Elusive Osama bin Laden becomes global commercial trademark

A correspondent of Arguments and Facts newspaper goes to Afghanistan in an attempt to find out why Osama bin Laden is so hard to catch.

Some of those who used to meet Osama bin Laden in person are confident that the hunt for the leader of al-Qaeda has recently become all show and no substance.

“Please tell the truth. You don’t like the Sheikh, do you?

“By no means I like him. I’ve got no reasons whatsoever to like him. However, it would be unfair to speak badly of him. Back in our training camp, Osama has always been polite to the people, he treated everybody equally, even those of a lower rank,” says Takhir Habibullah, a resident of Jelalabad, as he lays several yellowed black-and-white photos on a table. The pictures feature a bearded man crouching near a mortar. “The only thing the Sheikh didn’t like was when he saw somebody having a nap in the afternoon. He’d wake up that man straightaway by telling the following: ‘Why on earth are you sleeping? You’ll sleep when you go to heaven. Now go and fight the infidel,” says Habibullah.

Habibullah was a sergeant in the Afghan government forces. One day he was taken prisoner by the mojahedins. He was held in a hole in the ground for the next six months. Later he was sent to a camp of Arab mercenaries, the place was dubbed The Black Storks. Habibullah was used for building defenses around the camp. The bearded man on his photographs was in command. Though Habibullah has not seen bin Laden since 1991, the Afghan authorities put him into prison for some time. He was repeatedly questioned by prosecutors who wanted to know just one thing: Where is He?

“I don’t know where he is now,” says Habibullah as he pours me a cup of yellowish Afghan tea. I might as well say that Osama bin Laden lives right across the street these days. It may take a lifetime to capture this sort of people in Afghanistan. The shuravi (the Soviets – ed. note) made a lot of effort trying to catch him. They failed. The Americans will fail too,” says he.

“Osama became a trademark”

Osama bin Laden was officially posted on the list of the world’s most wanted terrorists on August 7, 1998, shortly after al-Qaeda bombed two American embassies in East Africa. The reward for information leading to the arrest of Bin Laden went up to $25 million after al-Qaeda suicide bombers hijacked U.S. passenger planes and attacked New York on September 11th. Two months later the American tanks rolled into Kabul. But the “terrorist #1” (who had hidden in Afghanistan for five years) vanished without a trace. At the beginning, the media would spread the breaking news about his capture every other week. These days the reports of this kind are few and far between. The CIA says periodically that Osama is, in all probability, more dead than alive. The CIA statements are normally followed by Osama’s messages posted on the Internet as an audio or video file. By means of his messages, Osama apparently makes a mockery of his enemies. He sends a clear signal to those in doubt: The news about my death is nothing but rubbish.

It is high noon. I seem to have lost the sense of time completely. We are walking on a dusty road that snakes among the mountains. The merciless Afghan sun is scorching the rock and earth. I feel parboiled and somewhat dizzy, sweeping sweat from my forehead almost every minute. Habibullah hands me a pair binoculars, the Soviet army standard issue, and points out to the east:

“Take a look over there… Can you see the flag on a mountain? For you information, we’re in Pakistan. You just didn’t notice how we crossed the border,did you?We kept walking along the path,and we saw no border guards or roadblocks whatsoever. Now, have a think. You just took a walk across the border in broad daylight, and it was a cakewalk, even for you. So what problems are we talking about with regard to the Sheikh?”

Even the Pakistani army commandos do not dare make a raid on the villages located in a narrow mountain range (“the tribal zone”) along the Pakistan-Afghan border. The Pakistani authorities have no control over the territory. The local tribal leaders rule the area. Hundreds of makeshift workshops are busy manufacturing AK-47s and explosives, which are used against NATO troops in neighboring Afghanistan All that talk about bin Laden hiding away somewhere – give me a break. Adolf Hitler could have hidden himself in one of those villages. The Osama posters are omnipresent in the area. They grace the walls of every house or business. According to opinion polls, Osama bin Laden is the most popular politician among the Pakistanis.

“Osama doesn’t have to do anything these days. His name became a sort of trademark, just like McDonald’s restaurants. Those young British Islamists who attempted to blow up the passenger planes over the Atlantic – they were actually trying to copycat Osama’s ways. Now it simply makes no difference whether the Americans will ever catch him or not. Osama bin Laden has become a virtual symbol of struggle, and thus he already won his war against America. What’s he doing now? I bet he’s watching TV to enjoy his huge popularity. Once he cares to release another tape, every TV station in the world is quick to put it on the air. Billions of TV viewers listen to the words he says, and commentators and analysts speak at length about every little bit of his message. Is there any other leader in the world who can enjoy such immense popularity?” said Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan, in her interview with Arguments and Facts.

“The last attempt on his life was five years ago”

Jamal Ismail, a journalist with Abu Dhabi TV, interviewed Bin Laden four times (all of the interviews are part of his book Osama, with became a bestseller in the Arab world). The fourth interview took place in February of 2001. The journalist was flown by helicopter to a remote location in the mountains, in Uruzgan province of Afghanistan. According to Jamal, 2001 was the year of CIA’s last attempt on Osama’s life.

“The Americans succeeded in paying off a worker of Osama’s kitchen detail. The guy was a volunteer from Bangladesh,” says Ismail. Well, they didn’t promise him a lot of money – just one million dollars for services rendered. In fact, the official award for the capture of bin Laden was five times bigger at the time. The spooks furnished him with two kinds of poison, thallium and cyanide. He was supposed to sprinkle thallium on Osama’s clothes, but he couldn’t get near his dresser. Two times the killer put the poison into a cup of coffee but bin Laden never drank it. He was fully absorbed in watching his men do some combat training. In desperation, the Bangladeshi emptied a vial of cyanide into the plate full of pita bread. One of the bodyguards was watching him at the very moment. The guy was caught red-handed. Following the attempt, Osama began taking special medications as antidote against the effects of a variety of poisons,” says Ismail.

Jamal Ismail has no doubts that the so-called hunt for bin Laden is just for show. “Is Osama really being hunted? I really doubt it. The CIA should have taken action some ten years ago. Should they capture him, it won’t change a thing. Even folks in Washington have figured it out. Today they’re mostly concerned about a tactic to preventnew bombings of airplanes in London. At the moment they just can’t care less for ways and methods of putting handcuffs on Osama bin Laden,” says Ismail.

The main mosque in the city of Jelalabad draws crowds on Fridays. Osama bin Laden lived in the city for two years after moving to Afghanistan. Eyewitnesses swear that Ghulbeddin Khekmatiar himself visited the mosque twice in recent years. Khekmatiar is one of the warlords who declared jihad or holy war on the American troops. Not unlike bin Laden, he has been wanted for terrorist activities for five years. The reward posted for his capture equals five millions U.S. dollars. He was usually accompanied by twelve bodyguards when he turned up in the mosque. Nobody made a move to arrest him.

“Rumor has it that the Sheikh also visited the mosque a year ago,” says Habibullah with a smile.

“He’s got lots of money, and he always knows whom she should pay to. That’s why he slipped away from Torah Borah, a trap set up by the Americans. He’s rumored to have paid $10 million for his escape. The Pakistani government makes an effort in showing its love and affection for the U.S. However, all the government ministers do understand that a civil war will break out the very moment they let the U.S. troops land onto the “tribal zone.” It’s funny, isn’t it? Lots of people can guess the exact place where they should go and get the Sheikh. At the same time, no one dare lay hands on him,” says Habibullah.

CNN has recently reported that Osama bin Laden was hiding somewhere in Pakistan’s province of Chitral (there were some trees spotted in the footage, they happen to be of a kind that occurs only in the above province). Judging by the footage, bin Laden is not by any means holed up in some cave. On the contrary, his family members and he live in a house, which is watched by two guards only. “The Americans could only catch him by a stroke of luck. However, their chances are nil at the moment,” said one of the sources featured in the report broadcast by CNN.

“The Americans have used a really stupid tactic from the very beginning,” says the French Col. (Ret.) Bob Denar, the most notorious mercenary of the 20th century. “The U.S. sent troops to a country in order to apprehend one man. It’s just like using an elephant for chasing a scorpion. The latter will sting his enemy without taking any risks at all. Back in the 1970s, I’d snatch the presidents of some African countries right from their beds. And it would take me just 40 men to do the job. Nowadays those trigger-happy generals dispatch some 40 thousand troops for the same mission. But the mission is doomed to failure. They’re never going to catch bin Laden anyway. The efforts to capture him are getting weaker as far as I’ concerned. I believe the status quo is okay with both sides. Look, the radical Islamists have their spiritual leader alive and kicking while the Americans have their enemy #1 in their sights. You know, America just can’t do without its enemies,” said Denar.

Nothing has changed in Kandahar, the city where Taliban originated. On the face of it, a pro-American government is in place in Kabul. Over here, in Kandahar, T-shirts with the print of bin Laden go like hot cakes. “Do you want to know why they can’t catch the Sheikh? Oh dear, I don’t know,” says a gray-haired mullah when I start a conversation on one of the streets in Kandahar. “Are you sure there’re still catching him?” asks the mullah.

Arguments and Facts

Translated by Guerman Grachev

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Author`s name Dmitry Sudakov