- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 17, 2002

Bin Laden's image in many minds, indelibly superimposed over an image of the collapsing World Trade towers is a deadly symbol of the ongoing war on terrorism. That symbol is useful both to al Qaeda, in proclaiming itself as a continuing global presence, and to the United States, in re-energizing flagging attention to the war on terrorism. That is the case whether bin Laden is dead or alive.
Symbol or not, some analysts found a chilling message in the resurfacing of the Saudi financier and founder of al Qaeda, the global Islamist network believed to be responsible for the September 11, 2001, attacks. In the past, bin Laden has appeared on video- or audiotape shortly before bloody terrorist attacks, including the bombing of U.S. Embassies in Africa in 1998 and the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000.
"I take this as a troubling sign," said James M. Lindsay, a Middle East terrorism expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "Bin Laden appears for a reason and one that does not augur well for the safety of Americans and American allies."
Indeed, President Bush used the occasion to reassert that alongside the confrontation with Iraq is the constant threat of a sudden terrorist attack for which the United States must continue to prepare.
The bin Laden tape, he told reporters Wednesday, "should remind all Americans that there is an active enemy that continues to hate [and] is willing to use murder… ."
"We are at war," Mr. Bush said.
As for al Qaeda, "Basically their message is, we can hit you anywhere around the globe," said Mary-Jane Deeb, an Arabist and professor of international relations at the American University in Washington.
"It doesn't matter whether that is actually Osama bin Laden or another member of al Qaeda, the message is stark and direct," she said.
What was known of al Qaeda shortly after September 11 was centered in Afghanistan, where al Qaeda fighters and senior officials were allied with the Taliban government.
That structure was shattered in the U.S. air attacks a year ago, but subsequent U.S. military raids and sweep operations suggested al Qaeda was not so much destroyed as dispersed.
Since then, a number of terrorist attacks have taken place around the world, including the ones bin Laden referred to in last week's tape. But until now, no one from al Qaeda has claimed responsibility for them all.
In that sense, analysts said bin Laden's reappearance was a powerful recruiting tool and rallying point for the scattered al Qaeda operatives.
It shows, Ms. Deeb said, "that al Qaeda really has transitioned into a global presence that transcends national boundaries, a real international organization, from Hamburg to Paris to Sudan to Yemen."
In the crude calculus of psychological warfare, a critical part of the war on terrorism, bin Laden's appearance was seen by some as a grisly political plus.
Indeed, the bin Laden tape was broadcast as Mr. Bush pressed Congress for final approval of the new Department of Homeland Security, which had languished for months amid minor tactical disputes over labor provisions but won an overwhelming vote of approval in the House last Wednesday night.
"If anything, it's good to know that as long as he's out there, people are convinced that we've got a war on," said Rep. Porter Goss, Florida Republican, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
"The minute [bin Laden] springs up and gets run over by a bus or something, people will say, 'We've won that war.'
"I'd rather have the guy in custody, but the fact that he may still be alive is not depressing or energizing, because I know that when you chop the head off this monster there's another monster to take its place. You have to scotch the whole monster," said Mr. Goss, a former CIA case officer.
In the tape, bin Laden takes credit for the recent terrorist bombing in Bali, Indonesia; for the bombing of a French oil tanker off the coast of Yemen; for the killing of American Marines in Kuwait; and for a bombing in Karachi, Pakistan. It warns American allies not to take part in the war on terrorism.
"The tape is a direct threat, which is deeply concerning," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on terrorism. It shows, she said, that "al Qaeda is still there, still a major, dominant terrorist presence."
Whether or not the voice is bin Laden's, said Sen. Fred Thompson, the retiring Tennessee Republican, "I don't see that it changes much. When and if he dies, someone else will take his place."

David Wood and Chuck McCutcheon are columnists for the Newhouse News Service.


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