Monday, September 25, 2006

Musings on the Bin Laden Rumors

So, is Osama bin Laden dead? What are we to make of the French intelligence report that "information gathered by the Saudis indicates that the head of al-Qaeda was a victim while he was in Pakistan on August 23, 2006, of a very serious case of typhoid, which led to a partial paralysis of his internal organs?" The report claims bin Laden was in a remote area, precluding access to medical treatment, and that the Saudis were awaiting confirmation of his gravesite before making a public announcement.

1. Typhoid. It's common in Central Asia, with periodic outbreaks in Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan. Soviet troops were afflicted with typhoid infections during their occupation of Afghanistan. It is passed from human to human, via fecal contamination of water, so the area where bin Laden was hiding would not have been so remote that it did not have a fairly sizeable village upstream. Typhoid is treated with common antibiotics, but it's possible bin Laden's other medical problems could have complicated his treatment.

2. Saudi intelligence. While analysts have dismissed the ability of Saudi intelligence to obtain information about bin Laden, it should be remembered that many Al Qaeda members are Saudis and that bin Laden has family in Saudi Arabia. It seems perfectly feasible that the family would have been notified of his death.

3. The French leak. Passing information obtained by another nation's intelligence agency is, apparently, taboo in the spy world. But the French seem to have received their intel from a source connected in some way to Saudi intelligence, not from the agency itself. To speculate about the French motive for leaking that information to the press is to enter a hall of mirrors at this point.

4. Bush administration "chatter." In a September 5 speech, the president mentioned bin Laden no fewer than ten times. That might be considered odd, given his reluctance to discuss bin Laden in recent years. He also mentioned bin Laden, but only once, on August 31 in Utah, during the first of his five speeches on Iraq.

News of bin Laden's death would certainly be welcome and we find no reason to dismiss the Saudi-French report. It may even turn out that the Bush administration learned of the Saudi intel in the last days of August or first few days of September, and deemed it sufficiently credible to risk speaking Osama bin Laden's name again in public. Cynics might expect the administration to time the release of any good news about bin Laden's death for maximum effect on the elections, which would mean waiting as long as possible while pressing its allies, like Fox News, to talk up bin Laden as much as possible, maybe even stir up a little controversy. Time will tell. It is our sincere hope that the Bush administration would not play politics with such important news. Americans of all political stripes should be able to rejoice, as a nation, that one of our foremost enemies is dead, if the reports turn out to be true.

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