Feature

Osama bin Elvis

All the evidence suggests Elvis Presley is more alive today than Osama bin Laden. But tell that to the CIA and all the other misconceptualizers of the War on Terror.

By From the March 2009 issue

Send to Kindle

All the evidence suggests Elvis Presley is more alive today than Osama bin Laden. But tell that to the CIA and all the other misconceptualizers of the War on Terror.

Seven years after Osama bin Laden's last verifiable appearance among the living, there is more evidence for Elvis's presence among us than for his. Hence there is reason to ask whether the paradigm of Osama bin Laden as terrorism's deus ex machina and of al Qaeda as the prototype of terrorism may be an artifact of our Best and Brightest's imagination, and whether investment in this paradigm has kept our national security establishment from thinking seriously about our troubles' sources. So let us take a fresh look at the fundamentals.

Dead or Alive?

Negative evidence alone compels the conclusion that Osama is long since dead. Since October 2001, when Al Jazeera's Tayseer Alouni interviewed him, no reputable person reports having seen him—not even after multiple-blind journeys through intermediaries. The audio and video tapes alleged to be Osama's never convinced impartial observers. The guy just does not look like Osama. Some videos show him with a Semitic aquiline nose, while others show him with a shorter, broader one. Next to that, differences between colors and styles of beard are small stuff.

Nor does the tapes' Osama sound like Osama. In 2007 Switzerland's Dalle Molle Institute for Artificial Intelligence, which does computer voice recognition for bank security, compared the voices on 15 undisputed recordings of Osama with the voices on 15 subsequent ones attributed to Osama, to which they added two by native Arab speakers who had trained to imitate him and were reading his writings. All of the purported Osama recordings (with one falling into a gray area) differed clearly from one another as well as from the genuine ones. By contrast, the CIA found all the recordings authentic. It is hard to imagine what methodology might support this conclusion.

Also in 2007, Professor Bruce Lawrence, who heads Duke University's religious studies program, argued in a book on Osama's messages that their increasingly secular language is inconsistent with Osama's Wahhabism. Lawrence noted as well that the Osama figure in the December 2001 video, which many have taken as his assumption of responsibility for 9/11, wears golden rings—decidedly un-Wahhabi. He also writes with the wrong hand. Lawrence concluded that the messages are fakes, and not very good ones. The CIA has judged them all good.

Above all, whereas Elvis impersonators at least sing the King's signature song, "You ain't nutin' but a hound dawg," the words on the Osama tapes differ substantively from what the real Osama used to say—especially about the most important matter. On September 16, 2001, on Al Jazeera, Osama said of 9/11: "I stress that I have not carried out this act, which appears to have been carried out by individuals with their own motivation." Again, in the October interview with Tayseer Alouni, he limited his connection with 9/11 to ideology: "If they mean, or if you mean, that there is a link as a result of our incitement, then it is true. We incite…" But in the so-called "confession video" that the CIA found in December, the Osama figure acts like the chief conspirator. The fact that the video had been made for no self-evident purpose except perhaps to be found by the Americans should have raised suspicion. Its substance, the celebratory affirmation of a responsibility for 9/11 that Osama had denied, should also have weighed against the video's authenticity. Why would he wait to indict himself until after U.S. forces and allies had secured Afghanistan? But the CIA acted as if it had caught Osama red-handed.

The CIA should also have taken seriously the accounts of Osama's death. On December 26, 2001, Fox News interviewed a Taliban source who claimed that he had attended Osama's funeral, along with some 30 associates. The cause of death, he said, had been pulmonary infection. The New York Times on July 11, 2002, reported the consensus of a story widespread in Pakistan that Osama had succumbed the previous year to his long-standing nephritis. Then, Benazir Bhutto—as well connected as anyone with sources of information on the Afghan-Pakistani border—mentioned casually in a BBC interview that Osama had been murdered by his associates. Murder is as likely as natural death. Osama's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is said to have murdered his own predecessor, Abdullah Azzam, Osama's original mentor. Also, because Osama's capture by the Americans would have endangered everyone with whom he had ever associated, any and all intelligence services who had ever worked with him had an interest in his death.

New Osama, Real Osama

We do not know what happened to Osama. But whatever happened, the original one, the guy who looked and sounded like a spoiled Saudi kid turned ideologue, is no more. The one who exists in the tapes is different: he is the world's terror master, endowed with inexplicable influence. In short, whoever is making the post-November 2001 Osama tapes is pretending to far greater power than Osama ever claimed, much less exercised.

The real Osama bin Laden, like the real al Qaeda over which he presided, was never as important as reports from Arab (especially Saudi) intelligence services led the CIA to believe. Osama's (late) role in Afghanistan's anti-Soviet resistance was to bring in a little money. Arab fighters in general, and particularly the few Osama brought, fought rarely and badly. In war, one Afghan is worth many Arabs. In 1990 Osama told Saudi regent Abdullah that his mujahideen could stop Saddam's invasion of the kingdom. When Abdullah waved him away in favor of a half-million U.S. troops, Osama turned dissident, enough to have to move to Sudan, where he stayed until 1996 hatching sterile anti-Saudi plots until forced to move his forlorn band to Afghanistan.

There is a good reason why neither Osama nor al Qaeda appeared on U.S. intelligence screens until 1998. They had done nothing noteworthy. Since the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa, however, and especially after director of Central Intelligence George Tenet imputed responsibility for 9/11 to Osama "game, set, and match," the CIA described him as terrorism's prime mover. It refused to countenance the possibility that Osama's associates might have been using him and his organization as a flag of convenience. As U.S. forces were taking over Afghanistan in 2001, the CIA was telling Time and Newsweek that it expected to find the high-tech headquarters from which Osama controlled terrorist activities in 50 countries. None existed. In November 2008, without factual basis and contrary to reason, the CIA continued to describe him and his organization as "the most clear and present danger to the United States." It did not try to explain how this could be while, it said, Osama is "largely isolated from the day to day operations of the organization he nominally heads." What organization?

Axiom and Opposite

Why such a focus on an organization that was never large, most of whose known associates have long since been killed or captured, and whose assets the CIA does not even try to catalogue? The CIA's official explanation, that al Qaeda has "metastasized" by spreading its expertise, is an empty metaphor. But pursuant to it, the U.S. government accepted the self-designation as "al Qaeda" of persons fighting for Sunni-Baathist interests in Iraq, and has pinned the label gratuitously on sundry high-profile terrorists while acknowledging that their connection to Osama and Co. may be emotional at most. But why such gymnastics in the face of Osama's incontrovertible irrelevance? Because focusing on Osama and al Qaeda affirms a CIA axiom dating from the Cold War, an axiom challenged during the Reagan years but that has been U.S. policy since 1993, namely: terrorism is the work of "rogue individuals and groups" that operate despite state authority. According to this axiom, the likes of Osama run rings around the intelligence services of Arab states—just like the Cold War terrorists who came through Eastern Europe to bomb in Germany and Italy and to shoot Pope John Paul II supposedly acted despite Bulgarian intelligence, despite East Germany's Stasi, despite the KGB. This axiom is dear to many in the U.S. government because it leads logically to working with the countries whence terrorists come rather than to treating them as enemies.

But what if terrorism were (as Thomas Friedman put it) "what states want to happen or let happen"? What if, in the real world, infiltrators from intelligence services—the professionals—use the amateur terrorists rather than the other way around? What is the logical consequence of noting the fact that the terrorist groups that make a difference on planet Earth—such as Hamas and Hezbollah, the PLO, Colombia's FARC—are extensions of, respectively, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and Venezuela? It is the negation of the U.S. government's favorite axiom. It means that when George W. Bush spoke, and when Barack Obama speaks, of America being "at war" against "extremism" or "extremists" they are either being stupid or acting stupid to avoid dealing with the nasty fact that many governments wage indirect warfare.

In short, insisting on Osama's supposed mastery of al Qaeda, and on equating terrorism with al Qaeda, is official U.S. policy because it forecloses questions about the role of states, and makes it possible to indict as warmongers whoever raises such questions. Osama's de facto irrelevance for seven years, however, has undermined that policy's intellectual legitimacy. How much longer can presidents or directors of the CIA wave the spectra of Osama and al Qaeda before people laugh at them?

An Intellectual House of Cards

Questioning osama's relevance to today's terrorism leads naturally to asking how relevant he ever was, and who might be more relevant. That in turn quickly shows how flimsy are the factual foundations on which rest the U.S. government's axioms about the "war on terror." Consider: We know that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM) planned and carried out 9/11. But there is no independent support for KSM's claim that he acted at Osama's direction and under his supervision. On the contrary, we know for sure that the expertise and the financing for 9/11 came from KSM's own group (the U.S. government has accepted but to my knowledge not verified that the group's core is a biological family of Baluchs). This group carried out the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa and every other act for which al Qaeda became known. The KSM group included the perpetrators of the 1993 World Trade Center bombings Abdul Rahman Yasin, who came from, returned to, and vanished in Iraq, as well as Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of that bombing, who came to the U.S. from Iraq on an Iraqi passport and was known to his New York collaborators as "Rashid the Iraqi." This group had planned the bombing of U.S. airliners over the Pacific in 1995. The core members are non-Arabs. They had no history of religiosity (and the religiosity they now display is unconvincing). They were not creatures of Osama. Only in 1996 did the group come to Osama's no-account band, and make it count.

In life, as in math, you must judge the function |of a factor in any equation by factoring it out and seeing if the equation still works. Factor out Osama. Chances are, 9/11 still happens. Factor out al Qaeda too. Maybe 9/11 still happens. The other bombing plots sure happened without it. But if you factor out the KSM group, surely there is no 9/11, and without the KSM group, there is no way al Qaeda would have become a household word.

Who, precisely, are KSM and his reputed nephews? That is an interesting question to which we do not know the answer, and are not about to find out. Ramzi Yousef was sentenced to life imprisonment for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing after a trial that focused on his guilt and that abstracted from his associations. Were our military tribunal to accede to KSM's plea of guilty, he would avoid any trial at all. Moreover, the sort of trial that would take place before the tribunal would focus on proving guilt rather than on getting at the whole truth. It would not feature the cross-examination of witnesses, the substantive proving and impeachment of evidence, and the exploration of alternative explanations of events. But real trials try all sides. Do we need such things given that KSM confessed? Yes. There is no excuse for confusing confessions with truth, especially confessions in which the prisoners confirm our agencies' prejudices.

The excuse for limiting the public scrutiny of evidence is the alleged need to protect intelligence sources. But my experience, as well as that of others who have been in a position to probe such claims, is that almost invariably they protect our intelligence agencies' incompetence and bureaucratic interests. Anyhow, the public's interest in understanding what it's up against should override all others.

Understanding the Past, Dealing With the Future

Focusing on Osama bin Elvis is dangerous to America's security precisely because it continues to substitute in our collective mind the soft myth that terrorism is the work of romantic rogues for the hard reality that it can happen only because certain states want it to happen or let it happen. KSM and company may not have started their careers as agents of Iraqi intelligence, or they may have quit the Iraqis and worked for others, or maybe they just worked for themselves. But surely they were a body unto themselves. As such they fit Osama's description of those responsible for 9/11 as "individuals with their own motivation" far better than they fit the CIA's description of them as Osama's tools.

More important, focusing on Osama and al Qaeda distorts our understanding of what is happening in Afghanistan. The latter-day Taliban are fielding forces better paid and armed than any in the region except America's. Does anyone suggest seriously that Osama or al-Zawahiri are providing the equipment, the money, or the moral incentives? Such amounts of money can come only from the super wealthy of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. The equipment can come only through dealers who work at the sufferance of states, and can reach the front only through Pakistan by leave of Pakistani authorities. Moreover, the moral incentives for large-scale fighting in Pushtunistan can come only as part of the politics of Pushtun identity. Hence sending troops to Afghanistan to fight Pushtuns financed by Saudis, supported by Pakistanis, and disposing of equipment purchased throughout the world, with the objective of "building an Afghan nation" capable of preventing Osama and al Qaeda from messing up the world from their mountain caves, is an errand built on intellectual self-indulgence.

Intellectual Authority

The CIA had as much basis for deeming Osama the world's terror master "game, set, and match" in 2001 as it had in 2003 for verifying as a "slam dunk" the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and as it had in 2007 for determining that Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons program. Mutatis mutandis, it was on such bases that the CIA determined in 1962 that the Soviets would not put missiles in Cuba; that the CIA was certain from 1963 to 1978 that the USSR would not build the first strike missile force that it was building before its very eyes; that the CIA convinced Bush 41 that the Soviet Union was not falling apart and that he should help hold it together; that the CIA assured the U.S. government in 1990 that Iraq would not invade Kuwait, and in 1996 that neither India nor Pakistan would test nuclear weapons. In these and countless other instances, the CIA has provided the US government and the media with authoritative bases for denying realities over which America was tripping.

The force of the CIA's judgments, its authority, has always come from the congruence between its prejudices and those of America's ruling class. When you tell people what they want to hear, you don't have to be too careful about premises, facts, and conclusions. Our problem, in short, is not the CIA's mentality so much as the unwillingness of persons in government and the "attentive public" to exercise intellectual due diligence about international affairs. Osama bin Laden's role may be as good a place as any to start.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
Angelo M. Codevilla is professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University.