Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Missing Son

Initially, it was believed the raid that killed Osama bin Laden was a "three-fer." Media reports indicated that Navy SEALs not only took out the Al Qaida leader, they also got two of his sons, Khalid and Hamza. Both served as senior aides to their father, and some analysts suggested that Hamza might one day become the leader of the terrorist network.

Unfortunately, reports of Hamza bin Laden's demise were exaggerated. Sources tell ABC News that the youngest of bin Laden's offspring wasn't present when SEALs stormed the compound on 1 May:

One of Osama bin Laden's sons went missing in the midst of the Navy SEAL raid that took the life of the Al Qaida leader more than a week ago, Pakistani security officials told ABC News.

The officials said bin Laden's three wives, who are all in Pakistani custody, said that one of bin Laden's sons has not been seen since the raid. The son was not identified, but Pakistani investigators agreed that it appeared someone was missing from the sprawling compound.

Later, however, one U.S. official said there was no evidence anyone was missing from the compound and Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, told CNN that in a recent briefing with the CIA there was no mention of a missing son.

There are several possible explanations for the apparent discrepancy. Pakistan, embarrassed by the revelation that bin Laden was living in their country for the past five years, is anxious to tarnish the U.S. raid and its success. There is also an implied message in the claim from Islamabad: play ball with us, we'll give you access to bin Laden's wives and you might find the "missing" Hamza.

However, Senator Feinstein's comments don't exactly clarify the situation. Just because the youngest bin Laden son wasn't mentioned in the CIA briefing doesn't mean that he didn't escape during the raid--or during the days the preceded it. On the other hand, there is also the very real possibility that Hamza was among those killed, and U.S. intelligence is being cautious in releasing a "final" KIA list, to keep the jahidists guessing.

Finally, there is the (very) remote chance that Hamza escaped and is being shadowed by U.S. operatives, hoping that he will leads us to other Al Qaida big fish. After all, U.S. operatives discovered contact phone numbers and "getaway" cash in OBL's garments; it's safe to assume that other occupants of the compound were similarly-prepared.

But that suggestion strikes us as highly unlikely. It is possible the Hamza fled during the raid and escaped into the surrounding neighborhoods. The SEAL operation was very lean in terms of manning, given their assignment to conduct a lightning strike and get out as quickly as possible. One missing element apparently "missing" from the operation was the security perimeter (usually established by Army Rangers). If the cordon wasn't in place, Hamza would have an opportunity to escape, assuming he survived the initial shoot-out, and wasn't detected by CIA agents--and other operatives--who were monitoring the raid.

Still, it's doubtful that Hamza bin Laden (assuming he's still alive) would quickly lead us to other Al Qaida leaders. When word of OBL's death was flashed around the world, surviving terror leaders, including Ayman al-Zawahiri, quickly went to ground. And, when they learned that the U.S. had tracked down the elder bin Laden through his trusted courier, Al Qaida began changing its communications procedures. Long-time couriers have probably been pulled from the streets and terrorist chatter has reportedly dropped as well. It's characteristic of a terror network moving into survival mode, trying desperately to cover its tracks.

That's one reason the near-term threat for a mid-level or major terrorist attack has waned, rather than increased. Unless something on the scale of the London or Madrid attacks--or, God forbid, an attack utilizing WMD--was in the final planning stages, Al Qaida will be hard-pressed to carry out such strikes in the coming months. The terror network's European affiliates have been hard-hit in recent years, meaning that such strikes would probably require coordination and resources from other Al Qaida elements, increasing the possibility of detection and interdiction.

To be sure, bin Laden's surviving network is not without options. Al Qaida in the Arabia Peninsula is capable of hitting targets in the Middle East and beyond, one reason that U.S. drone attacks resumed in Yemen almost as soon as the raid in Pakistan was announced. There were a number of reasons for the resumption of UAV attacks on the Arabian Peninsula. First, U.S. officials believed--correctly--that we might be able to get its leader, Anwar al-Awlaki--and further weaken the organization.

More realistically, we hoped the UAV strike would throw Al Qaida's most important affiliate off-balance, and lessen the short-term threat posed by al-Awlaki and his minions. In the mean time, intelligence seized from bin Laden's compound may provide better information on the group's leaders, and facilitate their elimination in the future.

Al Qaida is far from dead, but the death of OBL has thrown the group into disarray. There may be a temporary uptick in suicide bombings in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, along with domestic scares based on intel derived from the Pakistan raid. But those developments should be placed in perspective; Al Qaida has been significantly weakened and it can be further diminished in the months ahead, with actionable intelligence in the hands of organizations like SEAL Team Six.


1 comment:

Whiskey said...

I didn't see the option that the SEALS captured him and took him with them. I thought I saw this mentioned the day of the raid. Personally, if I had captured him, I would not be talking about it or him.