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Rahim Kanani

Rahim Kanani

Posted: March 29, 2010 09:06 AM

Working Backwards: A New Strategy to Hunt Osama bin Laden

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This piece was originally published as an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle.


Osama bin Laden is either dead or alive, and I'm proposing a strategy to both remove him from the world stage while hunting him down in the process. The tactic is simple: declare his demise.

Let me explain.

A report issued last November to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee discussing the failure to capture or kill Osama bin Laden stated that, "On or around Dec. 16 [2001], two days after writing his will, bin Laden and an entourage of bodyguards walked unmolested out of Tora Bora and disappeared into Pakistan's unregulated tribal area. Most analysts say he is still there today." While plausible in theory, juxtapose this statement with remarks made by Defense Secretary Robert Gates just one week later, on Dec. 6. With regard to how long it's been since the United States had any good intelligence on bin Laden's whereabouts, Gates replied, "I think it's been years." Indeed, U.S. CENTCOM Commander Gen. David Petraeus recently stated that, "I think it's very well known that we haven't had hard intelligence on Osama bin Laden not just in months, but in years." If the highest military officials in the United States openly admit to years of lacking intelligence in locating bin Laden, how can most analysts speaking of Pakistan's unregulated tribal areas assert that the terrorist kingpin is still operating there after eight years? In all likelihood, we've been endlessly shooting in the dark hoping for a break, and I think it's time the United States own the narrative in this manhunt.

By declaring bin Laden dead, the United States decapitates the spirit of bin Laden from terrorism discourse and focuses on a diminished and leaderless al Qaeda. His purported death will deal a massive blow to the al Qaeda organization and its' recruiting efforts worldwide. Indeed, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal said that we couldn't defeat al Qaeda until bin Laden was either killed or captured. With no reliable intelligence for nearly a decade, the United States is running out of options, and working backward may be our last bet.

On the other hand, if bin Laden were still alive, the attention-addict could not ignore such global awareness of his death, and would be eager to transmit messages of his existence by referencing recent conflicts, attacks or incidents around the world. And when such messages are received and broadcast as yet another bin Laden audiotape, U.S. officials should simply dismiss such recordings as a vocal mismatch, inauthentic and propaganda developed by al Qaeda associates or allies. Simply put, maintain his death as an absolute. Mounting anger at the denial of his existence, a purportedly leaderless al Qaeda, and a seemingly victorious America may in fact smoke him out in an attempt to reclaim his status and authority. In other words, the frustration of marginalization may actually cause him to slip up. And when that happens, we'll be waiting. And if that leads to his kill or capture, the United States can claim the entire operation from day one was to draw out bin Laden by removing him from the limelight and declaring his demise, while dismissing any further transmissions as illegitimate.

The lack of intelligence for years on bin Laden's location is not the only irritation at hand. For if al Qaeda's chief is caught, capturing or killing him is also a hotly contested issue. Earlier this month, Attorney General Eric Holder stated that if bin Laden is caught, "he will never appear in an American courtroom because the reality is, we will be reading Miranda rights to a corpse." The very next day, Gen. McChrystal assured reporters that the ultimate goal is still to capture bin Laden alive and "bring him to justice."

It's time we, at least rhetorically, lay Osama bin Laden to rest. It's a win-win for the United States, and a lose-lose for Osama bin Laden.

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