Either Osama bin Laden is feeling improbably lucky, or else he's toying with his pursuers. A man in imminent danger of being hunted down and killed by the world's most powerful military machine doesn't, as a rule, agree to TV interviews.
Bin Laden well knows how dangerous a interview can be to an embattled warrior his own organization is believed to have assassinated anti-Taliban opposition leader Ahmed Shah Masood two days before the Sept. 11 terror attacks by sending two kamikazes disguised as journalists to a press conference, with a bomb hidden in their TV camera. And yet here is bin Laden agreeing to be interviewed by CNN, via questions sent through the Qatar-based Al Jezeera network to whom the fugitive terrorist has until now granted exclusive access. Bin Laden's answers will be taped on video no doubt with all the standard props such as the camouflage flak jacket, the Kalashnikov propped up against the wall and the "cave" backdrop and forwarded to Atlanta via Al Jezeera.
WHAT WOULD YOU ASK BIN LADEN?
CNN has sent
their questions. What would you ask the world's most notorious terrorist
if you had the opportunity. Send us your suggestions; we'll excerpt the best in next week's issue of
TIME magazine. TIME.com's Tony Karon starts the ball rolling:
Great Islamic warriors such as Saladdin, who drove the Crusaders from
Jerusalem, fought according to a strict code that targeted combatants
but showed mercy towards civilians even when his enemies did not.
Why have you abandoned this code?
In 1998, Al Qaeda's attack on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania
killed a dozen Americans and more than 250 Africans. You have defined
American civilians as legitimate targets, but presumably the Africans
were innocent bystanders. Do you regard 20 "innocents" for each "target"
an acceptable rate of "collateral damage"?
What was your view of the United States during the 1980s, when you were
on the same side in Afghanistan against the Soviets? What, if anything,
changed your view?
Is Saddam Hussein a worthy leader of Iraq? Would you cooperate with him
against your common American enemy?
In your recent taped speech, you said Americans would not know peace until
Palestinians did, and until the U.S. withrdrew its troops from Saudi Arabia
and ended sanctions against Iraq. Is that all you're fighting for?
There is something more than a little unsettling in the notion that while the U.S. rains down hellfire on Afghanistan and prepares its meanest fighters to go in and terminate bin Laden, he is holding long-distance press conferences. It certainly raises questions about the idea that the Al Qaeda leader is on the run, or under fire, or skulking in a cave somewhere in the war zone. After all, granting an interview, even through an intermediary, massively raises the risk of exposing bin Laden's whereabouts to the satellites, drones and spies of the U.S. At face value, it's the action not of a desperate fugitive, but of a man supremely confident of evading his enemies.
Of course, being of fanatical religious bent, bin Laden may believe he's impervious to detection. Or else he could be calculating that his own propaganda gains justify the risk. By confidently answering questions on a premier U.S. network six weeks after subjecting America to the biggest terrorist strike in world history and at a time when Americans are in the grip of an anthrax panic that has even shut down part of their government bin Laden may be trying to paint himself as invincible in order to deepen the despair of his enemies and rally his supporters.
Not surprisingly, it was al Qaeda that contacted CNN, rather than vice versa. The network was asked to submit questions for bin Laden via an al Qaeda representative who approached Al Jezeera a savvy media stunt in light of the White House's entreaties to the networks to avoid rebroadcasting the bin Laden infomercials periodically carried on the Qatari network. (The media criticism of those broadcasts, after all, would include the fact that they are taped speeches without any questions from journalists. Now al Qaeda is trying to play the game by taking questions.) CNN has indicated that it feels no obligation to broadcast Bin Laden's taped answers, and will run them only if they are deemed newsworthy. But no matter what bin Laden says, the very fact that he's allowing himself to be interviewed at this stage of the war against terrorism is, in itself, nothing if not newsworthy.