In Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht’s classic The Front Page, there’s a recurring line among the play’s characters, most of them hard-boiled Chicago newspapermen. “Save it for the Tribune,” they mutter, as corrupt city officials explain how an accused killer escaped from a city jail, and their plans to recapture him.
Both MacArthur and Hecht worked as reporters in the Windy City, in an era when there were a half-dozen daily papers, brawling for stories and advertising dollars. In their experience, only one paper would accept the statements and claims of public officials without question—Colonel McCormick’s staid Tribune.
Reading today’s editorial in the Los Angeles Times, it seems that the same maxim applies to the Tribune’s sister publication. According to the Times, Osama bin Laden has (again) stuck his thumb in President Bush’s eye, reminding everyone that he’s still out there and remains a dangerous threat—even if no one is paying attention.
As the Times observes, bin Laden has released two new messages in recent days, but they received scant attention:
“…the release of the messages didn't make page one of any major American newspaper, including this one. Seven years have passed since Bush vowed to capture Bin Laden "dead or alive." Is there truly nothing newsworthy in the mastermind of the murder of nearly 3,000 American civilians having no difficulty providing well-timed spin to counter the messages Bush tried to deliver to the Middle East?
Or have we collectively grown so numb after years of failure in the so-called global war on terror that we have accepted that Bin Laden cannot be found? If so, this is indeed the soft bigotry of low expectations. We delude ourselves if we believe that Bin Laden's survival doesn't matter or that his ideology is in decline. The State Department's latest report on terrorism concludes that Al Qaeda and its affiliates remain the greatest terrorist threat to the United States.
And are Americans truly so familiar with Bin Laden's thinking that we need not pay close attention to what he is saying?
The obvious rebuttal to the Times’ editorial is that the right people are paying attention—namely the men and women of the U.S. military and our intelligence agencies. Since 9-11, they’ve been at the forefront of the war on terror, and while some mistakes have been made, they have been effective at taking the fight to the enemy. True, bin Laden remains at large, but his terror network is a shadow of its former self, particularly in Iraq.
And if you don’t believe us, just ask a leading jihadist. His assessment, recently posted on an Al Qaida website, was discovered by Nibras Kazimi, a scholar at the Hudson Institute (H/T to John Hinderaker at Powerline). As Kazimi writes:
A prolific jihadist sympathizer has posted an ‘explosive’ study on one of the main jihadist websites in which he laments the dire situation that the mujaheddin find themselves in Iraq by citing the steep drop in the number of insurgent operations conducted by the various jihadist groups, most notably Al-Qaeda’s 94 percent decline in operational ability over the last 12 months when only a year and half ago Al-Qaeda accounted for 60 percent of all jihadist activity!
The author, writing under the pseudonym ‘Dir’a limen wehhed’ [‘A Shield for the Monotheist’], posted his ‘Brief Study on the Consequences of the Division [Among] the [Jihadist] Groups on the Cause of Jihad in Iraq’ on May 12 and it is being displayed by the administration of the Al-Ekhlaas website—one of Al-Qaeda’s chief media outlets—among its more prominent recent posts. He's considered one of Al-Ekhlaas's "esteemed" writers.
The author tallies up and compares the numbers of operations claimed by each insurgent group under four categories: a year and half ago (November 2006), a year ago (May 2007), six months ago (November 2007) and now (May 2008). He demonstrated that while Al-Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq could claim 334 operations in Nov. 06 and 292 in May 07, their violent output dropped to 25 in Nov. 07 and 16 so far in May 08. Keep in mind that these assessments are based on Al-Qaeda's own numbers.
The author also shows that similar steep drops were exhibited by other jihadist groups.
Obviously, Al-Qaeda’s dramatic decline in Iraq is the result of many factors, including the Al-Anbar Awakening and the U.S.-led troop surge. But those efforts stem from the same, underlying principle: knowing your enemy and implementing the steps needed to defeat him. In the case of Iraq’s Sunni population, it meant siding with American and government security forces, organizing their own groups to fight the terrorists and sharing intelligence information with their new partners.
For the U.S., the solution was based in the surge strategy, sending larger numbers of troops into areas that were once terrorist havens and holding the territory—something that hadn’t been done in the past. As a result, Al Qaeda operatives have been pushed into increasingly smaller corners of Iraq, and largely isolated from traditional support bases.
In other words, the “right” people (namely General Petraeus and his operational commanders) understood the importance of Iraq to Al Qaeda, developing the strategy and tactics that have inflicted a stinging defeat on the terror group and its leaders. Clearly, Al Qaeda’s communiqués on Iraq were not lost on our military leaders, or the intelligence organizations that support them. Understanding the terrorist's "message"--and their tactics--is one reason the troop surge has been so successful. Understanding all elements of the enemy's plan allows our forces to develop an effective counter-strategy, one that has made Al Qaeda increasingly irrelevant in Iraq.
That may be one reason that bin Laden’s most recent message focused on the Palestinian issue and Arab leaders he described as “sell-outs,” rather than events in Iraq. A 94% drop in Al Qaeda operations on the “central front” isn’t a statistic that bin Laden wants to highlight for his global audience.
So why did the LAT waste editorial space on the “ignored” terror messages? Because it fits with a general theme that the paper endorses—and one that Democratic politicians offer on cue. It goes something like this: bin Laden’s ability to release audio and video tapes (seemingly at will) is another reminder of our “unfinished” job in Afghanistan. Completing that mission demands a quick withdrawal from Iraq (with little regard for the terrorist resurgence that will follow our hasty exit).
In the meantime, we can focusing on “getting” bin Laden, supposedly the central mission in the War on Terror. Never mind that bin Laden's main role in the Al Qaeda of 2008 is that of figurehead and spiritual adviser, rather than a terror planner. It’s a move that bin Laden would almost certainly welcome, not only would it give his beleaguered Iraqi operatives some breathing space, it would grant him renewed relevance and stature--something that he hasn’t enjoyed for several years.
The Times speaks ominously of bin Laden’s “humiliation” of President Bush and the vow to do the same thing to the next commander-in-chief. But, in its selective analysis, the paper fails to note that bin Laden has suffered his own humiliations at the hands of the U.S., most notably the near-collapse of his affiliate in Iraq. A fight he once described as essential in the “war against the crusaders” has become a graveyard for Al Qaeda.
And, in what must be viewed as a personal insult, many of our recent “decapitation” missions along the Pakistan border have been aimed at bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, rather than bin Laden. Critics argue that we target Al-Qaeda’s #2 leader (and Taliban commanders) because we don’t know where bin Laden is.
There’s an element of truth in that, but it’s also clear that bin Laden’s “security requirements” have left him isolated, with little impact on Al Qaida’s operations. Simply stated, the death of Zawahiri would have a far greater impact on the group than the loss of Osama bin Laden. That must be galling for a terrorist who has always stressed his jihadist roots, dating back to his battles against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
But the bin Laden of 2008 is not the mujaheddin of the mid-80s, or even the terrorist mastermind of 2001. He’s a terror leader who gambled on Iraq (and is losing badly), and has suffered bruising setbacks in other locations, including Somalia. His global affiliates have had some success (as evidenced by the European transit attacks a few years ago), but they have been unable to capitalize on those strikes. The result is a terror organization that remains decentralized, with untested commanders at many levels, and a leader who is largely out of the operational loop. Al-Qaeda remains dangerous, but it is does not pose the same threat it did seven years ago.
In that context, we’d say that bin Laden’s recent propaganda blasts received the level of attention they deserved. Otherwise, save the terrorist spin for the willing dupes at the Los Angeles Times.