Predator and Prey

That familiar voice, at once men-acing and gently lilting, was back. After more than a year in which some U.S. officials had speculated openly he might be dead, Osama bin Laden resurfaced in his usual way, unannounced, dressing up threats of death in reasonable tones. Holed up in some remote region believed to be along the Afghan-Pakistani border, the impresario of 9/11 seemed to be talking to his enemies more than his followers. And in his audiotape, recorded in recent weeks and secretly couriered as usual to an Al Jazeera bureau, there was also something new: an offer of an olive branch. In a cynical attempt to exploit American war-weariness, especially in Iraq, the terror leader noted that U.S. polls showed declining support for the war. For the first time, he proposed "a long-term truce on fair conditions" to the American people "so both sides can enjoy security and stability." Bin Laden, who once built his rep by pledging to destroy the "far enemy," now seemed to be trying to close the gap. All America had to do was withdraw from Arab lands.

The tape immediately touched off speculation as to its meaning. Vice President Dick Cheney, chronically skeptical of remorse from enemies, denounced the message as "a ploy." Other Bush administration officials suggested it was a sign of bin Laden's weakness and, perhaps, his own war-weariness. The tape surfaced at a time when the CIA and the Defense Department have --stepped up missile strikes inside Pakistani tribal regions, where many experts believe bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are hiding. Only days earlier, a CIA-guided Predator drone fired missiles at houses in the village of Damadola, aiming to kill Zawahiri. At least 18 people were obliterated, though probably not Zawahiri. U.S. officials remained confident that the dead included some senior Qaeda members, and Pakistani authorities maintained that four to five Qaeda operatives were killed in the missile attack. "We are still not sure who they were," said a senior official in Islamabad who spoke only on condition of anonymity. "We are still in the process of establishing their identity."

Among those thought to have been killed was Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar, an Egyptian explosives and poisons expert. It was Umar, also known as Abu Khabbab, who allegedly trained the suicide bombers who killed 17 U.S. sailors on the USS Cole in 2000. "If he was killed, then it's a big blow to bin Laden and Al Qaeda," says Sharif Mohammed, a Qaeda-linked Islamist in Pakistan. "He was responsible for running the Qaeda network in the West." (Umar may have also been researching germ and chemical warfare.) Another possible victim of the strike is Abu Obaidah al-Misri, Al Qaeda's chief of operations in Afghanistan's eastern Kunar province, where U.S. and Afghan forces regularly come under militant attack. Still, U.S. counter-terrorism officials say they may never completely con-firm the identities of terrorists who were blown up.

Civilians are another matter. The Predator killed several women and children, provoking demonstrations in the tribal region, many of them organized by the radical Pakistani Islamic alliance known as Muttehida Majlis Amal. The radicals hoped to use the attack to undermine support for Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, America's close ally. Musharraf certainly is in a delicate position. He told visiting U.S. Under Secretary of State William Burns over the weekend that America needs to be more careful inside his borders.

Authority to fire Hellfire missiles from Predators has been delegated by the White House to the CIA, according to current and former counterterrorism officials who did not want to be named because the matter is classified. If officials conducting surveillance believe there is a strong chance of civilians' being killed in an attack, operatives are expected to consult higher-ranking agency officials before firing. In the case of the Damadola attack, according to a knowledgeable source who spoke on condition of anonymity because the subject was sensitive, CIA officials made the decision to launch the attack themselves. But they notified higher-ups in the administration, including White House officials, who had enough time to veto the strike if they wanted.

Despite the ethics--and public relations--issues, U.S. officials involved with the hunt for bin Laden and Zawahiri said they're quite sure that the benefits of the Predator campaign outweigh the costs. According to two former officials, several groups of missile-armed Predators--some of which are equipped with laser-guided gravity bombs--are based in the region. And a Pakistani official privy to intelligence says the January Predator strike was the fourth inside Pakistan's borders since May 2005 (two more than have been reported previously). Beginning earlier this month, the military and CIA have also begun to use the first production models of the Global Hawk unmanned recon aircraft, which can survey distances of more than 100 miles from 65,000 feet and direct the lower-flying Predator to precise targets.

The tribal region where Zawahiri was said to be has a long history of fierce resistance to central control, as both the British Raj and the Soviets who occupied neighboring Afghanistan found out. But none of those previous powers possessed similar technology to scour the countryside from the sky and to unleash remote-control missiles. The broad message of the Damadola strike, which flattened three houses and killed several families, is that tribesmen need to rethink their code. Those who are supposedly governed by the iron law of Pashtunwali--or automatic loyalty to fellow tribesmen or guests--now have to recalculate the cost of that, U.S. officials said. "The message to them is, 'You have to take a new measure now: your families are not safe if you protect the terrorists'," says one senior Pentagon official who would not speak about the attack on the record because the details are classified.

Although Zawahiri's wife is said to be a "Momand" Pashtun from that region--offering him considerable protection--the CIA has been having more success lately in developing sources in the area, with help from Pakistani intelligence. (According to several U.S. officials, the Pakistani intelligence service has allowed a large "liaison" team into the country, and has accepted a great deal of technical assistance.) Frank Anderson, a former CIA station chief in the region, says Pashtunwali goes only so far, especially with multimillion-dollar prices on the heads of top Qaeda suspects. "The noble savage whose word is his bond exists a lot more in literature than on the ground," he says archly.

U.S. officials also express confidence that, after years of infighting back in Washington, they are finally waging the global war on terror in a coherent way. Despite media coverage a year ago about a power struggle between the Pentagon and the CIA, the two agencies are working fairly well together now in the field, U.S. counterterrorism officials say. The CIA effectively has control inside Pakistan, where the U.S. military is not supposed to be operating (and the agency has "deniability" because it is engaged in covert operations that are never officially acknowledged). Indeed the Global Hawk and Predator systems are so sophisticated that live, high-resolution pictures are transmitted, via satellite links, to a large command post called the Global Response Center on the sixth floor of CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. There, officials can watch the satellite feeds in real time on large screens while other officials with headsets bark orders to operatives in the field.

Across the border in Afghanistan, meanwhile, U.S. Special Operations teams are operating day and night, battling Tali-ban insurgents who infiltrate from Pakistan. "It's quite a bloody little war down there," a U.S. military source said.

The upshot is that some U.S. officials said they would not be terribly surprised if bin Laden were suing for peace. Other terrorism analysts suggested that, at a time when bin Laden's rival and sometime partner in Iraq, Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, has offended many Muslims with his ruthless tactics, the Qaeda chieftain's main message was "I'm still the main man." Bin Laden may have been trying to appear reasonable and merciful to his own followers by playing the peacemaker.

Still, the biggest challenge bin Laden had last week was getting the American people to take him seriously. For Americans, after four years of this kind of thing--and with the center of gravity now in Iraq--there seemed as much theater as threat to his latest missive. (Homeland Security Department officials languidly announced the threat level was unchanged, then fell silent.) The terror leader, who in the past has generally hewed to Qur'anic citations, referred to U.S. reports about abuse at Abu Ghraib and even quoted a left-wing U.S. author, William Blum, as saying that all the U.S. president has to do to get the terrorists off his back is announce "that American interference in the nations of the world has ended." The reference sent Blum's anti-imperialist treatise, "Rogue Nation," soaring from 200,000-plus in rankings on to 17. ("Oprah or Osama, it doesn't matter, as long as it begins with 'O'," Blum joked to NEWSWEEK.) Al Jazeera's Washington anchor, Hafez Al-Mirazi, later solicited Blum and Israeli author Natan Sharansky for his show "so we can have both Bush and bin Laden's favorite authors on."

In some respects bin Laden seemed to be playing, perhaps naively, into George W. Bush's hands. Nothing will do more to silence advocates of early withdrawal from Iraq than an endorsement from the chief author of the 9/11 attacks. But coming at a time when a new analysis suggests the war in Iraq could cost upwards of $2 trillion, and the U.S. economy is burdened with record budget deficits, the promise of an endless war could resonate with some Americans. "Don't let your strength and modern arms fool you," bin Laden said in his message. "We have nothing to lose. A swimmer in the ocean does not fear the rain." As he has so often, bin Laden closed by invoking his successful war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. "We bled their economy, and now they are nothing. In that there is a lesson for you." Perhaps there is. Americans just don't want to hear it from him.

Predator and Prey | News