Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Osama bin Laden: High Priest of Terror

Dead Or Alive?

Following the release of a videotaped bin Laden "address to the Islamic nation" in December, 2001, the viewing public could be forgiven for thinking that they were about to see the last of the notorious terrorist leader.  He looked decidedly unwell.  His speech was noticeably affected and he appeared to have lost the use of his left arm.  al-Quds al-Arabi, an Arab newspaper, would later issue a report alleging that bin Laden had been recovering from "a shrapnel wound" at the time the tape was recorded. 

Some weeks later speculation regarding bin Laden's demise was in the news again when Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf told CNN that he thought the terrorist leader had most likely died of kidney failure. 

The end may have seemed near at that time but apparently bin Laden made a full recovery and despite the best efforts of allied intelligence networks and combined military might, he is still at large and apparently directing operations personally.

"I think we've lost him," a U.S. counterterrorism official told CNN.  "That's why you're not hearing much talk about the hunt--because we're not succeeding."

Another U.S intelligence official summed up the frustrations associated with the hunt for bin Laden and his henchmen when he told reporters: "You follow up as many leads as you can, and often it does depend on a slip-up or a mistake. Eventually people come out of the woodwork."

On December 22, 2001, while the fruitless search continued, the far reaching tentacles of bin Laden's influence were felt yet again when a person "of middle eastern appearance" named Richard Reid boarded American Airlines Flight 63 in Paris, France en route to Miami, Florida.  Ninety minutes into the flight, Reid produced a book of matches and attempted to light explosives that were hidden in his shoes.  Fortunately Reid was prevented from carrying out his suicide mission when passengers and crew restrained him and held him until he could be sedated by doctors onboard.  The flight was later rerouted to Boston, Massachusetts where he was arrested and charged with "interfering with a flight crew."

Richard Reid
Richard Reid, arrest photo

A month later Reid appeared in court, was refused bail and remanded in custody charged with nine federal terrorism-related charges, including attempted murder, the attempted destruction of an aircraft and the attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction.  He would later plead not guilty to all charges.  An intense investigation following his arrest uncovered that Reid, also known as Abdul Ra'uff, received terrorist training in al Qaeda camps within Afghanistan allegedly funded and controlled by Osama bin Laden.

Despite the lack of success in apprehending bin Laden himself or Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, the push to infiltrate and neutralize bin Laden's global network has shown some progress.  In early 2002, 13 al-Qaeda operatives alleged to have been planning attacks on U.S. military installations were arrested.  Some weeks later, U.S. officials announced that Syria had detained Mohammed Heidar Zammar, a key al-Qaeda recruiter.  While these and other arrests may have slowed or even retarded the progress of al Qaeda operations, they were a long way from bringing the risk of fresh reprisals to an end. 

Just days later Spanish police arrested two men who were suspected to have links to the al Qaeda network.  The suspects had apparently been sought in connection with a terrorist crackdown the previous November that resulted in the arrests of eight men believed to have direct links to al Qaeda.

This was followed closely by the arrest of three al Qaeda suspects in the Philippines who were thought to be linked to the 15 terror suspects arrested in Singapore. Following the arrests, Filipino authorities uncovered over a ton of explosives and detonating devices that they believed were intended for targets in Southeast Asia.

Ten days later Thailand was placed on terror alert after receiving intelligence of possible al Qaeda attacks in the country and Chinese authorities released a report alleging Muslim separatists in the western province of Xinjiang had "received funds and training from Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terror network."

This news was followed closely by CNN's release of a video interview with bin Laden that was allegedly conducted by the Arabic-language Al-Jazeera network in late October, 2001.  An older, frailer looking bin Laden told the interviewer:

"The battle has moved to inside America.  We will work to continue this battle, God permitting, until victory or until we meet God, I tell you, freedom and human rights in America are doomed.  The U.S. government will lead the American people into an unbearable hell and a choking life."

In answer to questions regarding his "collusion" in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, bin Laden responded, "America has made many accusations against us and many other Muslims around the world. Its charge that we are carrying out acts of terrorism is unwarranted.  If inciting people to do that is terrorism, and if killing those who kill our sons is terrorism, then let history be witness that we are terrorists."   Bin Laden was also asked about his involvement in anthrax attacks on the United States following the September 11 terrorist strikes. His indirect response was: "These diseases are a punishment from God and a response to oppressed mothers' prayers in Lebanon and Palestine."

Later comments were more direct: "We kill the kings of the infidels, kings of the crusaders and civilian infidels in exchange for those of our children they kill. This is permissible in Islamic law and logic."

When the reporter asked if this was a form of reciprocal treatment, bin Laden responded with: "We kill their innocents, and I say it is permissible in Islamic law and logic."

He also commented on previous conflicts against the Russians and the attack on U.S. forces in Somalia, stating: "We believe that the defeat of America is possible, with the help of God, and is even easier for us -- God permitting -- than the defeat of the Soviet Union was before.  Our brothers with Somali mujahedeen and God's power fought the Americans. God granted them victory. America exited dragging its tails in failure, defeat, and ruin," he said.

On February 6, 2002, the bin Laden factor hit closer to home when a federal grand jury indicted John Walker Lindh on 10 counts, alleging he conspired to kill U.S. citizens while fighting for the Taliban.

Walker Lindh was taken into custody by the U.S. military after a November, 2001 prison uprising in northern Afghanistan that claimed the life of CIA operative Mike Spann.  

John Walker Lindh
John Walker Lindh, school photo

Having originally left his Marin County, California, home in November, 2000 to study Islam in Yemen and later in Pakistan, Walker Lindh allegedly learned about the Taliban while in Pakistan and eventually crossed the border into Afghanistan to join them.

He attended an al Qaeda training camp where he was "combat-trained" in the use of a variety of weapons and explosives.  According to the indictment, he later "swore allegiance to jihad after being told that Osama bin Laden had sent some 50 people to carry out multiple suicide operations against the United States and Israel."

Also in 2002, America experienced a tragic example of bin Laden sympathy when 15-year-old Charles Bishop flew a Cessna 172 aircraft into the 28th floor of the Bank of America building in downtown Tampa, Florida. 

Bishop, who was killed in the crash, was carrying a note in his pocket that "expressed his sympathy for the events which occurred September 11, 2001."  The letter was also said to lend support to al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.

In late February, following a CIA missile strike on a possible hideout in Afghanistan, the remains of a victim described by CNN as being: "tall, dressed in Arab white robes, and treated with deference by others," were closely examined by an armed forces pathology lab to determine if they were those of Osama bin Laden.  Later, a formal request was made to bin Laden's family to procure DNA samples to assist in an accurate identification but no response was received.

Less than a month later, Sheikh Ahmad, bin Laden's half brother, told CNN that Osama was alive and was not suffering from kidney disease.  Ahmad told the interviewer that his mother had received a phone call in late February, 2002 telling her that Osama was alive and well but did not say who made the call.

The following April, Abu Zubaydah, a 30-year-old Palestinian believed to be head of operations for al Qaeda, was captured during raids on suspected al Qaeda hideouts in Pakistan.  Later, during intensive questioning, Zubaydah yielded some "useful information" to interrogators but none regarding the whereabouts of bin Laden.

Also in April, another videotape was released by Al-Jazeera, the Arabic-language television network, showing bin Laden's chief deputy Ayman Al-Zawahiri claiming responsibility for the September 11 attacks.  The tape also showed Osama bin Laden who sat quietly as Al-Zawahiri made the following statement:  "This great victory that has been accomplished can only be attributed to God alone. It is not because of our skill or success but thanks to God it was possible. Allah almighty chooses those who are blessed by his mercy. Allah looks in the heart of his worshipers and chooses those who are qualified for his mercy, grace and blessing. Those 19 brothers who went out and gave their souls to Allah almighty, God almighty has granted them this victory we are enjoying now."

Another month passed and yet another bin Laden video emerged.  This one, obtained from an Islamic news agency in Britain by the Sunday Times, was allegedly taped in March, 2002 and shows bin Laden in discussion with followers in an unidentified mountainous area.  While it is believed to have been shot during spring, no proof of the actual date it was filmed was ever forthcoming.

Osama bin Laden, March, 2002 video still
Osama bin Laden, March, 2002 video still

In mid September, speculation as to the whereabouts of Mullah Mohammed Omar increased when an Arabic satellite station aired a statement allegedly from the missing Taliban leader in which, according to Associated Press, he vows to drive U.S. forces from Afghanistan.   He states: "We told our community ... that we are not afraid of Bush's and America's threats.  We are continuing jihad against America and all the invaders.  We reassure Muslims everywhere that we are abiding by the pledge, and that victory is coming."

While the message the tape carried was clear, the authenticity of it belonging to Omar has yet to be confirmed.

In October, while John Walker Lindh was being convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison and Richard Reid was pleading guilty to all charges against him, Afghan President Hamid Karzai was telling CNN that he thought Osama bin Laden was "probably" dead but he believed that Mohammed Omar was still alive.  While he admitted he had no real evidence to support his claim regarding bin Laden he was emphatic that Omar was alive.  "We were close to arresting him several times, but he's been able to escape," he told CNN.  "Nobody knows him by face. Nobody can recognize him. If you came across him today, somewhere in Afghanistan or in the rest of the world, you wouldn't recognize him. So that's part of the problem with him.  I believe he is most of the time inside Afghanistan. He could go, from time to time, toward our borders, but he stays around the Afghan area, sometimes close to the borders."


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