WASHINGTON (AFP) – Osama bin laden is expected to remain in hiding until he stages another attack on the United States, an ex-CIA expert who had tracked the terror mastermind for two decades warned in an interview.
"As soon as he hits us in the United States again we”ll see how important he is in the Islamic world," Michael Scheuer, the former head of the "bin Laden unit" at the CIA, told AFP in an interview.
Despite his low profile, bin Laden remains powerful, Scheuer said, shrugging off reports that the Al-Qaeda chief was isolated and his communication network shattered due to a relentless hunt for him.
"We mistake quiet for defeat or irrelevance. And all quiet is disquiet," said Scheuer, a fierce critic of the Bush administration and its "War on Terror" policy since he left the CIA in November last year.
Scheuer said that bin Laden”s right-hand-man Ayman al-Zawahiri, who last appeared on a video aired 10 days before the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, seemed to have temporarily taken over the Al-Qaeda leadership apparently for the boss to prepare for another US strike.
Bin Laden last surfaced in a video footage aired on the eve of the US presidential elections in November last year. In the tape, declared authentic by the authorities, the Saudi-born radical directly admitted he ordered the September 11 attacks.
Asked why he thought the al-Qaeda leader had not resurfaced since then, Scheuer said: "I don”t think we are going to hear from him until he attacks us again.
"His feature on the eve of the election was simply to say that: This is it, I have warned you four times. I punched my ticket in the Islamic world, I”ve given you all the warning that the religion requires me.
"I think that”s why Zawahiri is taking the lead at the moment," said Scheuer, the author of the best-selling book "Imperial Hubris," which was originally published anonymously as required by the CIA.
The United States has offered rewards of up to 25 million dollars each for bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri.
Pakistan said last month that bin Laden was now isolated as his communication network had been shattered.
One key Al-Qaeda suspect revealed under interrogation that bin Laden was using couriers travelling on foot or horseback instead of communicating by satellite telephone or the Internet to avoid being detected, according to Pakistan”s chief military spokesman, Major General Shaukat Sultan.
But Scheuer, currently an adjunct professor of security studies at Georgetown University, said, "I”m one that believes that we have not destroyed their (Al-Qaeda”s) capability to attack us.
"I think bin Laden still commands the international media at a moment”s notice if he decides to make a media appearance. He is very important. So, I think again there is lot of whistling past the graveyard at the moment."
Scheuer earlier Wednesday told a forum organized by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, that Al-Qaeda would survive even without bin Laden, "who is a unique combination of a 12th century theologian and a 21st century CEO."
Ersel Aydinli, a former counter-terrorism expert with the Turkish police, said bin Laden failed in his bid to drum up support from Muslims to join his jihadist struggle.
"But even if he is captured or killed, probably we still have to deal with the legacy beyond him," he said, adding that the Al-Qaeda had broken up into various "splinter groups with potential for multiple attacks.
"The good news is that it looks like Osama bin laden and Al-Qaeda have really failed in terms of getting enough attention for their call for jihad in a violent way," he said.
Aydinli, who teaches at George Washington University, said field research he conducted last summer among Muslim communities in the Middle East and Europe revealed that there was still continuing debate over bin Laden”s role.
"There is a huge debate whether he served or he really hindered the Muslim world”s interests," he said.