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TOP STORIES    Sunday, December 19, 2004         Subscribe!
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Bin Laden's economic threat dismissed




By David McHugh
The Associated Press



Osama bin Laden claims to have bled the Soviet Union into bankruptcy as an Islamic guerrilla fighter in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Could he do the same to another hated superpower -- the United States?

The al-Qaida leader's latest purported communication drove home the point by calling on militants to stop the flow of oil to the West and praising a Dec. 6 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil producer.

In an audiotape posted on an Islamic Web site Thursday, a man who U.S. officials believe was bin Laden accused Westerners of subjugating the Middle East to plunder its oil.

"Go on and try to prevent them from getting oil," the speaker said. "Concentrate your operations on that, especially in Iraq and the Gulf."

It was believed to be the first time a purported bin Laden tape in effect called for attacks on the oil industry. But he has flaunted the economic theme before, recalling in his most recent video how Afghan mujahedeen "bled Russia for 10 years, until it went bankrupt" and taunting the U.S. government over the size of its budget deficit -- which peaked at $413 billion last year.

Security and terrorism experts suggest bin Laden's claims to be undermining the United States economically are largely propaganda, noting the flexible, market-driven U.S. economy is a far cry from the creaky, bureaucratic Soviet giant that disintegrated in 1991.

Still, the economic argument gives bin Laden a tool he can use to rally his supporters and inflate his aura of success by claiming damage caused by other factors as his own handiwork.

Spurred by the new audiotape, Muslim radicals using chat rooms on Islamic Web sites debated Friday what weapons could be used to attack an oil tanker in the strait of Hormuz in the Gulf.

Bin Laden "sees us as poised on this precipice, and he's going to push us into the abyss," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Rand Corp.

As Bin Laden put it in his video aimed at Americans just days before the Nov. 2 presidential election: "The real loser is you. It is the American people and their economy."

The al-Qaida leader cites the experience of Afghan mujahedeen fighters "in using guerrilla warfare and the war of attrition to fight tyrannical superpowers" to drive the Soviets out.

Bin Laden was among U.S.-supported Islamic fighters in Afghanistan, backed with money and weapons in hopes of weakening Russia, the United States' opponent in the Cold War.

The Soviet comparison is aimed as much at bin Laden supporters as at Americans, says Rand analyst Hoffman. "That's how he motivates and animates people and addresses morale -- telling them, 'No one thought we could achieve that feat, and by the same token no one thinks we can achieve this feat of defeating the United States, but we will,'" Hoffman said.

Retired Gen. William Odom, a scholar at the Hudson Institute and an expert in the Soviet collapse, said bin Laden's analogy is off base since the Soviet Union collapsed for reasons other than Afghanistan, including the weakness of its state-run economy.

As far as spending on Iraq, Odom said damage to the U.S. economy is attributable to the Bush Administration embarking on a costly war. In the fall 2003, Congress approved $87.5 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and $25 billion more last spring, and Bush is expected to request another $75 billion to $100 billion early in 2005.

"If we're stupid enough to go off and do something like that, bin Laden can justly crow about it," Odom said. "But I don't think he can take credit for having caused it."

Odom believes no al-Qaida strategy can topple U.S. dominance.

"In an operational sense, U.S.-made policies, not bin Laden's actions, have risked putting the United States in a very serious situation," he said.

Terrorists "have never brought down a liberal democracy," Odom said. "Terrorists like bin Laden can cause trouble but they're not a strategic problem, they're a tactical nuisance."

Princeton University economist Alan Krueger said, "The U.S. economy is too large and diverse to be sunk by terrorism."

"The U.S. government budget is overflowing with red ink because of the Bush tax cuts and the aging of the baby boom generation, not because of Osama bin Laden," Krueger said in an e-mail.

On the video, bin Laden asserted al-Qaida is the cause of U.S. losses in battle: "All we have to do is to send two mujahedeen to the furthest point East to raise a piece of cloth on which is written 'al-Qaida,' in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note other than some benefits to private companies."

Hoffman noted that bin Laden also tried to take credit for U.S. economic difficulties after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks that toppled the World Trade Center, including the sharp drop of the NASDAQ stock market and corporate scandals such as Enron.

Bin Laden has "an excellent understanding" of economic targeting, said Magnus Ranstorp, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrew's University in Great Britain. But he would need a bigger strike to hurt the United States -- one aimed at a critical part of the economy, such as shipping or financial exchanges, Ranstorp said.

"Unless they strike at the stock exchange, unless they strike at the exact critical nodes in our infrastructure, I think the economy can certainly absorb that," Ranstorp said.

This summer, federal authorities raised the terror alert for financial institutions after uncovering an alleged al-Qaida plot to attack the Citicorp building and the New York Stock Exchange in New York; the International Monetary Fund and World Bank buildings in Washington; and the Prudential Financial Inc.'s headquarters in Newark, N.J. The alert has since been lifted.

Intelligence indicated al-Qaida had conducted surveillance of the buildings, U.S. authorities said. Although the information dated back several years, counterterrorism officials noted that al-Qaida has a record of extensive planning and plotting.



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