Whither Osama?

That's the $25 million question, isn't it?  For six years now, pundits, bloggers, media vetted "experts," politicians, columnists, and all sorts, kinds, and flavors of prognosticators have weighed in on the subject with the general consensus being that he's just on the Pakistani side of the Tora Bora mountains in the federally administrated tribal areas (FATA).  After giving the US military the slip in late 2001, Osama and company have seemingly disappeared into the ether, reconstituting periodically to  give the metaphorical digit to the American people and giving the left more ammunition to fire at the Bush administration.  Although the question seems largely to have been settled in the media, taking a fresh look at the question of our age is instructive for understanding more about Al Qaeda and specifically why we've not seen another attack on American soil.

The general consensus among the intelligentsia in the government apparatus and parroted ad nauseam by the talking heads on the media circuit is that Osama is hiding out in the caves of the Hindu Kush.  I would argue that he's not, and the fact that he's not is the reason why he's yet to be caught but more importantly the reason why we've yet to see an attack on American soil since that fateful day. 

Let's think this through.  Osama bin Laden is a hero in that part of the world - especially in the tribal areas.  This isn't September 12th, 2001, we're a few years down the road.  If he really were in FATA, somebody would have talked by this point.  Obviously they wouldn't be singing to western intelligence agencies deliberately, these people take their blood oaths seriously, but they would have talked nonetheless.  People are people no matter where you go.  Maybe it would have been a couple of housewives gossiping while doing laundry down by the local creek, or some school kid bragging to his buddies on a soccer field, or a couple of camel traders yacking over tea in Peshawar - but people talk. 

These mighty Pashtun warriors are still people and they're still susceptible to water cooler conversations like the rest of us - even if they lack the water cooler.  We, along with the rest of the western world, have that part of the world hard wired with listening posts, spy drones, turncoats, secret agents, and every intelligence gathering asset known to man.  Surely, we would have picked up his scent by now. 

Moreover, this is a part of the world where blood feuds and tribal hatreds are a national pastime.  If you're the leader of tribe A and you've got a longstanding blood feud with tribe B and you've found out through the grapevine that bin Laden is a guest of tribe B, what better way of settling your feud, making a quick $25 million (of course, as we're told relentlessly by the talking heads, in that part of the world money has no real value but I'm sure they'd be interested in $25 million worth of trade goods), and getting the prime pastureland and livestock of tribe A than dropping a dime and waiting for the smoke to clear from the daisy cutter?

That the trail has gone cold for this long means that Osama is not in the FATA of Pakistan - although I'm sure he's doing his best to ensure that the intelligence apparatus of the west believes him to be.  I would wager that he's probably using cutouts to carry orders from his location to the FATA and broadcast them from there.

So, that brings up the question of where he actually is.  Well, for starters, he would have to be in a place where he could ensure limited access and surrounded by people who have an incentive to not turn him in.  This would imply that he's being deliberately hidden.  Only a state power could have the resources necessary to limit exposure to the point where nobody could accidentally have seen him or reported on his location and yet allow him to conduct his organization.  A state power would be able to allow Osama the freedom to run Al Qaeda and the security to know that he won't be caught doing so.  The intelligence apparatus of a state power is made up of largely loyal and professional agents capable of keeping secrets and provide the infrastructure necessary for the smooth operation of an organization like Al Qaeda: bases for training, recruitment, communications, etc. 

So, the big question is - which state?  Which state would have the incentive to take such a large risk as hiding Osama bin Laden and his top deputies and sheltering Al Qaeda?  To do so would risk almost certain military confrontation with the most powerful military power mankind has ever seen.  Obviously, it would have to be a state that would share Al Qaeda's basic goals and aims and a state Osama would feel comfortable hiding in.  Moreover, it would have to be a state that would have the capability of hiding bin Laden. Finally, it would have to be a state that bin Laden could have reached safely after 911.

This gives us a very short list of a handful of countries in the Dar al-Islam that bin Laden would feel comfortable in and able to get to after the harrowing escape from Tora Bora: the non-tribal areas of Pakistan, Syria, and Iran.  While it's true that the ISI (Pakistani intelligence service) founded the Taliban and might therefore be partial to hiding bin Laden, there are other elements within the Pakistani military that are very much pro-western, and hiding in Pakistan would therefore be extremely risky.  While Syria could certainly shelter bin Laden and their top operatives, that bin Laden and Al Qaeda would certainly feel at home in Syria, and that it's possible bin Laden could have reached Syria though the "rat line" Iran helped establish in late 2001/2002 for transiting terrorists from Afghanistan through Iran, it's not at all clear that Syria has anything to gain from hiding bin Laden and everything to lose.  For us to turn up evidence that Syria is sheltering bin Laden would be the end of the House of Assad for sure. 

That leaves us with Iran.  As mentioned above, Iran established a rat line during Operation Enduring Freedom to "rescue" Al Qaeda terrorists from certain capture and annihilation at the hands of the coalition.   The rumor is that Saad bin Laden - Osama's son Saad and Ayman Al-Zawahiri along with roughly 800 or so other top Al Qaeda terrorists were thus extricated from Afghanistan.  Iran has shown that it has no fear of standing up to the west, and has a large, and capable intelligence apparatus clearly capable of hiding bin Laden.  It's a Muslim country with a large Arab minority with a long history of working closely with Al Qaeda in the past.  For a time, Imad Mugneyeh was the liaison between the Iranian mullahs and Al Qaeda.  For Al Qaeda, Iran is the perfect hiding place.  For Iran, sequestering bin Laden gives them effective control of Al Qaeda and having control of Al Qaeda gives them yet another way to carry out murderous terrorist attacks by proxy and gives them a degree of anonymity to carry out their low-level war against the US that they've been carrying out since the revolution in 1979.  

If this is indeed the case that Iran is hiding bin Laden, this explains why we haven't seen a major terrorist attack against America since 911.  Bush showed beyond a shadow of a doubt in 2003 that in the wake of a mass-casualty attack the United States is perfectly willing to go to war against any belligerent country we suspect is building or harboring weapons of mass destruction and Iran is doing precisely that.  They may talk a tough game, but at their core the mullahs are terrified of pushing us to the point where we're willing to round up the troops in Iraq and move east to Tehran.  Unlike Iraq, the people in Iran really DO hate their leaders and would come over to us if we did.  Until Iran has a stockpile of functional nuclear weapons, or until Bush leaves office, there is a very real chance that any mass casualty attack on the US would result in us invading Iran and this is causing the mullahs to lose sleep.  I would wager that Al Qaeda has been told that they are allowed to operate in Europe and against America in Iraq, but under no circumstances are they to attack the American homeland - which is why the only plots uncovered here are plots engaged in by rank amateurs not actually affiliated with Al Qaeda but sharing their sympathies.  When Iran goes nuclear, all that will change and we'd better get ready.
That's the $25 million question, isn't it?  For six years now, pundits, bloggers, media vetted "experts," politicians, columnists, and all sorts, kinds, and flavors of prognosticators have weighed in on the subject with the general consensus being that he's just on the Pakistani side of the Tora Bora mountains in the federally administrated tribal areas (FATA).  After giving the US military the slip in late 2001, Osama and company have seemingly disappeared into the ether, reconstituting periodically to  give the metaphorical digit to the American people and giving the left more ammunition to fire at the Bush administration.  Although the question seems largely to have been settled in the media, taking a fresh look at the question of our age is instructive for understanding more about Al Qaeda and specifically why we've not seen another attack on American soil.

The general consensus among the intelligentsia in the government apparatus and parroted ad nauseam by the talking heads on the media circuit is that Osama is hiding out in the caves of the Hindu Kush.  I would argue that he's not, and the fact that he's not is the reason why he's yet to be caught but more importantly the reason why we've yet to see an attack on American soil since that fateful day. 

Let's think this through.  Osama bin Laden is a hero in that part of the world - especially in the tribal areas.  This isn't September 12th, 2001, we're a few years down the road.  If he really were in FATA, somebody would have talked by this point.  Obviously they wouldn't be singing to western intelligence agencies deliberately, these people take their blood oaths seriously, but they would have talked nonetheless.  People are people no matter where you go.  Maybe it would have been a couple of housewives gossiping while doing laundry down by the local creek, or some school kid bragging to his buddies on a soccer field, or a couple of camel traders yacking over tea in Peshawar - but people talk. 

These mighty Pashtun warriors are still people and they're still susceptible to water cooler conversations like the rest of us - even if they lack the water cooler.  We, along with the rest of the western world, have that part of the world hard wired with listening posts, spy drones, turncoats, secret agents, and every intelligence gathering asset known to man.  Surely, we would have picked up his scent by now. 

Moreover, this is a part of the world where blood feuds and tribal hatreds are a national pastime.  If you're the leader of tribe A and you've got a longstanding blood feud with tribe B and you've found out through the grapevine that bin Laden is a guest of tribe B, what better way of settling your feud, making a quick $25 million (of course, as we're told relentlessly by the talking heads, in that part of the world money has no real value but I'm sure they'd be interested in $25 million worth of trade goods), and getting the prime pastureland and livestock of tribe A than dropping a dime and waiting for the smoke to clear from the daisy cutter?

That the trail has gone cold for this long means that Osama is not in the FATA of Pakistan - although I'm sure he's doing his best to ensure that the intelligence apparatus of the west believes him to be.  I would wager that he's probably using cutouts to carry orders from his location to the FATA and broadcast them from there.

So, that brings up the question of where he actually is.  Well, for starters, he would have to be in a place where he could ensure limited access and surrounded by people who have an incentive to not turn him in.  This would imply that he's being deliberately hidden.  Only a state power could have the resources necessary to limit exposure to the point where nobody could accidentally have seen him or reported on his location and yet allow him to conduct his organization.  A state power would be able to allow Osama the freedom to run Al Qaeda and the security to know that he won't be caught doing so.  The intelligence apparatus of a state power is made up of largely loyal and professional agents capable of keeping secrets and provide the infrastructure necessary for the smooth operation of an organization like Al Qaeda: bases for training, recruitment, communications, etc. 

So, the big question is - which state?  Which state would have the incentive to take such a large risk as hiding Osama bin Laden and his top deputies and sheltering Al Qaeda?  To do so would risk almost certain military confrontation with the most powerful military power mankind has ever seen.  Obviously, it would have to be a state that would share Al Qaeda's basic goals and aims and a state Osama would feel comfortable hiding in.  Moreover, it would have to be a state that would have the capability of hiding bin Laden. Finally, it would have to be a state that bin Laden could have reached safely after 911.

This gives us a very short list of a handful of countries in the Dar al-Islam that bin Laden would feel comfortable in and able to get to after the harrowing escape from Tora Bora: the non-tribal areas of Pakistan, Syria, and Iran.  While it's true that the ISI (Pakistani intelligence service) founded the Taliban and might therefore be partial to hiding bin Laden, there are other elements within the Pakistani military that are very much pro-western, and hiding in Pakistan would therefore be extremely risky.  While Syria could certainly shelter bin Laden and their top operatives, that bin Laden and Al Qaeda would certainly feel at home in Syria, and that it's possible bin Laden could have reached Syria though the "rat line" Iran helped establish in late 2001/2002 for transiting terrorists from Afghanistan through Iran, it's not at all clear that Syria has anything to gain from hiding bin Laden and everything to lose.  For us to turn up evidence that Syria is sheltering bin Laden would be the end of the House of Assad for sure. 

That leaves us with Iran.  As mentioned above, Iran established a rat line during Operation Enduring Freedom to "rescue" Al Qaeda terrorists from certain capture and annihilation at the hands of the coalition.   The rumor is that Saad bin Laden - Osama's son Saad and Ayman Al-Zawahiri along with roughly 800 or so other top Al Qaeda terrorists were thus extricated from Afghanistan.  Iran has shown that it has no fear of standing up to the west, and has a large, and capable intelligence apparatus clearly capable of hiding bin Laden.  It's a Muslim country with a large Arab minority with a long history of working closely with Al Qaeda in the past.  For a time, Imad Mugneyeh was the liaison between the Iranian mullahs and Al Qaeda.  For Al Qaeda, Iran is the perfect hiding place.  For Iran, sequestering bin Laden gives them effective control of Al Qaeda and having control of Al Qaeda gives them yet another way to carry out murderous terrorist attacks by proxy and gives them a degree of anonymity to carry out their low-level war against the US that they've been carrying out since the revolution in 1979.  

If this is indeed the case that Iran is hiding bin Laden, this explains why we haven't seen a major terrorist attack against America since 911.  Bush showed beyond a shadow of a doubt in 2003 that in the wake of a mass-casualty attack the United States is perfectly willing to go to war against any belligerent country we suspect is building or harboring weapons of mass destruction and Iran is doing precisely that.  They may talk a tough game, but at their core the mullahs are terrified of pushing us to the point where we're willing to round up the troops in Iraq and move east to Tehran.  Unlike Iraq, the people in Iran really DO hate their leaders and would come over to us if we did.  Until Iran has a stockpile of functional nuclear weapons, or until Bush leaves office, there is a very real chance that any mass casualty attack on the US would result in us invading Iran and this is causing the mullahs to lose sleep.  I would wager that Al Qaeda has been told that they are allowed to operate in Europe and against America in Iraq, but under no circumstances are they to attack the American homeland - which is why the only plots uncovered here are plots engaged in by rank amateurs not actually affiliated with Al Qaeda but sharing their sympathies.  When Iran goes nuclear, all that will change and we'd better get ready.