An extremely high-ranking al-Queda member, possibly its number three man, has been captured in Pakistan. With the news, USA Today borders on focusing in the popular-but-wrong direction.
When President Bush said after the 9/11 attacks that he wanted al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden “dead or alive,” few would have thought he would still be at large nearly four years later.
Wednesday brought new hope that for all bin Laden’s elusiveness, he is not entirely safe: Pakistan announced the capture of al-Qaeda’s suspected No. 3 man, Abu Farraj al-Libbi.
Al-Libbi (“the Libyan”) has a string of jaw-dropping allegations against him, including two attempts on the life of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in December 2003 and one last year on the country’s prime minister. But the key part of his rÃ©sumÃ© is that he reportedly stepped into al-Qaeda’s No. 3 role after 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was captured, also in Pakistan, in March 2003.
The arrest is a reminder of the grinding nature of the war on terror and how progress is incremental and painstaking. It also spotlights the importance of allies â€” none more so than Pakistan.
After 9/11, Pakistan made the difficult decision to work with the U.S., setting Islamic militants, who hold sway in much of the country, firmly against Musharraf. The relationship is delicate for the U.S., too, since Musharraf is resisting the democracy and freedom the U.S. is also pushing, and because Pakistan has nuclear weapons.
The precise impact of removing known al-Qaeda leaders is uncertain. When one is cut down, back-ups quickly step in. Al-Qaeda cells operate independently. Still, any organization that loses about half of its top 25, as al-Qaeda has since 9/11, loses potency.
Al-Libbi was seized in Pakistan’s wild northwest region, where many believe bin Laden is hiding. Will the trail lead next to bin Laden and his deputy, Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri? Al-Libbi’s capture at least revives that possibility. For now, though, removing al-Qaeda’s purported No. 3 inflicts a less-than-mortal wound. Capturing or killing No. 1 and No. 2 would do far more: removing the men whose symbiotic alliance produced the horrors of 9/11.
Look, no one wants bin Laden dead more than me. That said, I see it as a marginal issue in the war against Islamist terror. This is not a campaign against one evil man but rather a campaign against those like him and the culture that allowed him to thrive and would spew forth others of his like to replace him. The USA Today piece does do a good job of reflecting the necessarily grinding nature of this campaign, however, and of realizing the obviously diminished capabilities of the terrorists’ having to plug in understudies into a large chunk of their leadership.
What the USA Today and America need to realize is simply this: the war is not about bin Laden but presenting an alternative society to the one that spawned the beast. And that is where Iraq comes into play — the possibility of a shining Arab city on the hill.