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The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel December 7, 2003

America's most wanted stay hidden with locals' help

Leaders' capture likely to be bigger blow to Iraq insurgents than al-Qaida

By Katherin M. Skiba

So how have Saddam Hussein, the deposed Iraqi president, and Osama bin Laden, the leader of the al-Qaida terror network, craftily eluded capture?

If Hussein and bin Laden were apprehended or killed, would it halt the violence in Iraq, Afghanistan and a host of other countries where al-Qaida's Islamic fundamentalists have left a trail of bloodshed?

Experts in counterterrorism and military affairs say both men are looking over their shoulders while relying on the support and succor of local populations and spurning electronic forms of communication that can be monitored.

And most believe that Hussein's capture would produce more immediate and tangible results, because, as one noted, al-Qaida is now a snake with many heads.

The two men "are big lumps under the carpet, and they're good at running, hiding and doing cover and concealment," says Gordon Adams, who during the Clinton administration was an associate director for national security and international affairs at the federal Office of Management and Budget.

"Not finding them is the biggest intelligence failure of all," adds Adams, who directs security policy studies at George Washington University. "It says we just are not as good as we think we are sometimes."

At the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Executive Director Andrew Krepinevich says the "global war on terror" is a misnomer because the fighting in both Iraq and Afghanistan results from insurgencies. These are organized movements aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through use of subversion and armed conflict.

While the United States isn't lacking military muscle, human intelligence is a critical element in wiping out insurgent movements, he says. "Typically, it's because ordinary citizens are willing to give you information - not spy satellites and drones."

Hussein, a secular leader, ran Iraq with an iron fist for more than 20 years, instilling fear through murder, torture and repression, and, according to Adams, his freedom "is an inspiration to the resistance."

The resistance is thought to be the work of former regime loyalists, criminals, Sunni Islamic extremists and militants from other countries.

Sense of a leader

"The sense that Iraqi people have that Saddam Hussein is alive and well and directing traffic has a real impact on their willingness to cooperate with the transition," Adams says.

Madeleine Albright, secretary of state under President Bill Clinton, says that while it's questionable whether Hussein is calling the shots, he ran "a terrorist state that terrorized its own people" and still "is creating huge problems."

Experts say that while Hussein oversaw the slaughter of rivals within Iraq, by contrast, bin Laden has the blood of others on his hands as he has inspired a transnational, theologically motivated insurgency bent on installing fundamentalist Islamic regimes across the Muslim world.

Hussein likely has the protection of his family and tribe in Iraq's so-called "Sunni Triangle" region. Resistance to U.S.-led forces is greatest there because Sunnis fear that majority Shiites will dominate the new government that will emerge in Iraq and retaliate for past oppression, observes Vince Cannistraro, a former CIA counterintelligence chief.

The Sunnis also are driven by a desire for wealth, notes John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, a Web site examining defense policy, because the country's oil lies in lands where the Shiites and Kurds are predominant.

Notion of U.S. as bully

Cannistraro believes that the U.S. invaded Iraq on false pretenses: that Hussein was linked to a global terror network, had weapons of mass destruction and was close to having nuclear weapons in his arsenal. What has emerged as a result, he says, is the perception that "the U.S. is a big bully and trying to establish a major beachhead in the Middle East," and that notion fuels "religious zealots who want to kill Americans."

"We've made Iraq a center for terrorism, where it wasn't that before," he says.

Others caution that the jury still is out on weapons of mass destruction, which may have been destroyed, hidden or secreted out of Iraq.

Bin Laden is thought to have found safe haven in a larger, denser stretch of territory along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Not fully in Pakistani control, it's uninviting, mountainous terrain where smuggling and gun-running are rampant and deeply rooted tribal norms make it unacceptable to hand over a guest, even a fugitive, says Matthew Levitt, a former FBI counterterrorism analyst now at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Levitt is rare in his optimism that both men ultimately will be snared but says Hussein's apprehension would be a more significant victory tactically "because it will inflict a greater blow against people carrying out the attacks against coalition forces."

Getting bin Laden, while a "huge morale victory" that would tamp down the rhetoric that incites others to join al-Qaida, would have less immediate impact, Levitt says. That's in part because bin Laden relied on others for operational planning, such as Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, who was arrested in March in Pakistan.

Many layers of al-Qaida

Al-Qaida, meanwhile, is blamed for attacking targets in Tunisia, Tanzania, Kenya, Indonesia, the Philippines, Morocco, Saudia Arabia and Turkey, and threatening a host of other nations from Canada to Japan.

"There is no removing the head of the snake in al-Qaida right now," Levitt said. "There are multiple heads of the snake. It's more of a movement than an organization and has all kinds of affiliated groups that take direction and support.

"There are a handful of key al-Qaida people, many heads of small organizations and cells, and you'd have to go down several layers to eliminate enough people to lower the scope of the threat."

Cannistraro thinks Hussein's capture is possible at any time but says it will take a lucky break. He says it's useless trying to get someone close to bin Laden to turn him over, because bin Laden's backed by religious zealots. Still, he calls bin Laden's capture "absolutely imperative" because the charisma of leadership is essential to keeping an organization moving, and the longer bin Laden is perceived as defying a superpower, the more he attains an almost mystical quality.

Levitt says that, historically, taking out one key figure in an insurgency can do significant damage and that remains a strong possibility in Iraq. But the prospect decreases the longer that former loyalists from his Baath Party mix with the jihadists and al-Qaida elements fighting U.S. forces, he says, since eliminating Hussein would no longer provide "a quick fix."


Copyright 2003, Journal Sentinel Inc.