Dead or alive

October 14, 2002

A YEAR AGO, the nation's fury focused on Osama bin Laden. He was Public Enemy No. 1, and the main point of the air war just getting started in Afghanistan was to overthrow the Taliban so that we could get a fair shot at our real quarry.

The Taliban, overthrown, have drifted into the Afghan wilderness. Bin Laden never gave us the satisfaction of dying on the battlefield. He may have been cornered at Tora Bora -- but if so, he got away. Unless he died in a bombed-in cave. That is, assuming he didn't succumb to kidney failure first.

In recent days, an audiotape and an intercepted satellite phone conversation have again raised the possibility that he is alive and functioning somewhere in Afghanistan or Pakistan. But the reports were treated, generally, as intriguing curiosities. That's because Osama bin Laden, whether he's a fugitive or a dead man, doesn't quite matter so much anymore.

Al-Qaida, though clearly diminished, survives -- certainly in the mountains of Asia, most likely in cells in the cities of Western Europe, very probably here in America. A U.S. soldier is killed in the Philippines; a Marine is shot dead in Kuwait; a French tanker is attacked off the coast of Yemen, where bin Laden is something of a folk hero. All appear to be the work of al-Qaida. U.S. officials believe that more is in the offing.

The Bush administration has come under a certain amount of criticism for demonizing bin Laden a year ago and then gradually forgetting about him. True enough, a big manhunt coming up empty has a way of making anyone want to change the subject. But the real goal here is -- as it always should have been -- to smash his terrorist organization.

That means establishing and extending good intelligence, countering plots, freezing assets. It's long-term work and not very sensational. Of course, if bin Laden were to re-emerge from the shadows it would be better to catch him than not, for all kinds of reasons having to do with justice and pre-emption, among other things. But the machinery he helped to create -- the system of autonomous cells coupled with the fanatical daring to act against Western targets -- is in place. Whether he's "in charge" is no longer the question. In World War II, the Allies did not concentrate on snaring Hitler; the focus was on defeating Hitler's army.

Now that the White House is eager to press the attack on another sort of demon -- the one in Baghdad -- it would be unfortunate in the extreme if al-Qaida were lost sight of altogether. This, after all, is the organization that successfully brought death and terror to our shores a year ago. It poses not a potential threat but a very real one to America and Americans, with or without Osama bin Laden.

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