Saturday, August 16, 2003

Safe House Envy

All over the world, ex-clandestine operators must be going over Hambali's last hours in their mind's eye, wondering what they would have done differently. Most would note, with envy, how well resourced he was. A safe house in a decent block of apartments; escape documents which included an EU (Spanish) passport; facial reconstruction; a small arsenal of weapons and probably several million dollars in ready cash. A level of support which was staggering. During the Communist heyday most clandestine cells even in Western Europe lived on the cheap. Fake documents from criminal forgers. Guns bought from the back of a truck. Macaroni and cheese in the cupboard. Maybe a decent coat or two for urban camouflage; but facial reconstruction, no; not even for Carlos the Jackal.

Aging radicals all over the world are probably thinking back to when, if ever, they crossed borders to meet with co-conspirators. When they could purchase military explosives by the thousand pounds. When they could throw away brand new vehicles for one way trips. And the answer for most, is never.

But then, there was never a terrorist organization like Al-Qaeda. The trip to their bosom in the halcyon days of the early 1990s was like a journey to a cave of wonders. You went up in stages to the prophet in his cave. First through a sympathetic imam in a madrassa or mosque, perhaps in a British High Street. Then by endorsement to a religious school in Pakistan or Egypt for further examination. Finally, if suitable, there would be passage to Afghanistan, where under the widest skies on earth in the midst of the loftiest peaks in Central Asia you would cross crystal streams over bare hills, training by day, roused to Islamic prayer by night, until you were fairly drunk with a dream. And then there was money, lots of money. Recruits to whom $50 would have been a fortune were given tens of thousands to speed them on their mission. It was, for most, a moment of election and an experience of anointment from which they returned as prophets with uplifted arms to an unsuspecting world.

To seekers who came to Osama Bin Laden from the West, there were prodigies of a different sort. By the 1990s, the venceremos camps of Cuba and the Marxist kibbutzes of Israel were history. There was nowhere in the decayed Marxist universe to experience the international brotherhood which had been the staple of Leftist formation since the 1900s;  no Catalonia, no foco in the Columbian hills which the pilgrim could reach at the end of long days. You could, like the American Lori Berenson, be content to sit at the feet of  Abimael Guzman whose friends had dwindled to the level of Jose Maria Sison. But the price was jail from which the ineffectual Leftist support groups could offer no escape. The smell of rancid wool, pomade and lice hung over the plastic glasses in Marxist meeting halls. Only by the cool gorges of Afghanistan, beside roaring cataracts under banners in flowing Arabic script could the Western pilgrim meet the peasant from the Sudan or the farmer from Mindanao in the earnest of brotherhood which he sought.

The one thing which plastic surgery could not hide were the strange men who Hambali's neighbors noticed visiting his apartment. Men who stood out in that carefree Thai tourist town with an aura of earnestness; whose backgrounds, once examined by the alerted police didn't quite add up. Every clandestine operator should know the danger: the unmistakable signature of a coven of true believers caught like deer in the headlights by accidental intrusion of neighbors from the workaday world. But Hambali did not.

As he returned to his apartment on his last night of freedom, other men forged in equally strange but different ways  foregathered in the dark. They, too, had walked the hills of Afghanistan; they too had found a brotherhood. They too were prophets from another place. Hard-muscled and in mufti, they were joined by trusted members of the Thai police. Hambali's neighbors recalled the urgent knocks on the door answered only by silence. After an interval a crash and the sounds of a struggle before silence returned anew.

Most professionals going over Hambali's capture in their minds, must be asking themselves at what point captivity became inevitable. Could he not, had he known on the day before, bolted in some way? Could he not have had a scuttling charge ready to deny capture and destroy evidence? Hambali will have a long time to think about it in Guantanamo Bay, but it will seem shorter than the eternity which lies before the Leftist in the reading corner of a Revolution bookstore.