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Osama bin Laden: Now You See Him, Now You Don’t

Dead or alive, missing or found, bin Laden is the unwitting author of Bush’s global war on terrorism -- a drama with an ever-changing script.
 
 
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The familiar, expressionless countenance of Osama bin Laden, the world’s most wanted man, has occupied a slot on the F.B.I’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list for nearly a year now. He gazes out from the upper left-hand corner, looking less like a terrorist than one of the B-list celebrities on Hollywood Squares.

George W. Bush probably wishes he could bump Osama down and over a few squares, perhaps to Carlos the Jackal’s old chair. For not only is Osama far from being apprehended and thus dismissed from the list, U.S. intelligence sources admit they don’t have a clue where he is or even if he’s dead or alive -- a fact that so embarrasses Washington the messages coming from the administration are increasingly schizoid.

"I truly am not concerned about him," Bush said in March; a dramatic reversal from his avowal only five months earlier that he wouldn’t rest until he had bin Laden’s head on a platter. And only a week or so after Bush declared bin Laden washed-up, CIA director George Tenet called him an "immediate and serious threat."

According to the information on his fugitive page, Osama bin Laden "is left-handed and walks with a cane," is tall and thin, and his occupation is unknown (apparently the F.B.I. does not consider "terrorist" a career choice). He goes by many aliases: the Prince, the Emir, Hajj, and the Director.

This last moniker has proved eerily accurate; dead or alive, missing or found, bin Laden is the unwitting author of Bush’s global war on terrorism: a drama with an ever-changing script.

A manhunt that began energetically, ringing with grand if hackneyed rhetoric, dissolved in finger pointing after it became clear that bureaucratic bungling and reliance on flaky tribal chieftains were probably what allowed Osama to abscond during the Tora Bora siege.

Afghan warlord Hazret Ali, who was an ally of the U.S. (at the time), told the BBC that, "Osama, as far as I knew, was at the battle at Tora Bora. ... One of the prisoners who was captured told us that he saw him with his own eyes." He went on to say that in his opinion there was something fishy about Osama’s abrupt disappearance from the scene. "I cannot point to anyone but I think there was some kind of dishonesty."

Illustrating the pinnacle of U.S. military intelligence and leaving no syntactical stone unturned, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, "He’s either dead in some tunnel or he’s alive. And if he’s alive, he’s either in Afghanistan or he isn’t."

The State Department proudly announced its international bounty of $25 million for Osama’s capture -- an absurd sum of money that went over like a bomb in Afghanistan, where the offer of a herd of goats would have made a lot more sense to the rural villagers.

As bin Laden’s trail grew cold and leads dried up, it began to dawn on the Bush Administration that making Osama bin Laden the bellwether for the war on terrorism might have been a mistake. So Bush chose a handful of countries he already considered a pain in the ass, Iraq, Iran and North Korea, and labeled them the Axis of Evil -- evil being, as Charles Paul Freund pointed out on Reason, "the foundational thesis" of the Bush presidency. The Axis soon doubled to accommodate several more countries that were a bug in Bush’s bonnet: Libya, Cuba and Syria.

As the incarnation of evil, however, the Axis has been found sorely wanting. You can’t put the Axis’s photo on a Wanted poster. There’s certainly no room in the Top Ten list for a hulking Axis, and who would play the Axis in the movie version of its life?

Poor Colin Powell is clearly weary of "the OBL question." It must aggravate him to no end that one misplaced terrorist diverts attention away from the war on terror’s many successes. Besides blasting the Taliban to smithereens in Afghanistan, he repeatedly points out, the U.S. has "detained a number of individuals" and "rounded up a number of al-Qaeda organizational leaders." But the American public and the media aren’t interested in a bunch of middle management al-Qaeda schmucks, and their initial passion for all the rounding up, detaining and interrogating has cooled. They want the evildoer.

The CIA’s prevailing theory is that OBL has gone to ground in the desolate wastes of northwest Pakistan; others have him disdaining country living for the urban appeal of big-city Karachi, Pakistan.

"He could be in a cave that has -- that doesn’t have an opening to it anymore," said George W. Bush, leader of the free world.

The BBC puts its money on the mountainous Afghan-Pakistan border, positing that the al-Qaeda chief could safely travel about the region in a Toyota Corolla, although, it noted with stuffy satisfaction that "would not be very luxurious."

Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz ventured that Osama could don a burqa, "disguise himself as a woman and hide somewhere in the mountains of Chechnya."

Osama’s death from kidney disease is the hypothesis of Pakistani president Musharraf, fueled by Pakistani reporter Hamid Mir’s claim that he spotted a dialysis machine during his last interview with OBL.

The possibility that the Saudi millionaire has had his face altered by plastic surgery has been discussed with enthusiasm by OBL watchers. In a December article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Daniel Morello, former president of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, said performing plastic surgery in a cave would be a snap. He speculated that "a talented surgeon would need just seven hours and a few suitcases of equipment to substantially remodel bin Laden." Even an eyebrow reshaping could drastically alter bin Laden’s appearance, Morello said. (No news to any woman who has accidentally overplucked her brows.)

A July 8 Newsweek story, "Osama bin Laden and the Mystery of the Skull," plunged readers deep into the territory of a Hardy Boys mystery, as forensic sleuths at the F.B.I. lab in Quantico work feverishly to identify remains recovered from an al-Qaeda gravesite near Tora Bora, Afghanistan!

In all this speculation, one of the few voices of reason came from one of OBL’s countrymen, Saudi Prince Turki al Faisal, who was quoted on CNN saying that, having had five years to plot the Sept. 11 attacks, bin Laden would logically have hatched a plan for his escape. Probably a really, really good plan.

But Osama may be resurfacing. Recent reports have him not only alive and well, but busy plotting and scheming. Said OBL spokesman Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, "I would like to assure the Muslims that Sheikh Osama bin Laden is in good and prosperous health. He will appear on TV screens very soon." Although, as anyone who has watched one of the Pope’s doddering performances knows, making a television appearance is no indicator of good health.

Apparently the military is getting sick and tired of the whole affair. Time magazine recently reported that "U.S. commanders are discussing another major offensive to find bin Laden by the end of the summer." Time’s hunch is that Bush wants the OBL question out of the way in time for the one-year observance of Sept. 11.

In a weird way though, Bush has made good on the infamous threat he made last September: Osama bin Laden, wanted dead or alive. And that is exactly what we have got: Osama, dead or alive?

As the search for bin Laden grows more farcical, the war on terror grows ever more bloated, its aims and goals constantly shifting to suit the version of reality the administration finds most convenient. The thing is beginning to resemble a cupboard casserole: no recipe, throw in every ingredient on hand and hope to God the resulting mess is edible.

The Bush administration is intent upon making the entire world into a theater of war. As they envision it, warfare need not be confined to any particular country, need not recognize borders or follow international law. It’s the permanent war of Orwell’s 1984, a conflict no truce or treaty can end -- a bureaucrat’s dream; a general’s wet dream.

It doesn’t really matter that the Director, Osama bin Laden, has stridden from the stage. After all, the show must go on.

Tai Moses is the managing editor of AlterNet.org.