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The latest news on ‘Sheikh’ Osama Bin Laden is that he is currently seeking refuge in a huge white cave in the Tora Bora Mountains. The cave is said to be connected to a series of caves and protected by some armored cars and a group of ever-loyal suicide bombers.

Last June the Saudi daily ‘Al-Watan’ stated that US intelligence detected “al Qaeda messages sent during the night urging Afghans to fight against the foreign forces.” Meanwhile, investigations on the ‘Tora Bora front’ led to the arrest of Bin Laden’s doctor and another person whose task was to protect him. Both of them confessed that they were a part of the 500-member al Qaeda organization which had fled Waziristan to the Tora Bora region.

Tora Bora and Waziristan; the first is Afghan territory while the latter is Pakistani. However, they are neighbors that share the same borders. The two cities are inhabited by the Pashto tribes, which are extremely rigid and volatile, in addition to the prevalent tribal culture that is not governed by the state and in which powerful tribesmen exhibit their clout, impose levies and recruit new combatants.

The Tora Bora region lies south of Waziristan by approximately 1,500 kilometers. These two locations have witnessed the movements of al Qaeda leader, Osama Bin Laden and his followers since the American war on Afghanistan. Today, Tora Bora has reemerged onto the scene following the story about the big white cave.

Previously, all talk over the past three years had revolved around Waziristan where Bin Laden was believed to be seeking refuge, a speculation that prompted the launch of several raids. Some of these raids were conducted by the US forces; in January 2006 American units attacked al Qaeda in two Pakistani villages, [Roi] Sidgi and Damdola. It was believed that al Zawahiri was invited to a dinner banquet in Damdola, which would have been his ‘last supper’. The Pakistani army was also keeping a watchful eye on the rugged mountainous terrain, furthermore killing a number of tribal leaders accused of harboring al Qaeda.

But the Waziristan region remains to be a subject of controversy and confusion between Washington and Islamabad, and between General Musharraf and the Bush administration, as well as between some politicians in Washington including congressmen and senators. Matters escalated to the point where Musharraf received a direct threat after Democratic candidate Barak Obama said that he would cut aid to Pakistan and send American units to destroy terrorist bases and havens. It was evident that he was referring to Waziristan. Obama made these statements last July during a debate with competitor Hillary Clinton.

However, Musharraf enjoys Bush’s trust who considers him to be one of the most powerful presidents of the developing world. But some observers believe that Musharraf does not necessarily abide by Washington’s agenda and its demands. It’s true that fundamentalists are the enemies of Musharraf and his regime, evidence of which is the repeated assassination attempts on his life by al Qaeda in Pakistan.

But the Pakistani army or the military institution has its own considerations regarding the neighboring India, which is its strategic enemy. According to a lengthy report in ‘Newsweek’ magazine, Pakistan does not want to risk losing its military option and the ally which it has created, namely, the Taliban, for a system that it does not fully trust in Kabul. Perhaps the obliteration of the Taliban would pave the way for a regime in Kabul that is hostile towards Islamabad.

In any case, this interpretation is not necessarily the correct one inasmuch as the aforementioned variables do not justify the fact that the al Qaeda caves in Waziristan have not been demolished to this day. However, such talk seeks to point out that if these two provinces, as poor, destitute and deprived of wealth, oil and strategic locations as they are and yet can still manage to have a weighty security and political importance  then what of the threat posed by al Qaeda, a bigger and fiercer one, in Iraq?!

Indeed, what would happen if the whole of Iraq; or its western region at least, transforms into another Waziristan?! This is especially since we are witnessing a profusion of fundamentalist groups that bear al Qaeda traits, and the emergence of an ‘Islamic emirate’ affiliated to Abi Omar al Baghdadi  all while the numbers of combatants and suicide bombers is on the rise!

Imagine if an al Qaeda emirate were to rise in west Iraq, while a Shia ‘Imamite’ that follows a Khomeini-inspired discourse were to emerge in south and central Iraq?! Can it even be envisaged?!

So what’s preventing this from happening? Primarily, it is due to the presence of the US forces, or rather the embroilment of the American forces  same difference.

The American presence in Iraq has become a reality and the oft-repeated talk about a fast withdrawal is futile. According to the US military’s vision, as some of Bush’s opponents have reiterated both in the United States and abroad, the cost of withdrawal will be steep. It’s enough to imagine what would happen if the scene was left to al Qaeda, the al Sadr militia and the rampant gangs in Iraq.

The ‘electoral’ controversy running in the US concerning the American forces remains a controversy about methods rather than one about the heart of the matter. This is the reality away from all the illusions.

The Iraqi problem will become a grave one if the proposed solutions remain as they are. It would be even more serious if it was abandoned and forsaken; al Qaeda would not miss this opportunity, while the world would not be pleased to see more ‘Tora Bora’ models distributed in all the areas of conflict. That is the story.

The terrorist threat has mutated into becoming a trying issue on the international political agenda. Discussing it and thinking about it is a major concern whilst also providing a platform to create and eliminate allies. This issue and concern shall remain present, critical and persistent as long as matters co

ntinue as they are: the political discourse unchanged and the prescribed remedy for this fundamentalist threat continues to vacillate between military solutions and short-lived tactical maneuvers.

Arab and Islamic governments must learn to adapt to this reality; the reality of the centrality of the terrorist threat and its dominance, in addition to fundamentalism, until another reality replaces it on the scene.

It is a long-winded story and one that is longer than the US election season, or the changing of leaders in Pakistan, or the break up of alliances in Iraq.

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi is a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as on Saudi affairs. He is Asharq Al-Awsat’s opinion page editor. Mr. Zaydi has worked for the local Saudi press, and has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

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