Beware the Holy War
Because Curtis does not believe that Al Qaeda is an organization directed by Osama bin Laden, he unwittingly aligns himself at times with the Bush Administration, whose failure to capture bin Laden remains such a source of embarrassment that it seldom dares to utter his name. Take, for instance, Curtis's discussion of the battle at Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan, where bin Laden and his followers battled with several hundred soldiers of the Northern Alliance and a handful of US Special Forces during the first two weeks of December 2001. Just as the Bush Administration minimizes the significance of Tora Bora, since it was the one moment after 9/11 when the United States had a good idea of bin Laden's location, so Curtis suggests that Tora Bora is but a "few small caves" and finds no convincing evidence that Al Qaeda members had holed up there. Those who followed the American elections will remember that when Senator John Kerry said President Bush had squandered an opportunity to nab bin Laden "when we had him cornered in the mountains," Bush dismissed Kerry's assertion as "a wild claim."
In fact, according to a widely reported background briefing by Pentagon officials in mid-December 2001, there was "reasonable certainty" that bin Laden was at Tora Bora, a judgment based on intercepted radio transmissions. Last year, Luftullah Mashal, a senior official in Afghanistan's Interior Ministry, told me that based on conversations he had had with a Saudi Al Qaeda financier and bin Laden's cook, both of whom were at the battle, bin Laden was indeed at Tora Bora. In June 2003 I met with several US counterterrorism officials, one of whom explained, "We are confident that [bin Laden] was at Tora Bora and disappeared with a small group." And the editor of Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper, Abdel Bari Atwan, a consistently accurate source of information about Al Qaeda, has reported that bin Laden was wounded in the shoulder at Tora Bora. Indeed, in an audiotape released on Al Jazeera television two years ago, bin Laden recounted his own vivid memories of the Tora Bora battle. "We were about 300 holy warriors. We dug 100 trenches over an area of one square mile, so as to avoid the huge human losses from the [American] bombardment." And last August Al Sharq Al Awsat newspaper published the account of a Moroccan guard of bin Laden's, Abdallah Tabarak, who was also at Tora Bora: "We entered Tora Bora, where we stayed for twenty days. From there, Ayman al-Zawahiri fled.... Afterward, bin Laden fled with his son Muhammad." In short, there is plenty of evidence that bin Laden and hundreds of his followers were at Tora Bora, a fact that undercuts both the Bush Administration's and Curtis's reconstruction of the battle.
In his effort to portray Al Qaeda as a construct of US officialdom, Curtis misses the real story about the Bush Administration and Al Qaeda. It's not that Bush officials created the myth of a nonexistent organization but that Al Qaeda simply did not fit their worldview of what constituted a serious threat, and so they largely ignored it until they evacuated their offices on the morning of September 11, 2001. A database search for any statements by senior Bush officials about bin Laden or Al Qaeda that were made before the 9/11 attacks yields negligible results. And we know from the 9/11 Commission that while Bush Cabinet officials met thirty-three times before 9/11, only one of their meetings was about terrorism. Al Qaeda was not a subject that exercised senior Bush officials either privately or publicly before 9/11 because they were preoccupied by state-based threats--hence their focus on China, Iraq and ballistic missile defenses (which do nothing, of course, to protect against terrorist attacks).
This was especially odd because rarely have our enemies warned us so often about their intentions. Imagine for a minute that officials in the Japanese high command, beginning in 1937, repeatedly stated that they were intending to attack the United States. Imagine then how differently the events of Pearl Harbor might have played out four years later. Well, that's exactly what bin Laden did beginning in 1997, repeatedly warning in widely broadcast interviews on CNN, ABC and Al Jazeera that he was launching a war against the United States. But those warnings were taken by certain members of the Bush Administration as the fulminations of a wannabe rather than a capable adversary. As former counterterrorism coordinator Richard Clarke recounts in his book Against All Enemies, when the Deputies Committee of sub-Cabinet officials met for the first time in April 2001 to discuss terrorism, Wolfowitz--who had long been preoccupied by discredited conspiracy theories that Iraq was behind the first World Trade Center attack, in 1993--testily said, "Well, I just don't understand why we are beginning talking about this one man bin Laden." In short, Wolfowitz, at least until the 9/11 attacks, would have agreed with Curtis's assessment that the threat posed by Al Qaeda was a "fantasy." The leading neoconservative in the Administration did not seek to inflate the Al Qaeda threat but rather misunderstood its significance--until it was too late.