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Osama bin Laden: Don’t Exaggerate His Importance

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Fawaz A. Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern studies and international affairs at Sarah Lawrence College, is a visiting senior scholar at the American University in Cairo. He is author of "America and Political Islam" (Cambridge University Press, 1999)

One year ago, Americans were in a state of shock after car bombs destroyed the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, killing 224 people and wounding thousands. Thirteen days later, the Clinton administration identified Osama bin Laden, a Saudi dissident and multimillionaire, as the alleged mastermind and retaliated by raining Tomahawk missiles on his sanctuary in Afghanistan. In a more controversial move, the U.S. bombed a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, which U.S. officials claimed to be making precursor chemicals for nerve gas. The failure of the Tomahawk raids to kill Bin Laden, coupled with widespread criticism of the U.S. action in Sudan, sparked a heated debate on the exact nature of the challenge represented by Bin Laden. While U.S. authorities buckled down for a protracted war of attrition against international terrorism, the perceived danger of Bin Laden has proved to be exaggerated.

U.S. officials term Bin Laden “the preeminent organizer and financier of international terrorism” and have placed him on the FBI’s “10 most wanted” list. But his organization today is just a shadow of its former self. Shunned by a majority of Middle Eastern governments and with a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head, Bin Laden, has been confined to Afghanistan, constantly on the run from U.S. intelligence services. Reliable reports indicate that Bin Laden is exhausted by the constant shuttling among different Afghan hideaways.

The Islamic Taliban movement, which controls 90% of Afghanistan, has so far resisted U.S. pressure to expel Bin Laden. But it has imposed restrictions on his political activities and at times confined him to virtual house arrest. Indeed, for a man who relishes publicity, Bin Laden has been eerily silent since the American airstrikes against him.

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He has nowhere else to go. Recent reports about his intention to leave Afghanistan and seek sanctuary in another Muslim country should be taken with a grain of salt. After debating their options in a recent meeting with his security team, they agreed that Bin Laden hunkers down in the last safe haven in Afghanistan because all alternative roads could lead to his arrest by U.S. intelligence agents.

Since the blasts in Africa, U.S. authorities have had considerable success in disrupting the activities of Bin Laden’s own organization, Al Qaida, or the Base, and pursuing his most ardent Islamist supporters. The latter include the Egyptian Gamaa al Islamiya (Islamic Group) and Islamic Jihad (Holy War), which the United States suspects of playing a role in the African blasts. Pressed by the U.S. government to either imprison or extradite wanted Islamists, several countries quietly expelled dozens of Gamaa and Jihad members to Egypt, precipitating a major breakthrough in the Egyptian government’s fight against revolutionary Islam. These arrests disrupted Gamaa’s and Jihad’s paramilitary and political operations and provided the U.S. and Egyptian authorities with details of their organizational structure and networks of external support.

In custody in Egypt, the Gamaa chiefs acknowledged that their “biggest mistake” was to translate their anti-American rhetoric into violent deeds against U.S. interests and took pains to deny their involvement in the bombings in Africa or adherence to Bin Laden’s World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders. The latter--a movement that announced itself to the world at large in a fatwa, or religious ruling, in February 1998--held that “To kill Americans and their allies, both civil and military, is an individual duty of every Muslim.” As one of the Gamaa’s senior leaders, Sheik Rifa’i Ahmad Taha Musa, put it: “We are not a party in any front that confronts Americans.” In March 1999 Gamaa, in effect, conceded defeat by declaring a unilateral cease-fire inside and outside Egypt.

Even as the militant circle around Bin Laden grew narrower, a split within his “network” shattered the myth of Al Qaida’s unity. Intelligence agencies in Pakistan, and Arab sources close to the movement now say that Bin Laden himself is the target of a fatwa by Takfiris, a breakaway faction of Islamic Jihad, which was considered until recently to be his staunchest ally. The fatwa alleged that Bin Laden had turned himself into a prince instead of a revolutionary, and called for the “death of the infidel.” Three attempts have reportedly been made on Bin Laden’s life and known members of Takfiris and Al Qaida have died in revenge shootings in recent months.

Consumed by internecine-ideological rivalry on the one hand, and hemmed in by the United States on the other, Bin Laden’s resources are depleting rapidly. Outside the tiny circle of Arab-Afghani and Pakistani activists, Bin Laden has received hardly any support from mainstream Muslim leaders.

Neither the basic texts of Islam nor accepted Muslim practice condone terrorism or the killing of civilians. Many Muslims widely share some of Bin Laden’s grievances against the United States, such as its imposition of punishing sanctions on the Iraqi people, its armed presence in the Islamic holy land of Saudi Arabia and its disregard for Palestinian rights. However, Arabs and Muslims abhor Bin Laden’s bloody methods and hold that his tactics reinforce the negative Western stereotypes of Islam and Muslims.

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The United States has the right to defend its citizens and institutions. But an approach that exaggerates the challenge posed by Bin Laden and relies on force as the only means of dealing with revolutionary Islam could be counterproductive. Bin Laden’s Al Qaida is a small and, in the final analysis, an inconsequential fraction of political Islam. Washington’s current strategy of combining diplomatic pressure with efforts to disrupt Bin Laden’s financial empire, has already produced results. Since the blasts in Africa, not a single American life has been lost to Al Qaida’s terrorism. Ultimately, addressing the roots of the grievances that fuel Middle Eastern terrorism is the best means of putting Bin Laden and his ilk out of business.

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