Islam, but also because of the continued U.S. military presence on what they regard as the "holy land" of the entire Arabian peninsula which accounts, not only for the bombings of U.S. military installations in Saudi Arabia in the mid-1990s, but also the attack on the USS Cole in Aden, at the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula.

As the United States is surely not about to change its strategic and military policies in the Middle East, and bin Laden and his holy warriors are not about to abandon their holy war, only one possible conclusion can be drawn: the USS Cole attack is hardly the last we shall hear from bin Laden and company, whatever the outcome of the New York trial.

Peter Bergen is writing a book about Osama bin Laden for The Free Press.


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