A cornered bin Laden may be better left free

A terrorist martyr would create bigger problems, experts say

August 20, 1999|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A year after U.S. missiles slammed into Osama bin Laden's purported Afghan mountain stronghold, the terrorist kingpin remains alive but cornered, a stalemate that many specialists say suits America's interests better than its stated aim of arresting and trying him.

Roving from camp to camp in fear of American missiles, reduced to communicating with minions through hand-carried computer disks, strictly watched even by his Afghan "hosts," bin Laden is one of the world's most sought-after fugitives for his suspected role in the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania last year.

Bin Laden, the messianic heir to a Saudi Arabian construction fortune, wants to eliminate the U.S. presence in Islamic lands. He is on the FBI's most wanted list and has a $5 million bounty on his head.

He is under federal indictment in New York, and Afghanistan's Islamic fundamentalist Taliban government is the target of U.S. economic sanctions for harboring him.

The United States remains publicly committed to his capture. In secret meetings this year in Washington, New York and Pakistan, U.S. representatives have continued to press Taliban officials to turn over bin Laden, government sources say.

"They have a clear message from us that he must be returned to justice," said Michael Sheehan, the State Department's counterterrorism coordinator.

Yet at the same time, many specialists on terrorism suggest that a bin Laden confined to an Asian backwater is better for the world than a bin Laden sitting in the dock in federal court in Manhattan. For one thing, the continued operation of his organization can provide valuable intelligence, they said. For another, he might not be easy to convict.

"I don't believe at this point in time that we should in any way negotiate with the Taliban to take him out," said Harvey Kushner, a consultant on terrorism and professor of criminal justice at Long Island University in New York. "If you ask anybody who's involved in the security business, they will tell you it's better to have him in the field and monitor him."

U.S. pressure

On Aug. 20, 1998, the United States hit bin Laden's bunker-reinforced camp in Afghanistan's Khost province with about 70 Tomahawk cruise missiles, killing 24 people but missing bin Laden. The same day, U.S. missiles destroyed a factory in Sudan that the United States said had produced components of deadly nerve gas and had received financing from bin Laden.

The Clinton administration blamed the Islamic militant for the bombings two weeks earlier of U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, that killed more than 220 people.

Since then, continuing U.S. pressure has diminished bin Laden's power and freedom even as it increased his stature and respect in the terrorist underworld.

Those are two good reasons to leave him alone, said authorities on counterterrorism.

"Let's say we could grab bin Laden tomorrow. Do you make him a martyr?" said Ben Venzke, a senior consultant and bin Laden specialist for Pinkerton Global Intelligence Services in Arlington, Va. "That's 100 times worse. What kind of reprisals are you opening yourself up to?"

Venzke believes that pursuing bin Laden is "the right approach," but he and other analysts emphasize that, in many ways, a free bin Laden is more valuable to U.S. intelligence agencies than a jailed bin Laden.

"As long as he's in Afghanistan and we're eliminating his ability to operate, we're in a pretty solid position to contain him," said Larry Johnson, a partner in BERG Associates, a security consultancy in Washington.

The lack of major terrorist strikes in the past year is strong evidence, analysts say, that bin Laden and his associates have been stymied. And his status as the spider at the hub of a terrorist web, they added, makes him an unwitting funnel of information for Western intelligence.

"We've been able to make some headway in developing some ground resources, some assets in the field" near bin Laden, said Kushner. "Isn't it better that we build significant assets around him so that we can collect intelligence from people who tend to gravitate toward him?"

Frequently on the move since the missile attacks last year, bin Laden has built a new, three-room mountain redoubt in a cave near Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, according to Yossef Bodansky, author of "Bin Laden, The Man Who Declared War on America."

Bin Laden's satellite phones and other communications are presumably monitored by the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, analysts said, and his entourage and family are targets for infiltration and betrayal. For his most sensitive communications, he must rely on agents carrying coded computer disks across the border, Kushner said.

The United States says it has foiled several attacks linked to bin Laden in the past year, although officials won't reveal particulars.

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