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Osama’s Exit Strategy: The Historic Options

As he loses support in the Arab world, what do you think are Osama bin Laden’s most likely options for the future?

November 26, 2001

As he loses support in the Arab world, what do you think are Osama bin Laden's most likely options for the future?

At the start of the American bombing of Afghanistan, posters of Osama bin Laden were a hot item in parts of the Muslim world, such as Pakistan and Indonesia. With the Northern Alliance now controlling most of Afghanistan — and the ordinary Afghans showing every sign of being happy to be freed from the Taliban, whatever support for bin Laden in the Muslim world has greatly diminished.

Nevertheless, bin Laden’s legacy, the way he will be perceived in history for a long time to come, depends on the final act — on how he chooses to exit the world stage.

His preference might be to go down fighting. Latin American revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara got himself killed in Bolivia — and thus managed to convert himself quite literally into the posterboy of global revolutionary zeal well into the 21st century.

There is, of course, the suicide route. Branch Davidians’ leader David Koresh, who incinerated himself and a number of his followers in 1993, after a 51-day standoff with the U.S. law enforcement authorities, became something of a cult figure among extreme right-wingers in the United States. So much so that Timothy McVeigh chose to bomb the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, the second anniversary of the Waco conflagration.

But suicide is not necessarily a foolproof path to martyrdom. Think of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, who killed himself along with his wife just as Soviet troops were closing in on his Berlin bunker in 1945. His global appeal, thank God, has remained limited ever since.

Giving up and facing a trial for his crimes may be an appealing proposition for bin Laden. It implies living to fight another day, promulgating his ideas on the global stage — and, who knows, maybe even giving another CNN interview. Plenty of international terrorists in recent years have chosen this relatively painless option. Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, the notorious Carlos the Jackal, is not only serving a life sentence in the relative comfort of a French jail, but is planning to wed his court-appointed lawyer.

And, of course, many an Italian Red Brigade terrorist of the 1970s and 1980s repented in the 1990s to start a new life. This, however, is unlikely to be an alternative for bin Laden, since if convicted he is very likely to get a date with that controversial fruit of Yankee engineering ingenuity, the electric chair.

This leaves flight as the only real choice. Plenty of precedents there as well, although not always successful ones. For instance, French King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette attempted to flee the revolutionary mobs dressed as servants, but were recognized en route — and forcibly returned to Paris.

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini similarly failed in his endeavor to escape through the lines of Italian partisans dressed as a German soldier. How was he found out? While dressing as a common German soldier, his boots really stood out. They were way too smooth and shiny to be the footwear of anybody but a top-ranking military leader, like the Duce himself. Mussolini and his mistress, just like the French royals, were executed by their captors.

In sharp contrast, Russia’s last pre-Communist prime minister Alexander Kerensky was far more successful in escaping Bolshevik revolutionaries in 1917. Legend has it that he avoided their clutches by changing into a woman’s dress.

This might have been a later embellishment by the Communist propaganda, but in any case, rather than being summarily shot, Kerensky made his way to Paris and New York — and lived well until 1970.

Fleeing dressed as a woman would be a suitable option for Osama bin Laden. Evidently, in order to disguise himself as a woman in the portion of Afghanistan that is still ruled by the Taliban, he would have to wear an all-enveloping burqua.

Imagine bin Laden wading in a pool of Afghani women dressed in the traditional garb. He might escape the attention of UN troops monitoring Afghanistan, unless — owing to his height — he stands out just a little too much.

Moreover, unless accompanied by a male relative, he risks being beaten — or even stoned to death. In fact, upon sober reflection, Osama bin Laden may find that being a woman in a fundamentalist Islamic state is a worse fate than facing American special forces.

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