OSAMA BIN LADEN, or some good likeness of him, spoke from the ether again on two occasions last week, releasing two undated audiotapes as Muslims completed their pilgrimages to Mecca. His call to Jihad did not stop at tying himself to Iraq's people, by which he had clearly hoped to provoke Washington into immediate unilateral military action against Saddam Hussein. Nor did it end with his messianic recitation of verses in the Koran that clearly demonstrated he knows the end game is near. Predicting his martyrdom this year, he vowed to die in "the belly of the Eagle," an Islamist reference to ending his life in a final act of terror against the United States on our soil. The man, put simply, is on the run.
Bin Laden's cowardice shines through his rhetoric. For the first time since the September 11 attacks against the United States, bin Laden demonstrated fear through his choice of words. In setting forth plans for his suicide, he probably came to the conclusion that al Qaeda's retaliation infrastructure around the world had been so effectively and systematically dismantled by western intelligence that his terrorists may not be able to mount a credible response to any planned U.S. military action in Iraq in the near future. Like many Mafia bosses before him, he appears to have decided that when the going looks tough--the poison network in Europe, for example, has been decimated by defections and confessions--it's better to exit stage left.
While bin Laden's vision of dividing the West and driving a wedge between the United States and her allies, whether Arab or European, has become a political reality, his terrorist acts have not yet reached their intended crescendo--to use a weapon of mass destruction against civilians. That is why bin Laden spoke and why we need to quickly and effectively decipher what he is really trying to tell us.
A plethora of available but seemingly unconnected evidence provides important clues for what may be bin Laden's final act. To understand the data, we must be imaginative and accept that al Qaeda's highest military objective is the economic paralysis of the West--killing us softly, to quote Roberta Flack. Hardcore acts of terrorism against civilian targets that cause mass casualties are certainly a part of the al Qaeda Jihad thesis, but these acts are designed more for recruitment than long-term debilitating impact.
Constructing the Tools of Armageddon
AL QAEDA has explosives expertise that is unsurpassed in non-military circles. It gets military-grade C4 charges from China and Iran; it employs Hezbollah and Hamas guerillas trained in the fine arts of detonation devices (witness particularly the maritime attacks against the USS Cole and the French oil tanker); and it has brainwashed legions of men who are willing to die for the cause.
What's missing? Plutonium, and the scientific expertise to build a crude but highly explosive nuclear bomb. (Plutonium is more easily transported without detection and offers a bigger bang for the buck than typical enriched uranium devices.)
Who's supplying the material and expertise? North Korea, and, surprisingly, our ally in the war against al Qaeda, Pakistan. Pyongyang--with a lot of help from China (which is supplying key chemicals to separate plutonium from depleted uranium) and Pakistan (which gave North Korea its uranium enrichment centrifuges and tutored its nuclear scientists)--will be able to churn out Coke cans of plutonium at the rate of one per week by the end of March.
According to my intelligence sources in the Far East, the outlying renegade provinces of Indonesia (Aceh, for example) and the Philippines (where al Qaeda affiliate Abu Sayyaf rules) are infested with senior al Qaeda leaders. Each one is financially empowered to purchase North Korea's plutonium the moment it is reprocessed. Ayman Zawahiri, al Qaeda's number two, was reportedly in Indonesia last September, a month before the Bali bomb blast that killed 200 mostly Australian tourists. He could easily be there again.
We also know from published--and so far undisputed--reports that from February 2000 until July 2002, eight senior Pakistani nuclear scientists left their country without obtaining the required No Objection Certificates needed for travel abroad. They remain unaccounted for and at least some are reported to have traveled to Australia and Indonesia.
In a worst case scenario, al Qaeda could construct a crude but effective nuclear device in weeks, if not a month, from Hezbollah C4, North Korean plutonium, and a little nuclear expertise from disaffected Pakistani scientists. Making a "dirty" radiological dispersion device with Strontium or Cesium also remains an option, although it is clear that al Qaeda has the intent and resources to go for weapons that cause maximum collateral damage.
Add to this troubling possibility the fact that the terror group has resorted to the use of seafaring vessels to move its people around, and now has a fleet large and diverse enough that one or two could seamlessly move into a large harbor or congested waterway undetected, and a picture emerges of an unparalleled potential threat to the global economy from the paralysis that could be caused by a crude plutonium bomb exploding in the belly of an al Qaeda ship with bin Laden onboard.
THE EASIEST TARGETS today for such an al Qaeda plot are Singapore harbor--the world's second largest seaport and the gateway to and from all trade done in the Far East--and the mouth of the Persian Gulf, which if irradiated could disrupt the normal flow of reasonably priced oil for half a century, no matter how much oil Alaska, Russia and Venezuela produce. There have been reports that easily accessed Australian ports, possibly even Sydney harbor, might be the target of an al-Qaeda dirty bomb plot. There are other potential targets with more symbolic value: the Panama Canal, to demonstrate al Qaeda can hit us again in our hemisphere; the Suez Canal, to hurt what bin Laden perceives as the traitorous Arab governments of Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia simultaneously; and the Straits of Gibraltar, where al Qaeda cells in Morocco tried to launch an attack last year.
But the target closest to bin Laden's heart likely remains a seaport that would allow him to go to his Allah in the belly of the Eagle--perhaps on the western seaboard of the United States. One thing is sure: Bin Laden's ego and ethos will compel him to go out in a blaze of glory that will secure the recruitment of his legions for decades to come and enshrine him as one of history's most evil beings.
America has a moral responsibility to the rest of the world to get on with the onerous task of dismantling and destroying those who enable al Qaeda's evil designs. To delay or fail in this task is to watch the destruction of humanity, bit by bit, by men who never understood God or His teachings, and with whom we can never achieve peaceful co-existence.
Mansoor Ijaz, chairman of Crescent Investment Management in New York, negotiated Sudan's counterterrorism offer of data on al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and other terrorist groups to the Clinton administration in 1997. He also worked closely with Mujahedeen and Islamist leaders in Pakistan to enact the July 2000 cease-fire in Kashmir between Muslim separatists and India's security forces.