On January 4, Al Jazeera broadcast yet another audio tape purported to be from Osama bin Laden, in which he exhorted his followers to “continue the jihad.” The voice referred to the capture of Saddam Hussein, proving the tape was recent. An anonymous CIA official confided to the New York Times: “It is likely the voice of Osama bin Laden.” In an interview with CBS, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge agreed.I pronounced bin Laden dead in my May 2002 and September 2002 columns. Am I ready to retract this claim, and to pay off several bets I made back then? No, not yet. I think Osama bin Laden is still dead. And I don’t think I’m just being stubborn. To understand my logic, consider the following three issues: the state of the antiterrorism effort, the technology of voice identification, and the most likely alternative hypothesis that could explain the audio tape.
Despite the distractions of Iraq War II, the U.S. antiterrorism effort has remained remarkably strong. The U.S.A. Patriot Act treads on our civil rightsbut it also makes it difficult for terrorists to operate in our homeland. Secretive organizations cannot easily regroup when a few of their key links are disrupted, whether through wiretapping, surveillance, or arrest. What do you do when your one and only contact is gone? Al Qaeda may not be defeated, and it can still send suicide bombers against soft targets, but its organization must certainly be in a state of disarray.
Moreover, experts I’ve consulted with tell me that cooperation between the United States and foreign antiterrorist organizations remains strong, even in “old Europe.” Political disagreements about the wisdom of invading Iraq have not interfered with the shared recognition of the dangers of terrorism. That is not surprising; even France and Germany know that Osama didn’t like them much more than he liked the United States.
All that adds up to a tough time for al Qaeda, and it and its sympathizers desperately need encouragement from their charismatic leader. That is, of course, why the tapes were made and broadcast. But why were they audio and not video? The voice sounds right, but video would have been more convincing. Video recorders are cheap and small. Osama could put all doubt to rest by releasing a film of him holding up a recent newspaper of Saddam’s capture. Prior to Tora Bora, videos of him were the norm. What happened?
I can find only two plausible explanations. One is that Osama bin Laden is severely ill or wounded, and does not want the world to know it. The other is that he is dead, and the audio tape is faked. But how could the counterfeiter do a good enough job to fool experts?