TCS Daily

Get 'Forrest Gump'

By Greg Buete - February 24, 2003 12:00 AM

So what are we to make of these Osama bin Laden audiotapes? For more than a year the pundits and experts have spent an enormous amount of time studying every new alleged recording and hypothesizing why bin Laden refuses to appear on video.

Some believe that the U.S. bombing in Afghanistan horribly disfigured bin Laden, and so he is reluctant to show his face. I don't recall bin Laden ever making a People magazine "most beautiful" list. Is he between Ryan Phillippe and Nicole Kidman? Bin Laden's sins are plenty, but they probably don't include physical vanity.

To the contrary, the former Afghan warriors show off their battle scars with more pride and regularity than Quint did in Jaws. Just look at Abu Hamza, the vocal head jerk of London's Finsbury Park mosque, who was wounded fighting the Soviets. He obviously got in a fight with an RPG and lost, but still he never misses an opportunity to face a camera and spew hate.

Others say that bin Laden has changed his appearance, perhaps through plastic surgery, in order to avoid detection while he hides in Pakistan or another country. Is Pakistan known for good plastic surgery? Maybe they botched it and he's embarrassed. All joking aside, a disguised bin Laden, while somewhat plausible, doesn't really fit his character.

Perhaps bin Laden is dead. Indeed, in the latest alleged audiotape bin Laden predicts his own death in a future act of martyrdom. In the words of Dana Carvey's Church Lady, "How conveeeenient!"

For if bin Laden is dead then al Qaeda knows that with each passing month his uninformed disciples will begin to wonder about his failure to appear. Preemptively announcing bin Laden's death in a future suicide mission against the United States is a far more glorious ending for the Islamic grand dragon than admitting he died at Tora Bora from kidney failure or a bunker buster bomb.

In the recording bin Laden says - again allegedly - "I pray my demise isn't on a coffin bearing green mantles. I wish my demise to be in the eagle's belly." The eagle is an obvious reference to the United States. (Out of pure curiosity, could the green-mantled coffin represent Palestine? No doubt the world's extremists are not happy about Arafat's sudden apparent acceptance of the U.S. "road map" plan). The bin Laden voice then claims he will die "a martyr" in an attack later this year. Finally, the taped voice adds that the U.S. invasion of Iraq is a precursor to invading Saudi Arabia. Were we only so lucky!

Al-Ansaar, a British-based Islamic news service (read: al Qaeda propaganda trumpet), purchased the new "martyr" tape from another party over the Internet. We should be wary of any tape broadcast by al-Ansaar; they have once before tried to pull a fast one - last May the news agency claimed a bin Laden video was current and thus proved him alive, but research later determined that the video was taken before the war in Afghanistan.

So far, unlike Feb. 10's audiotape, the United States has had no official reaction to the al-Ansaar recording. That's a good start. Their reaction to future audiotapes should be minimal.

Alive and disfigured, in disguise, or dead, it is irrelevant. The tapes don't matter. And to a certain extent, neither does bin Laden. While it is necessary for the government, and especially the military, to continue to act as though bin Laden is alive - even if they believe him dead - the Bush administration should avoid putting too much weight into these audiotapes because it intensifies their relevance.

The government is not alone. The media too, which propagated the latest bin Laden recordings even more than - stop the presses - Michael Jackson's admission that he "shares his bed" with children, could do the war on terror a big favor if they instead focused more on ranking al Qaeda operational commanders.

They should start with Khalid Mohammed.

Khalid Mohammed is the single most dangerous terrorist alive, perhaps even more than Hezbollah's Imad Mugniyah. Going back 10 years, Khalid Mohammed has been involved in every single major terrorist operation involving al Qaeda. He is the uncle of 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef, and is now even suspected of playing a part in that bombing. (In an aside I've often wondered if we could use the imprisoned Yousef to somehow draw Khalid into the open).

Mohammed worked with Yousef in the mid-1990s on plots to assassinate both President Bill Clinton and the Pope. Together they constructed "Bojinka," Bosnian for "big noise," Bojinka sought to murder 4,000 people in 48 hours and included the simultaneous bombing of 12 transoceanic airliners. Yousef was later captured making bombs in his apartment. Like a fox, Uncle Khalid escaped and has barely evaded capture in at least two other operations in 2002, including the one last fall that corralled his disciple Ramsi Binalshibh, the logistics coordinator of Sept. 11.

But where the overconfident, bonehead Binalshibh managed to get caught after National Security Administration intercepts picked up his cellular phone in Pakistan, Khalid Mohammed is much more careful; and patient, too. In Mohammed's interview with al-Jazeera, reporter Yosri Fouda said that Mohammed "resurrected the Bojinka plot but had refined it into a devastatingly effective act of war." The seeds of Sept. 11 were in Mohammed's head for years, even before 1999 - when he formally began the "Holy Tuesday operation," recruiting Mohammed Atta and other members of the Hamburg cell.

Warm and friendly on the outside, Mohammed began his interview with Fouda by cracking a joke. He then explained to Fouda that they chose him because of Fouda's secular views; in this way the interview would carry more weight. This shows Mohammed's media savvy.

Being a careful man, especially with a $25 million price on his head, Mohammed was irritated that Fouda was allowed to the reception while in possession of his cell phone. Mohammed confiscated the phone, and removed the SIM card and battery. He even took Fouda's passport and wrote down the serial number. He's careful, cold and calculating.

His planning is impeccable, as shown in the details. Mohammed sent four "reconnaissance units" to America, alone or in pairs, over a six-month period to search, by air and land, for targets and to make dry runs on our commercial aircraft. Maybe actor James Woods even witnessed this. Fouda says that Mohammed admitted to no shortage of volunteer martyrs; his primary concern having to choose those most suitable for the missions and those most comfortable with Western living.

Mohammed is a scuba diver and has piloting skills. American educated, he earned his engineering degree from North Carolina A&T in just two-and-a-half years. He is able to speak fluent English, Arabic and Urdu. He travels globally, and has a reputation of a playboy - he once hired a helicopter and pilot to impress a female dentist (he dated Christian women). All this is an odd background for the leader of a group that claims to uphold strict Islamic virtue. Like the 9/11 hijackers, who spend their last nights at American strip clubs, Mohammed appears to practice religion only when convenient. We should use this more to our advantage - they hide not in caves but in nightclubs.

In addition to Sept. 11, Mohammed helped plan the 1996 bombing of a U.S. military facility in Saudi Arabia, the 1998 African embassy bombings, the April 2002 Tunisian synagogue blast, and the recent bombing of a Bali nightclub that killed 200 people. He is believed to have 60 aliases and scores of passports. And, of course, Mohammed personally trained three of the four pilots for Sept. 11 - the Hamburg cell - and controlled the operation's funding.

He's in every relevant event - one senior U.S. intelligence official calls him the "Forrest Gump" of terrorism. Former CIA agent Bob Baer told the UPI that Khalid Mohammed was personally behind the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl; Baer and Pearl were working together to find Mohammed. Unfortunately, Pearl found him - but not the warm and friendly version that Fouda met.

As the main contact point between al Qaeda and Southeast Asian terror groups Mohammed has his hands in every aspect of al Qaeda operations including being a personal contact to Jemaah Islamiah's operational leader, Riduan Isamuddin (Hambali).

As the capture of Binalshibh was essential to learn the habits of Khalid Mohammed, the capture of Mohammed could uncover the whole bin Laden network including its SE Asian links.

We better hurry. From the Fouda interview there is indication that Mohammed is planning an attack worse than Sept. 11. The attacks on Washington D.C. and New York City were the realization of years of planning and improving the failed Bojinka plot. Mohammed learned from Bojinka's failure to detail every aspect of a major attack, patiently mulling it over a long time.

In the interview Mohammed told Fouda that the al Qaeda military committee had initially targeted nuclear plants for Sept. 11 but that the idea was dropped because the attack might "get out of hand." Fouda says that Mohammed made it clear to him that al Qaeda would target nuclear stations in the future. Perhaps too much time has been spent wondering which capital building al Qaeda will hit next. Perhaps Mohammed has broadcast the next target loud and clear.

While important, capturing Osama bin Laden will not deal a critical blow to al Qaeda's operations, only to its spiritual morale (curiously, during the Fouda interview Mohammed referred to bin Laden in the past tense). However, capturing or killing Khalid Mohammed will certainly drastically impede al Qaeda's ability to wage murder and recruit more Attas.

Osama bin Laden is a spiritual leader, whereas Khalid Mohammed creatively devises ways to kill, and has full operational and financial control to achieve it. Nothing speaks of Mohammed's importance and independence more than his revelation to Fouda that he did not even announce the Sept. 11 plan to bin Laden until just five days before the attacks. Osama says, "Go kill Westerners." Khalid Mohammed and the other operational commanders do the rest.

The Binalshibh capture brings us closer than ever to Mohammed, especially if combined with any information nephew Ramzi Yousef has. Recent successes show that the U.S. military and intelligence services understand that without men like Mohammed, al-Faruq, Zubaydah, Binalshibh, al-Nashiri, and Abu Ali - the last five dead or captured - Osama bin Laden is just another angry religious blowhard. Those upper command leaders are the key to crushing al Qaeda. They are the key to hurting al Qaeda recruitment.

Many would comment here that these leaders are replaceable and where one Khalid Mohammed is immobilized another will appear. But such a belief of plug-and-play leadership is as misguided for al Qaeda as it is for America. Imagine the damage to the United States with the assassination or capture of Rumsfeld or another high official. Leadership and experience do matter.

Forget the tapes. Deal al Qaeda a critical blow - get Khalid Mohammed.

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