The Spectre of bin Laden in the Age of Terrorism

Al Jazeera, the Arab satellite television network, broadcast an audio tape today that it said was recorded by Osama bin Laden in which he praised several terror attacks around the world, including recent ones in Moscow and Bali, and threatened further bloodshed over Iraq.

American officials said that the voice sounded like Mr. bin Laden and that the tape could be proof that he has resurfaced. Some American officials had concluded he was dead.

Experts at the Central Intelligence Agency are studying the tape to determine its authenticity, and officials cautioned that they did not yet have conclusive evidence that the voice was that of Mr. bin Laden.

It is possible that the tape is another fake, officials said, but their reaction suggested that they were taking seriously the possibility that it was genuine.

- James Risen with Neil MacFarquhar. New York Times, Nov. 13, 2002.

Where is Osama bin Laden? Except for the disembodied voice, the Saudi fugitive has been lying low. Only a few have seen him. In mid-May the former Taliban leader Mullah Muhammed Omar claimed that "Sheikh Osama [was] still alive."[1] Since September 2001, bin Laden's body has escaped the bombing of the Tora Bora complex of caves, suffered liquidation by coalition forces, and was buried with peaceful ceremony.

How then, given these contradictions, is the elusive bin Laden body (dead or alive) to be found in the war against terrorism? This paper considers whether bin Laden can be physically found, and following from that, how he has been 'found' in the war against terror through alternative ways that have subverted the spatial limitations inherent in a physical capture. This theoretical framework of how bin Laden can be 'found' uses, where appropriate, the social theory of Walter Benjamin, and the critiques of representation offered by postmodern French philosophers Paul Virilio and Jean Baudrillard. A physical capture is most desirable for the American public, since it will provide an opportunity to bring 'closure' to September 11.[2] But this physical capture has ceased to be a priority for the Bush Administration since the war against terror makes confirmed 'killings' impossible to verify because of the war's secretive nature. It has proven difficult to find a person who is dead and alive simultaneously, who has been buried, and yet escapes the location of his burial after the ceremony.[3] Some authors have argued that finding bin Laden is far more trouble than it is worth.[4] Even when represented in media, arguments have been made to prevent real time showing of his video messages, dislocating attempts to find him in space.[5]

This disavowal of a physical discovery effectively traps bin Laden within media where he can be 'found,' within various mythological systems of representation: the television, the T-shirt, leaflets. These forms of representation become the substitute for physically finding him, where his image becomes battle-ground for the modern ideological conflict, whether represented as a traitor to Islam by dressing up as a Western businessman,[6] or pictured in a collage alongside American cartoon characters.

The strategies for discovering a physically absent bin Laden have involved three themes: the concept of product substitution -- where bin Laden becomes a commodity saleable in both the Third World and First World; the concept of strategic substitution -- where terrorist groups and other governments considered hostile to U.S.-British interests are literally substituted in place of bin Laden; and the concept of image transference: if bin Laden cannot be found, witnesses to his aura compensate for his absence. Witnesses of bin Laden have in the process become celebrities selling their news stories, substituting the bin Laden cult for their own.

The Importance of the Body -- Physical Location

Americans regard the finding of Osama bin Laden as central to the war on terror. A November 2001 poll claimed that "60 percent of Americans were willing to risk large numbers of casualties among US troops in order to capture or kill bin Laden."[7] The necessity for forensic evidence -- the need to claim the bin Laden scalp in its physical rather than spectral form emphasizes America's need to legitimise punishment through trial and, short of that, legitimise the reality of death through capturing his body. Tony Judt claimed, for that very reason "we had better hope that he is alive."[8] But there has been a rupture in the consensus between the public interest in seeing bin Laden found and the broader policy objectives in the 'War on Terrorism.' At the policy making level in the United States, finding the presumed architect of September 11 has become less important than finding the network of terror that he represents, and regimes that possess the characteristics of 'evil.' According to Tyson of the Christian Science Monitor, "since the US-led siege at the Tora Bora cave complex in eastern Afghanistan in December turned up no trace of the Al Qaeda terrorist leader, top Pentagon officials have increasingly argued that - alive or dead - he is irrelevant."[9] An unnamed defense official within the Pentagon, noted by Tyson, quoted his comments thus: "Everybody wants to know where Osama bin Laden is. The next question is, who cares? Osama bin Laden as a center of gravity is gone."[10] According to French writer Alain de Benoist, "Whether [bin Laden] was personally involved is irrelevant."[11]

The location of bin Laden has become politically inconsequential whereas publicly the desire to see bin Laden account for his crimes is still strong. The importance of finding his physical being is of symbolic importance in the dissemination of justice. In the words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt speaking in 1944 on Axis war criminals, suspects "would have to stand in courts of law ... and account for their acts."[12] In writing on Hannah Arendt's analysis of the Israeli trial of war criminal Adolf Eichmann, Shoshana Felman has observed how "we needed trials to bring a conscious disclosure to the trauma of war, to separate ourselves from the atrocities."[13] War crimes trials were necessary to mark a moral consciousness, to "draw and demarcate a boundary around [unending and unbearable] suffering."[14] Bin Laden's physical presence before trial in the United States will be more potent than his absence.

Despite the direct benefits of a physical discovery of bin Laden, the structure of the present war on terror leaves little chance of discovering physical culprits and bodies. Benoist rationalizes the war on terror as marked by 'networks' rather corporeal agents, warning against 'naïve' assumptions that "global terrorism relies on one single man, organization or country."[15] Modern terrorist enterprises operate without clearly identifiable physical beings, relying on "decentralized, non-hierarchical structures."[16] In a war without clear boundaries of identification, how can terrorist culprits be easily 'found'? A Chicago lawyer's article on an internet chat-room put it thus:

[H]ow will we really know bin Laden is dead? What if the man they kill is one of his rumored body-doubles? Do we have dental records or fingerprints of bin Laden for verification? Do we have confidence in voice recognition technology? What if bin Laden's body is obliterated by a bomb, making identification impossible?[17]

In the words of President Bush, "we don't know whether he's in a cave with the door shut, or a cave with the door open - we just don't know."[18]

The physical impossibility of finding the Saudi has been constantly attested to. In the words of former NATO officer Colonel Bob Stewart, finding bin Laden "is probably impossible ... using satellite imagery or any other marvel of modern science and Bin Laden is unlikely to be betrayed by his most trusted collaborators." A terrorist of bin Laden's ilk "will have pre-planned his bolthole and he might only be found if he wants to be ... He has run and has hidden - at least for the moment."[19] According to the President, the American people were "facing a different enemy than we have ever faced." Elusive, this particular "enemy hides in shadows" and "preys on innocent and unsuspecting people, then runs for cover."[20] This enemy can only be reached on terms of secrecy.

A narrative against the need to physically find bin Laden has also developed. Bin Laden's value to his pursuers lies in being hidden and undiscovered. According to RAND consultant John Arquilla in the Los Angeles Times, hunting bin Laden would be too costly, and launching the "most expensive manhunt in history might well divert attention and needed resources from what should be the war's central aim: to defeat Al Qaeda before it mounts an attack with weapons of mass destruction." It might even be risky to physically find him since he could himself become a 'dirty bomb,' immolating himself and his pursuers in the explosion. According to Arquilla, the living, unfound bin Laden will leave a paper trail, or digital trail to his accomplices. "Bin Laden becomes more valuable alive' leaving traces to 'terrorist sleepers."[21]

Neither Dead nor Alive

The nature of the war on terror has subjected bin Laden's body to various contortions. Bin Laden has become a victim of Guy Debord's society of spectacle, where there is a surfeit of images and representations.[22] If we are seeking to physically discover bin Laden what are we going to find? The existing evidence points to a body suffering from various conditions. Numerous signs of mortality have been discussed in the discourse about the Saudi's bodyï kidney failure, heart trouble -- but these are the feigned symptoms of the simulacrum, where the only thing true is the simulacrum itself.[23] September 11 itself showed, suggests Benoist, that "reality now imitates virtual reality or that the simulacrum precedes reality."[24] Its perpetrators have likewise succumbed to Baudrillard's economy of signs, becoming objects of simulation in the discourse on terror. In Baudrillard's words, "The simulator cannot be treated objectively as ill or as not ill." [25] Where aura is lost, death and life cease to become different stages.

Baudrillard's concept of 'sign-value' on the orders of simulacra is especially relevant. Beyond first order signs where images represent reality, second order signs are characterised by a reality that is disguised by appearance. The third order involves 'production,' where "appearances create their illusion of reality." The final order -- simulation -- marks the stage of the virtual, wherein images "invent reality" itself.[26] At this stage, "the real is not only what can be reproduced but that which is always being reproduced": the 'hyperreal'.[27] The question posed by international relations writer James Der Derian after the Gulf War was this: "whether simulations can create a new world order where actors act, things happen, and the consequences have no origins except the artificial cyberspace of simulations themselves."[28] The strategies of 'finding' bin Laden have therefore involved a pursuit of an amalgam between Benjamin's deauratized bin Laden and Baudrillard's simulated bin Laden. Bin Laden circulates in a representational purgatory; the image-world perpetually resurrects him.

In an influential essay titled "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Benjamin discussed how art is affected under conditions of mechanical reproduction -- the photograph, the film. While it can be argued that his essay is limited to the affect of mechanical reproduction on art objects strictly called, it is submitted that Benjamin's theoretical assumptions can extend to the technological reproduction of human forms for mass ideological consumption. Benjamin claimed that the reproduced work of art occurs without regard to aura, to the 'authenticity' that underpins every art creation.[29] "Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be."[30] Benjamin used the term aura to describe the mystique that attaches to the original work of art - the cave painting or the statue in a temple - whose originality stems from its unmoveable, unreproducible form. "The whole sphere of authenticity is outside technical ... reproducibility." [31] The original work of art is now of less importance from its previous 'sacred' location, which saw the aura incapable of being moved. It was the static nature of the aura that saw the art piece confined to its place of contemplation.

Benjamin's analysis of the deauratization of art through film and photography, when applied to bin Laden's representation during the various strategies of the war against terror, can be used to assert that the Saudi suspect, while physically difficult to find, is available in an estranged form that 'substitutes' his original aura. According to Benjamin, "technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach of the original itself." Referring to the "estrangement felt before one's own image in the mirror," Benjamin argued that the camera had made the reflected image mobile, "separable, transportable."[32]

Read analogously, the physical bin Laden, with his aura, has been estranged, his image repositioned in the war against terror. In not being able to witness his aura, his location, his occupied space, the West and bin Laden's supporters have resorted to strategies to overcome their physical distance from the Saudi. A proliferation of deauratized forms has resulted: 'product substitution' where his picture is mass produced on toilet paper and T-shirts; 'strategic substitution,' where other regimes substitute him, and 'image transference,' where the witnesses of his aura have replaced him.

Under Benjamin's concept of machine reproduction where originality is detached from the copied product, or Baudrillard's simulacrum, where "the real is always being reproduced" as 'hyperreality'[33], life has lost the referential point of an end, a conclusion of living. Death signs are life signs. Where the aura has been estranged from the original subject, the alienated image circulates within a sign system that simulates bin Laden's physical reality. The present world order defined through combating terrorism is then packaged as a game of bluff in seeking the body of a terrorist suspect that is perpetually present and absent. The 'dead' bin Laden produces videos. The 'dead' bin Laden is buried yet escapes his place of burial. The videos that condemn the United States and the world of the infidel mask geography and territory; they rearrange chronological time in a cinematic way: "In cinema, not only does nothing stop, most important, nothing necessarily has any direction or sense, since on the screens physical laws are reversed."[34] Each video aired from the Qatar news station Al Jazeera portrays a bin Laden that is probably no longer there. The medium of television produces images as part of 'an ephemeral vanishing act.'[35] Even President Bush conceded as much in an exchange with journalists on his Texas Ranch in late December 2001:

Journalist: "Mr. President, what's your reaction to the new bin Laden tape this week? And do you fear he's now eluded the manhunt?"

Bush: "You know, it's - who knows when it was made."[36]

What Baudrillard calls the 'set-up' that is the war on terror and the pursuit of bin Laden reruns the 'non-event' of the Gulf War, where simulation led to deceptive strategies used by both the Coalition forces and Saddam Hussein that led to fictional rules of engagement, or 'non-engagement.' "Bluff and information serve as aphrodisiacs for war."[37]

A series of examples serve to illustrate the superfluous distinctions that affect the representation of a 'physically' accessible bin Laden. The Pakistan Observer reported a ceremony of his death, noted in the Egyptian publication al-Wafd.[38] An anonymous Taliban official claimed from Islamabad that "bin Laden suffered serious complications in the lungs and died a natural and quiet death." He had personally been in attendance at the funeral in mid-December having seen "his face prior to burial in Tora Bora." With detail, the anonymous official described how thirty "Al Qaeda fighters attended the burial as well as members of his family and some friends form the Taliban," a farewell to the Saudi dissident accompanied by the firing of "final rest guns ... fired in the air."[39] But, in the twist of tradition, no markings were left of the elusive body: bin Laden's location would remain a secret according to the dictates of Wahhabi tradition.

A contrast exists then, between the tradition of burying bin Laden without signs where the body retreats into the earth; and American forensic and legal traditions which demand the body's production to generate a sense of closure, and vindicate the rights associated with the confirmation of death: insurance rights, burial rights, and the proceeds to a will. Common law emphasizes the body of rights that is embodied in the corpus delicti. This permeates a psychiatric condition that focuses on the physical nature of bin Laden that depends on the 'discovery' of his body, while the body in bin Laden's version of Islam vanishes into the ground in the customary Islamic tradition of burial.

At one end of the bin Laden 'body' spectrum was a singular state of being physically intact, readied for the funeral. This was supported by the testimony of the unnamed Taliban official. Bin Laden had cheated justice, eluding it through surrendering to bad health. This kept his body intact and invisible. The dramaturgy of bin Laden's various videotapes also gave cause for speculation on his constitution. A tape aired on Qatar station Al-Jazeera was reported to have been made early December 2001, showing a much paler version of bin Laden.[40] In complete contrast, the Times of India obliterated the body -- it reported on the demise of bin Laden and his human form at the Tora Bora caves. The body here vaporised. According to Campbell, it has been "deemed necessary [for DNA identification] as military planners recognise that bin Laden might have been killed but his body left unrecognisable."[41]

Then, bin Laden's confused corpse, obliterated or buried with ceremony, miraculously escaped, resurrected in a report by the Christian Science Monitor claiming that the very alive Saudi had always planned to escape the Tora Bora complex.[42] One of the Monitor's sources, a village tribesman Abu Jaffar, claimed in December 2001 that, "Osama bin Laden travelled out of Tora Bora two times in this Ramadan holy month. He left to meet Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar about three weeks ago and stayed with him near Kandahar."[43] Smucker, writing in early March, claimed that "somewhere between Nov. 28 to Nov. 30 [2001] - according to detailed interviews with Arabs and Afghans in eastern Afghanistan afterward - the world's most-wanted man escaped the world's most-powerful military machine, walking - with four of his loyalists - in the direction of Pakistan."[44] Tora Bora degenerated into caricature: assaults during the day on an enemy that was disappearing in an 'exodus' through bribing the very Afghans who were meant to besiege the Al Qaeda fighters. The key lesson of the Tora Bora battle, wrote Smucker was "Know which local leaders to trust."[45]

Product Substitution

Product substitution, or in the specific case of the war on terror, the product substitution of aura, has been frequent with bin Laden. These have tended to involve various 'products' of his image: commodities where the bin Laden emblem becomes a material object that circulates as an object of commerce; virtual 'capture' of bin Laden through a modern form of pillory and stockade in cyberspace; and forensic substitutions of his body through DNA samples from his family. Bin Laden's estranged image has enabled various sides in the war on terror to reshape the Saudi's form. Since the genuine article replete with aura and cult is inaccessible for friend and foe, he has become a substitute in a mass commodification process.

An example then of how bin Laden can be 'found,' is through such forums as cyberspace chat-rooms and game programs where the terrorist suspect is lampooned regularly. If he is not lampooned, then his image is copied several times over and distributed in the form of a commodity. Since he cannot be found, it is better to sell his image and pretend that proprietary ownership has been exacted over his body. This is the direct result of enclosing bin Laden's face in toilet paper, so that the image of bin Laden is subject to the indignities of being possessed by the patriotic user. The heading of the sold paper available at 'Twin Cheeks' Online Store says, "Wipe Out Bin Laden."[46] Bin Laden becomes useful: he can be bought, the proceeds of which will go to the "WTC disaster relief fund," and end up as contents in a toilet bowl.

Beyond the crude framing of bin Laden through toilet paper, an attempt has been made to trial the suspect in more publicly accessible ways. In the present war on terror, simulated capture compensates the need for an authentic capture. In his physical absence, trials of the Saudi have been conducted in cyberspace thereby subverting the spatial and territorial limitations placed on conventional trials. Computer games have proliferated, either enabling the computer participant to destroy bin Laden, or, in a completely opposite sense, let him escape. A list of web sites on 'political humour' compiled by Daniel Kurtzman enables cyber citizens to undertake their own exercises of retribution on a physically elusive suspect. Bin Laden is portrayed as a peddler of liquor: "Launch a successful counter terrorism attack on Osama bin Laden's liquor store, secret headquarters of Al-Qaeda'; a target of a nuclear attack by American forces ('Nuke Bin Laden Game'); and a subject of a hide and seek operation ('Where's Osama Bin Hidin?')".[47]

On a far more mundane level than either intellectual copyright or scatology, bin Laden 'substitutes' in the form of his family have been found to provide DNA samples, to enable a code to be drawn up to discover whether the Saudi has perished in the Afghan caves. Since the physical bin Laden has vanished, American and British authorities hope to verify the physical destruction of bin Laden through this vicarious exercise of identity checking, 'discovering' bin Laden's body through genetic traces. The bin Laden family have subsequently become members of this substitution exercise. According to Rose, "FBI scientists are trying to match them with DNA culled from swabs provided by members of bin Laden's immediate family."[48] Duncan claimed that "tissue samples have been returned to the US and a US government official has told Reuters, on condition of anonymity, that feelers are being sent out to the Bin Laden family through an intermediary [seeking access to some DNA]."[49]

Admirers of bin Laden in the Third World have mimicked the approach of their Western counterparts and eliminated their distance from the physically visible bin Laden through their production of an idealised terrorist. Islamic followers of bin Laden desire their own narrative to counter the proprietary attitudes of Western media. Since they, like their Western counterparts, cannot see the aura of bin Laden, it has been necessary to 'find' him through other means, to reproduce him through a false ownership. In demonstrations in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka in early October 2001, an attack on the innocence of one of America's more noted children's idols was made by an unspecified number of protesters. Bert, a puppet character from the well-known children's program Sesame Street, was placed alongside the suspect bin Laden in a collage, copied from a website that was subsequently disabled. Bin Laden became a redeemed figure before a maleficent Bert, eyebrows menacingly curved. Sesame Street workshop producers were reported on CNN as being, 'outraged that our characters would be used in this unfortunate and distasteful manner."[50]

U.S. forces familiar with the power of Bert-bin Laden collages, reshaped the terrorist's body, converting it into a formidable ideological currency. The reproduced image of bin Laden, estranged from the aura of the man and his motives, has enabled political powers in the west to convert the orthodox Saudi into a frontier outlaw. First, the appearance of bin Laden was easily assimilated by tropic themes of the cowboy, the Wild West, where violence was an expression of a frontier mentality. In an address to Pentagon employees a week after September 11, Bush brought the trope into play: "There is a poster out west, as I recall, that said 'Wanted: Dead or Alive.'"[51] The FBI has added substance to this theme, placing a 25 million dollar reward on bin Laden's head. The fugitive was swift responding to the rules of this Wild West game by placing a $50,000 price tag "on the head of any American soldier captured in Afghanistan."[52] On the stage of the Wild West, there are bounties on the heads of enemies, hunters, and physically elusive criminals.

A second representation of bin Laden's villainous image has been to extract him from his Arabic background and Westernise him within new strategic contexts. From the image of the frontier criminal as advertised in the United States, bin Laden has been portrayed as a Westernized turncoat to Al Qaeda and Afghan combatants. Various leaflets dropped on Al Qaeda positions in early January 2002 were reported on CNN in detail, where bin Laden had shed his beard and turban for less familiar clothing:

The leaflet has an image of dead Afghan soldiers with the following statement, with spellings retained: "Usama bin Laden, the murderer and coward, has abandoned al Qaeda. He has abandoned you and run away. Give yourself up and do not die needlessly, you mean nothing to him. Save your families the grief and pain of your death."[53]

The other side of the pamphlet displayed an altered bin Laden, excised of turban and beard, clothed in Western garb: suit and tie. The image was crowned by the words: "Usama bin Laden the murderer and coward has abandoned you!"[54] Here the frontier criminal also betrays his followers, changing clothes, living off the hospitality of his enemies.

Strategic Substitution

As the physical form of bin Laden is beyond the reach of Coalition forces, it has been necessary to find bin Laden 'substitutes' in strategic planning. The war against terrorism takes its next step: magnification, inflation. It has moved beyond bin Laden the man with his Al Qaeda network, to the regime accused of terrorist sponsorship. "He's not in charge of the -- he's not the parasite that invaded the host, the Taliban."[55] In an article published in the American journal Telos, John Millbank, using the Left critique of neo-imperialism advanced by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Empire, proposed that September 11 "seemed to give an opportunity to do things which some factions in the West have wanted for a long time."[56] Such 'things' involved assaults "on so called 'rogue states'; a continuous war against terrorists everywhere; a policing of world markets to ensure that free exchange processes are not exploited by the enemies of capitalism."[56] The logic of American empire observes bin Laden as a signpost in the broader aims of geopolitical interests, and extends the concept of American injury in light of September 11 beyond the individual relation of a terrorist with the state.

Beyond Al Qaeda are various conceptual analogies adopted by Washington that have extended the bin Laden genre of terror to other regimes. While the first victim of bin Laden's strategic substitution was the Taliban, historical interest has shifted to other sources, other geographically less uncertain figures: Saddam Hussein in Iraq; the conservative Mullahs in Iran; the Communist regime in North Korea. A few days after the September attacks, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz advocated a broader war against terrorism. "One has to think about accepting casualties. One has to think about sustained campaigns."[57] In his State of the Union address, President Bush discussed the architecture of evil through positing 'an axis of evil.' Axial evil enacts the principle of substitution, so evil can be easily applied to the regimes of Iran, Iraq and North Korea. According to David Pryce-Jones, senior editor of the conservative American magazine, the National Review, "The war against terror is swinging round the points of the compass. The needle shows Yemen, apparently, Somalia (again), and Sudan."[58] In the Philippines, United States forces are assisting Manila to root out members of the Abu Sayef organisation, said to have connections with bin Laden. The parasitic influence of the Saudi has extended by analogy to Abu Sayef and it is similarly to be destroyed. The proximity of bin Laden's mythology with other 'evil' regimes enables them to be destroyed without the need of finding him.

Bin Laden had shrunk into the discourse of expanded terrorism. According to CBS News, "Mr. Bush declared that Saddam is a menace "and we're going to deal with him," and said bin Laden - a man he once said he wanted dead or alive - has been reduced to a marginal figure in the war on terrorism."[59] Conservative author and editor of the American journal Commentary Norman Podhoretz, suggested that any 'victory' in the present war on terror would be incomplete "with Saddam still in power."[60] The editor went so far as to suggest that America was on an "imperial mission," with results that might lead to the creation "of some kind of American protectorate over the oil fields of Saudi Arabia."[61] The geographically fluid target of the war against terror -- bin Laden - has been replaced by more localised objects, specific governments where the locomotion is not essential to its functions.

Alarmed, sociologist Richard Sennet observed that the war had been taken beyond the individual relationship between the culpable act of September 11 attributable to bin Laden and the United States polity. While Saddam Hussein stood as an abomination, the proposed campaign against Iraq made no logical sense vis- -vis the context of September 11.[62] The classification of the attacks of September 11 as 'crimes' would invariably circumscribe the focus of the United States, concentrating on the individuality of the crime: bin Laden as a perpetrator, rather than bin Laden as the general pretext. In the anti-terrorist methodology of the Bush administration, he is the cover for a global assault on terrorism.

Transferring the Aura

When it was impossible to locate bin Laden, journalists proceeded to interview each other to capture the vicarious allure of the hunted dissident. The distance from bin Laden was sanctified just as it created celebrities out of media citizens. The journalists have appropriated their own subjects, becoming themselves objects of representation. Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir became a person who had appropriated the aura of bin Laden. Having been deauratized through media, bin Laden's aura moved from the media field to his witnesses. Here Hamid became the oracle that controlled the mystification of bin Laden, or even, in a sense, his demystification. In an interview with Christian Science Monitor, the celebrity-substitute, using the aura of his Saudi subject, demoted bin Laden in the terrorist war. "The modern world is fighting a caveman," Mir told the Monitor in Islamabad late October. Mir was presumptuous of the man whose physical aura he had appropriated, even assuming knowledge of his thought processes: "Osama is a person who says, 'If I have to fight, I'll fight in the mountains like I fought against the Soviets.' He'll pack an AK-47, a kilogram of grenades, a kilogram of explosives, and a donkey to carry them all to a cave."[63]

Hamid then became a bin Laden substitute, the oracle who had been there, his mirror. The interest in Hamid became the interest in bin Laden. "They sat and laughed and talked along into the early hours, about religion, war and the meaning of life," according to Jason Burke of the Observer. Hamid, 'the interlocutor,' became a Ladenite vessel, mediating his existence by suggesting where bin Laden might be hiding, and shaping perceptions of bin Laden for Western audiences. Bin Laden's address to Hamid was the equivalent of addressing a forum: "Osama bin Laden told his interlocutor, and thus the world, that he feels certain the Americans will kill him sooner or later and that he is 'ready to die'."[64]


The acceptance by coalition members for a war in the shadows against agents of terror has excised the importance of corporeal, concrete evidence in proving bin Laden's death or whereabouts. Physical access or capture of the Saudi has been accepted as impossible. The agenda of the 'long thin war' is prohibitive of exact locations and definite solutions. To 'find' Bin Laden both the West and sections of the Third World have sought to locate him using various theoretical strategies. He has stayed the vicissitudes of mortality. The body of bin Laden never ceases to function in the present 'non-event' war of bluff: it continues to speak, to preach, whether from media tapes, caves or isolated village huts. For bin Laden, the aura is never reproducible; it has been severed by endless mechanical duplications, from the moment his own cameraman has filmed him, to the times he has been pictured on Al-Jazeera and CNN.

Physical absence is accounted for in several ways that substitute the aura of bin Laden. As has been suggested, both the West and sections of the Third World have substituted bin Laden's original image for DNA samples, for T-Shirt logos, and toilet paper that manifests his 'presence.' To become a commodity is to become accessible. His mythology enables supporters and enemies to substitute him in terms of products, or assume the dissolution of his body into micro parts, and less identifiable components. In cyberspace, his image can be a substitute for virtual trials in a modern version of the pillory. The representation of the same body has also been altered by U.S. forces, treating bin Laden as a turncoat for Western interests, while Bangladeshi protesters have used the powerful image of an 'innocent' bin Laden in the company of a malicious Bert across a series of poster collages.

Physical absence has also led to strategic pretexts: the elimination of terrorist regimes that 'constitute an axis of evil.' For that reason, the physical bin Laden has become less important than the alibi he provides for America's new foreign policy. The terrorist regimes stand in place of bin Laden, and the Saudi becomes a proxy in a more global ideological war against anti-American interests.

The aura of bin Laden has also been transferred to those who seek to report his whereabouts. Self-appointed paladins of reporting the presence of bin Laden, they emphasize bin Laden's absence through substituting themselves in place of bin Laden's aura, the most notable example being Hamid Mir. The question posed by this paper then remains: Bin Laden Where Are You?


[1] Times of India, "Mullah Omar Says Bin Laden Still Alive." Reuters, May 21, 2002.

[2] Tyson, Ann Scott, "Does Bin Laden Matter Anymore?" Christian Science Monitor, March 1, 2002.

[3] See Smucker, Philip, "Bin Laden in Pakistan, Source Claims." Christian Science Monitor, Dec12, 2001.

[4] Arquilla, John, "Osama bin Laden Not Wanted: Dead Or Alive." Los Angeles Times. Dec 30, 2001.

[5] See discussion in Hanson, Christopher, "Over Here: We're All War Correspondents Now." Columbia Journalism Review, Vol. 40, No. 4, Nov-Dec, 2001, pp. 25-28.

[6] See Cable News Network, "U.S. Dropped Leaflets to Show Bin Laden in Western Clothes." Jan 4, 2002.

[7] Cited in Tyson, "Does Bin Laden Matter Anymore?"

[8] Judt, Tony, "America at War." New York Review of Books, Vol. 48, No. 18, Nov15, 2001, pp. 4-6, 5.

[9] Tyson, "Does Bin Laden Matter Anymore?"

[10] Ibid.

[11] Benoist, Alain de, "The Twentieth Century Ended September 11." Telos, No. 112, Fall, 2001, pp. 113-133, 117.

[12] Quoted in Jackson, Robert, "N¸rnberg in Retrospect." Canadian Bar Review, Vol. 27, 1949, p. 764.

[13] Felman, Shoshana, "Theatres of Justice: Arendt in Jerusalem, the Eichmann Trial, and the Redefinition of Legal Meaning in the Wake of the Holocaust." Critical Inquiry, Vol. 27, Winter, 2001, pp. 201-38.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Benoist, "The Twentieth Century Ended September 11." pp. 117-8.

[16] Ibid., p. 117.

[17] Charlton-Perrin, Gawain, "Are You Ready to Dance on Osama's Grave?" Life, Dec 14, 2001, at, accessed March 22, 2002.

[18] Bush, George W, "Remarks by the President and General Tommy Franks in Press Availability with the Press Travel Pool." Prairie Chapel Ranch, White House: Office of the Press Secretary, Dec 28, 2001.

[19] Stewart, Bob, "War Views: Finding Bin Laden is Not the Priority." BBC News, 14.09 GMT. Sept 27, 2001.

[20] Bush, George W., "Remarks by the President with the National Security Team." Sept 12, 2001, Cabinet Room, Washington D.C., Office of the Press Secretary.

[21] Arquilla, "Osama bin Laden Not Wanted: Dead Or Alive."

[22] Debord, Guy, Society of the Spectacle, Detroit: Black and Red Press, 1983.

[23] Baudrillard, Jean, Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings, ed. Mark Poster, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988.

[24] Benoist, "The Twentieth Century Ended September 11." p. 113.

[25] Baudrillard, Selected Writings, p. 168.

[26] TseÎlon, Efrat, "Fashion and Signification in Baudrillard." in Douglas Kellner, ed., Baudrillard: A Critical Reader, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1994, pp. 119-132, 120.

[27] Baudrillard, Jean, Simulations, New York: Semiotex(e), 1983, p. 146.

[28] Der Derian, James, "Simulation: The Highest Form of Capitalism?" in Douglas Kellner, ed. Baudrillard: A Critical Reader, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1994, pp. 189-207, 201.

[29] Benjamin, Walter, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, London: Fontana Press, 1992, pp. 211-44.

[30] Ibid., p. 214.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid., p. 224.

[33] Baudrillard, Simulations, p. 146.

[34] Virilio, Paul, The Information Bomb, trans. Chris Turner, London: Verso, 1999, pp. 84-5.

[35] Baudrillard, Jean, Cool Memories, trans. Chris Turner, London: Verso, 1990, p. 57.

[36] Bush, "Remarks by the President and General Tommy Franks."

[37] Baudrillard, Jean, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, trans. Paul Patton, Sydney: Power Publications, 1995, p. 75.

[38] Al-Wafd, "News of Bin Laden's Death and Funeral 10 days ago." Vol 15, No 4633, Dec 26, 2001.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Pincus, Walter, "New Video Tape Features Pale Bin Laden." Washington Times, Dec 27, 2001, p. A16.

[41] Campbell, Duncan, "US wants bin Laden DNA to identify the body." Guardian, Feb 28, 2002.

[42] Smucker, Philip, "How Bin Laden Got Away." Christian Science Monitor, Mar 4, 2002.

[43] Smucker, "Bin Laden in Pakistan, Source Claims."

[44] Noted in Smucker, "How Bin Laden Got Away."

[45] Ibid.

[46] Anon, "Wipe Out Bin Laden" (2001), available at, accessed Mar 24, 2002.

[47] Kurtzman, Daniel (2002) Web site lists,, accessed June 6, 2002.

[48] Rose, David, "Bloody Search for DNA to Discover Bin Laden's Fate." The Observer, Jan 13, 2002.

[49] Campbell, Duncan, "U.S. Wants Bin Laden DNA to Identify Body." Guardian, Feb 28, 2002.

[50] Cable News Network, "Bert with Osama bin Laden." Oct 8, 2001.

[51] Bush, George W., "Address to Pentagon employees." Office of the Press Secretary: Washington D.C., Sept 19, 2001.

[52] Miller, Stuart, "Bin Laden puts $50,000 price on head of U.S. Soldiers." Guardian, Home Pages, Oct 13, 2001, p. 16.

[53] Reported on Cable News Network, Jan 4, 2001.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Bush, "Remarks by the President and General Tommy Franks."

[56] Millbank, John, "Sovereignty, Empire, Capital and Terror." Telos, Vol. 121, Fall, 2001, pp. 146-158, 146.

[56] Ibid, pp. 146-7.

[57] Wolfowitz, Paul, "Interview Transcript with Margaret Warner." NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, PBS Television, Sept 14, 2001.

[58] Pryce-Jones, David, "Getting Saddam: Fear Not Confrontation, then Liberation." National Review, Vol. 53, No. 24, 2001, pp. 31-4, 31.

[59] Quoted in CBS News, Mar 13, 2001.

[60] Podhoretz, Norman, "How to Win World War IV." Commentary, Vol.113, No. 2, Feb, 2002, pp. 19-29, 27.

[61] Ibid., p. 29.

[62] Sennett, Richard, "They Mean Well." Times Literary Supplement, Jun 7, 2002, pp. 6-8, 7.

[63] Baldauf, Scott, "The 'Cave Man' and Al-Qaeda." Christian Science Monitor, Oct 31, 2001.

[64] Burke, Jason, "Bin Laden Taunts the West: 'I'm Ready To Die'." Observer, Nov 11, 2001.

Binoy Kampmark is a tutor in law and history at St. John's College at the St. Lucia campus and doctoral candidate in modern history at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.