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Byline By MJ Akbar: Unbroken Story
It doesn’t surprise me that George Bush had a plan to bomb the Doha headquarters of the pesky Arabic news channel Al Jazeera back into the desert age. What shocks me is that he hasn’t sent Al Jazeera a thank you note after his re-election last year in November.
A victory that became comfortable after the results were in, obscures how close the contest was. For a couple of hours on polling day, the opinion pundits and television channels were preparing for a John Kerry presidency, and liberal gloating over the demise of Bush ended only around noon.
Democrats are now convinced that the critical factor that swung the election away from Kerry was the sudden and very mysterious appearance of an Osama bin Laden tape promising the usual death and destruction of America. It focused American minds wonderfully on all the potential horrors vital to the Bush cause; it was the kind of nightmare image that his most loyal ad gurus could not have paid enough money for. Where did the tape materialise? The usual route. Address of origin: Officially unknown. Address of destination: Al Jazeera. Impact: On all those little suburban homes in Ohio and Iowa that swung the vote away from war hero Kerry to war President Bush.
For many months before the election there was talk of a last-minute "October Surprise", possibly a quiet gift from President Pervez Musharraf to his friend and mentor Bush. Many thought that this would be either the arrest or the death of Osama. It turned out to be far more sophisticated: a tape that kept both of them in business. As the British tabloid, Sun, might have screamed if reporting such a story: "It was de Jaz wot did it!"
The White House did not quite deny the Daily Mirror story that the bombing of Al Jazeera was discussed between Bush and Tony Blair in Washington. It merely dismissed the thought as "outlandish". How far out of land do you have to go to be outlandish in a Bush conversation? Was the invasion of Iraq once outlandish? What is safe and credible and inlandish? That America doesn’t do torture? All those Abu Ghraib pictures must have been from Al Qaeda torture cells.
Actually it doesn’t much matter what was discussed. During times of war stress, all manner of things are discussed. It is much more important to note what has been done rather than what has been discussed. The Bush White House has ensured more than one "accident" in Afghanistan and Iraq to bully and threaten Al Jazeera. To its credit, the channel has refused to let its brow be beaten.
Blair’s response was a verbal grimace that said "Can we change the subject?" Fair enough. I daresay that while Blair did nothing to stop Bush from invading Iraq he may have laid a restraining hand when Bush prepared to invade Al Jazeera.
The British response to the Al Jazeera problem might be far more subtle, and therefore successful. Al Jazeera is launching an English channel next year and is, at the moment, busy hiring a clutch of ex-BBC types, including a few who have lost their credibility along with their teeth. This strategy of implosion seems infinitely superior to the tactics of explosion. Mumble and waffle, the staple menu of this crowd, inside the studio could damage the channel far more than crash and bang from the sky.
All the experience and evidence to the contrary fails to shake the conviction of governments that they can censor all the news all the time. News has this fascinating ability to slip around a corner and reach its target. There will always be one channel or newspaper or Internet avenue that refuses to close its eyes. The motives of media may not even be idealistic. It may do this for nothing more, or indeed less, important than commercial success. Better reporting means more viewers/readers; which means more revenue. Al Jazeera is in demand because it repeatedly brings you the stories that the Occupation forces in Iraq want to hide. The day this stops, Al Jazeera will wither. Audiences are far more loyal to content than to brand. Brand helps, but is no substitute for content. If the English Jazeera takes a different editorial line, it will become as forgettable as any establishment channel.
The subtext of this story is the remarkable ability of Osama bin Laden to pop up where he wants and return to hibernation in some remote, or not, corner of the world that shall forever be Al Qaeda.
As we noted, his tape turned up just in time to influence the fate of George Bush last year. How did that tape travel from wherever Osama is holed up to the offices of Al Jazeera in Doha? On a flying carpet? Was it carried by invisible genii from the Arabian Nights? Did it travel hand to hand from the mountains of the western Himalayas to the waters of the Arabian Sea? Whose were those hands? Was it posted by ordinary mail? Did it come by DHL? Who was the cameraman who shot the interview and edited it in a studio? Or does Osama live in a palace with multi-media facilities? Does no one in the Pakistan government, or on the FBI staff in Pakistan and Afghanistan, know anything, or want to know anything? How come these questions never get asked, let alone getting answered?
America went to war against Afghanistan four years ago to find Osama bin Laden because it was convinced that Osama had masterminded 9/11. If the Taliban had handed over Osama, who was in their protection, and which they admitted, the case for war against Taliban-Afghanistan would have weakened considerably if not disappeared altogether.
Three years before 9/11, in 1998, Nawaz Sharif, the then Prime Minister of Pakistan, told Bill Clinton that Osama bin Laden was on dialysis, and it was only a matter of time before he went the way of all flesh. It’s been a long time, particularly for one with such weakened flesh. Dialysis can keep you going for decades, but what it does do is make you very vulnerable as well. I am not talking only about physical vulnerability. It is very difficult to be on dialysis and hide, when the world’s eyes are trained on you. Dialysis reduces mobility. It demands constant attention to medical apparatus, and presumably competent doctors. Does Osama run such a brilliant, foolproof operation that there are no leaks despite such huge vulnerabilities? Can he survive, with such basic needs, on a lonely mountaintop? Or is he ensconced in some urban jungle? Since there are no urban jungles in Afghanistan (Kabul is at best an urban corpse), he must be in an urban jungle in Pakistan. Is Karachi a good place to look for him? We heard a few days ago one of his deputies saying that he was alive and leading the holy war. If he is alive, why hasn’t he been arrested?
There is something going on that does not quite add up.
Al Jazeera has broken any number of stories. Why doesn’t it break the biggest story of all: where is Osama bin Laden?
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