The Long Hunt for Osama

Where has he been? How did we ever let him get away? Our correspondent—one of the few Western journalists ever to have met Osama bin Laden—traces the al-Qaeda leader's footsteps in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and describes the sometimes hapless American pursuit

When you fly over the icy peaks of the Hindu Kush, which march in serried ranks toward the Himalayas, dividing Central Asia from the Indian subcontinent, you get a sense of the scale of the problem: Osama bin Laden may be hiding somewhere out there. Wherever he is, bin Laden continues to give substantial ideological direction to jihadist movements around the globe—and so American forces are scouring the Hindu Kush to find him.

The conventional wisdom now, of course, is that tracking bin Laden down won't make much of a difference to the larger war on terrorism anyway. At a March 2002 press conference President Bush referred to bin Laden as "a person who's now been marginalized." Although it is certainly the case that the global jihadist movement will carry on whatever bin Laden's fate, it would be dangerously wrong to assume that it doesn't really matter whether he is apprehended.

Finding bin Laden remains of utmost importance for three reasons. First, there is the matter of justice for the 3,000 people who died in the 9/11 attacks, and for the hundreds of other victims of al-Qaeda attacks around the world. Second, every day that bin Laden remains at liberty is a propaganda victory for al-Qaeda. Third, although bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri don't exert day-to-day control over al-Qaeda, according to Roger Cressey, a former senior U.S. counterterrorism official, they do continue to supply "broad strategic guidance" for the group's actions, and for those of its affiliates. Statements from bin Laden and, to some degree, al-Zawahiri have always been the most reliable guide to the future actions of jihadist movements around the world—and this has remained the case even while both men have been on the run. Shortly after bin Laden called for assaults against Western economic interests in October of 2002, an Indonesian disco was bombed, killing 200 Western tourists, and a suicide attack was launched at a French oil tanker steaming off the coast of Yemen. In December of 2003, after al-Zawahiri condemned Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf for supporting the campaign against al-Qaeda, Musharraf narrowly survived two assassination attempts. Around the same time, bin Laden called for attacks against members of the coalition in Iraq; subsequently terrorists bombed a British consulate and a bank in Turkey, and commuters on their way to work in Madrid. According to U.S. intelligence officials, a plot to carry out a large-scale terror attack against the United States in the near future, possibly tied to the presidential election in November, is being directed personally by bin Laden and al-Zawahiri.

In the past year I traveled twice to Afghanistan and Pakistan to find out how the hunt for bin Laden was progressing. While in Kabul I stayed at a comfortable guesthouse owned by a British combat cameraman—a spacious villa that is reportedly the former residence of one of Osama bin Laden's four wives. After the fall of the Taliban the villa was converted to its present use. For a hundred dollars and change it's now possible to have the ambiguous pleasure of sleeping in what may once have been the marital chamber of the world's most wanted man; for me, it was an appropriate place to begin an investigation into what became of bin Laden after 9/11. My investigation included more than two dozen interviews with American, Afghan, and Pakistani officials, and discussions with several people who have met with bin Laden over the years.

Only three people outside al-Qaeda and the Taliban are known to have spent any time with bin Laden after 9/11. Two are journalists and the third is a doctor. One of the journalists, Taysir Alouni, of al-Jazeera television, interviewed bin Laden in late October of 2001. (Alouni was later indicted in Spain for allegedly providing money to al-Qaeda.) During the al-Jazeera interview bin Laden for the first time linked himself publicly to the 9/11 attacks, after Alouni asked him, "America claims that it has proof that you are behind what happened in New York and Washington. What's your answer?" Bin Laden said, "If inciting people to do that is terrorism, and if killing those who are killing our sons is terrorism, then let history be witness that we are terrorists." At one point he said, "We practice the good terrorism."

Hamid Mir, a Pakistani who has spent several years writing a biography of bin Laden, was the other journalist. Two months after 9/11 Mir was taken to meet bin Laden somewhere in Afghanistan. "I was blindfolded," he told me, "and they gave me some pills, and I was unconscious after that. When I woke up, it was the morning of the eighth of November. I have some impression that the place where he gave the interview was not far away from Kabul. They took me into a mud house, and I was surrounded by armed Arabs. 'Welcome! Welcome!' they said as I entered."

Eventually Mir was taken to see bin Laden, who was eating a hearty meal of meat and olives, and was in a jocular frame of mind. What bin Laden had to say during the interview, however, was anything but a laughing matter. When Mir asked him how he could justify the killing of so many civilians, bin Laden replied, "America and its allies are massacring us in Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir, and Iraq. The Muslims have the right to attack America in reprisal … The September eleven attacks were not targeted at women and children. The real targets were America's icons of military and economic power." In the interview bin Laden openly discussed his willingness to use nuclear weapons.

At about the same time, in the first week of November 2001, Amer Aziz, a prominent Pakistani surgeon, was summoned to Kabul to treat Muhammad Atef, who was then the military commander of al-Qaeda. During his visit Aziz, a Taliban sympathizer who had treated bin Laden in 1999 for a back injury, also met with bin Laden. The meeting is significant because there have been widespread but erroneous reports that bin Laden suffers from some form of deadly kidney disease. Aziz later told the Associated Press, "When I saw him last, he was in excellent health. He was walking. He was healthy. I didn't see any evidence of kidney disease. I didn't see any evidence of dialysis."

Khalid Khawaja, formerly an official in Pakistan's military-intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, has known bin Laden since 1987, when the two fought side by side against the Soviets in Afghanistan. I met with Khawaja, a heavily bearded man of fifty-three who speaks flawless English, at the offices of an Islamabad law firm, in a conference room lined with legal treatises. I asked him when he had last seen bin Laden, but he ducked the question. When I asked about the state of bin Laden's health, however, he said that he had received reliable reports since 9/11 that bin Laden was "riding horses"—a further indication that he isn't suffering from a serious illness.

According to several U.S. officials who track al-Qaeda, bin Laden's medical condition is not life-threatening. One told me he believes that bin Laden may be afflicted with Marfan syndrome, a disease that attacks the connective tissues and is commonly found in very thin tall people. (Abraham Lincoln probably suffered from the syndrome.) Bin Laden does have a variety of ailments, including low blood pressure, diabetes, and a foot wound that he sustained while fighting in Afghanistan in the late 1980s; but although all these conditions are debilitating, none is likely to cause bin Laden's death anytime soon. Moreover, al-Zawahiri, who is likely to be with bin Laden most of the time, is a skilled doctor. A senior Afghan official told me that bin Laden and al-Zawahiri travel together "like a couple."

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