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The Big Hunt for Bin Laden

Jonathan Power (POWER’S WORLD) / 18 April 2009

Last week Scotland Yard (alas, working without their chief sleuth, the late Sherlock Holmes and his deft touch) uncovered a major bomb plot. Those arrested were all Pakistanis. Londonistan?

However, they chose to arrest the suspects, after months of carefully tracking their movements, not bomb them from 30,000 feet. Likewise, when four years ago bombers blew up the trains entering Madrid’s central station the Spanish police laboriously ran them down. This time they were mainly Algerians and Moroccans.

Those arrested, later convicted and imprisoned, had no formal links with Al Qaeda. In fact their ties were non-existent, a government-appointed commission later found. Doubtless, however, it was the example of Al Qaeda that prompted their dangerous views. The Spanish, on their manhunt, did not choose to bomb them, or even blast them out of their hideaways. It was careful police work, backed by the latest in forensic and other tracking technological tools that led to their arrest.

Superb police work in both cases! And there have been a number of other such successful police operations in Europe.

Couldn’t the Americans and NATO have done the same at the onset of their intervention in Afghanistan? They could have found informers and probably help from the rank and file of the local people who wanted to have nothing to do with those who blew up New York’s World Trade Centre. Even many in the ranks of the Taleban would have been privately uneasy, if not appalled, by the Al Qaeda attack. Moreover, Osama bin Laden was a distant shadowy figure for most of them.

Instead, we had a blanket-armed invasion. The UN has reported that in the year 2008 the number of civilian casualties rose by 40 per cent. Surely there is a better way of finding bin Laden. The Western forces are not there to reform Islam, to liberate women or to install democracy. That, the local society has to find its own way to do, without an army to back them up.

The Americans and NATO went in to find bin Laden, and they haven’t succeeded and show little sign of doing so before many more innocent Afghanis and Pakistanis are killed. No wonder the militancy of the Taleban has now spilled over into Pakistan, doubling the problem the Americans and NATO came to solve.

Where are the CIA, the FBI, MI6 and Scotland Yard? They should be doing their job in Pakistan and Afghanistan, using Pashto-speaking agents and the latest technology. If you read the new book, “Spying Blind” by Amy Zegart, a scholarly examination of the US intelligence failures that preceded September 11th I think you will come away appalled. She argues that the answer to their incompetence lies in their deeply rooted organisational weaknesses, that no boss has yet been able to significantly change.

Various commissions and Senate investigations have shown that the CIA has been consumed by its old Cold War ways and means—few agents on the ground, and a dependency on satellites and other types of technology.

It has not adapted to the new world of terrorism.

For example, the agencies have very little linguistic expertise.

Even if they had the information they needed, as they did before 9/11, the bureaucracy would probably once again not put it in the right in-tray or follow up their discoveries and push their findings and hunches to the right bosses.

Another new book, “Hunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World’s Most Notorious Nazi”, by Neal Bascombe, tells the story of how yesterday’s bin Laden (in fact much worse) was caught and brought to trial and execution.

Sympathisers had helped Eichmann flee to Argentina, covering his trail in a way that stumped Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, for a number of years. It was a chance remark by one of his sons to a girlfriend who, unknown to him, was half-Jewish, that gave the first clue. Even so it took years to follow up.

The operation was both daring and brilliant — at first tracking him to Argentina and then to his residence. Eichmann was snatched off the street on his way home from work.

The Western powers had not given priority to bringing Nazis to justice. “Justice was delayed, denied or tied up in bureaucratic knots”. There was no weighty political leader to kick the process along. If bin Laden is sheltering, hidden in a cave or, more likely, in a large town in Pakistan, what is desperately needed are informers and informed guesses and, not least, persistence. It requires the wisdom to recognise it would be a four or five year operation, and that key information may arrive from the most unlikely source. “Elementary, my dear Watson”.

Jonathan Power is a veteran foreign affairs commentator based in London. He can be reached at JonatPower@aol.com

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