Where is Osama Bin Laden? I only ask because he’s been on the run for years now, and despite the best efforts of the World’s Top Power — its heat-sensors and attack dogs, its agents and bounty hunters — they seem no nearer to capturing him than they were five or even 10 years ago. After 9/11, Bin Laden footage was a staple diet for building up our crusading zeal. There he was: the beardie bogeyman, moving with leisurely awkwardness between the rocky defiles of an Afghan moonscape. A stick-insect of a man with a Kalashnikov in lieu of a cane, his aquiline — yet bilious — face lean beneath his turban. They seek him here! We cried: They seek him there! They seek him bloody well everywhere! Is he in Heaven? Is he in hell? That damned elusive orchestrator of worldwide terror!
The consensus among informed commentators is that Bin Laden and al-Qa’eda never really functioned in quite the manner that we’d like. Despite his appearance — straight out of central casting — this softly spoken fanatic was and is no Dr No, his sensitive fingers poised to activate thousands of loyal henchmen, but instead a kind of venture capitalist of terrorism. If you want to spread anthrax on the metro or port an incendiary backpack, you can apply to the Bin Laden organisation for funding and technical know-how. Befitting his background as the scion of a Saudi Arabian construction dynasty, Bin Laden is a money rather than an ideas man.
Still, he and his associates do have one implacable idea: that by wreaking death and destruction on the infidel they will awaken the torpid Muslim masses and force them to overturn their corrupt rulers and impose the rule of God. Getting captured would put a severe crimp on this plan, for, so long as Bin Laden is at liberty, no matter how circumscribed his personal influence, he acts as a potent figurehead for every ragged man who raises a rocket-propelled grenade launcher to his shoulder and lets fly. His face is on a million T-shirts, his name is constantly on the lips of Iraqi insurgents and Hammas fighters. When Al Jazeera receives a scratchy videotape or a creaking recording, his omniscience is only confirmed. Nothing is more fitting than that he should be thus: exiguous, wavering, a smoky djinni billowing above the apocalyptic battlefield.
We want him up there in the debatable lands of north-western Pakistan. The savage landscape that swallowed the Great Gamers and spat out the bones. We picture him guarded by fearsome Pathan tribesmen armed with 15-ft-long rifles. Although the chances are he’s probably in Reigate. In Reigate and spending his days shuttling across to the Crawley general hospital for a little gentle kidney dialysis. In Reigate, and far from bothering with a shave and a haircut — let alone radical cosmetic surgery — I bet he still looks exactly the same. “Who’s that old geezer then?” ask those who see him sitting on a park bench, or abrading a scratch card. “He don’t ‘alf look like that Bin-whatsit bloke.” To which his unwitting protectors reply: “Oh him? He’s harmless enough — he drinks down the Chequers and plays bowls in the afternoon.” Hardly what you’d expect — his entire disappearing act resting on phenomenal chutzpah.
We want fugitives though. We like the idea that Lord Lucan, Butch Cassidy and Martin Borman are playing gin rummy at a beachfront bar in Mombasa. We urge the bad guys on across the Rio Grande, we supply plane tickets to Sarf London faces so they can take off for the Costa del Crime. So long as there are fugitives in the world, there remains a certain mystery at its margins; all has not been discovered, snooped into, X-rayed by the CIA. The capture of the fugitive is always intolerably prosaic — in an instant he is transformed from a figure of dreadful potency into an unshaven old man with plaster dust in his unkempt hair. This phenomenon is perfectly illustrated by Saddam Hussein, and ever since his capture the media have been willing him to assume his former guise: the coal-black mustache of tyranny.
Thus flight is only a good career move if you’re prepared to stay on the run indefinitely. Don’t end up like Kim Philby, whingeing and drunk in Moscow, or Ronnie Biggs bartering your freedom for the National Health, or Adolf Eichmann, displayed in a plastic box in Tel Aviv, and such a prosaic figure that Hannah Arendt coined the expression “the banality of evil” purely in order to describe his showroom-dummy features. Better not to go on the run at all; be like Slobby Milosevich, throw your arms up, make them build you a special courtroom in the Lowlands, then spend the next few years on your demented high horse, forcing them to spend billions simply in order to give you a slap.