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."
On November 13, 2001, Kabul fell to the Northern Alliance, and bin Laden decamped to Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan. He knew the city well, having first settled there in May of 1996, after being expelled from his previous base, in Sudan. During the late 1990s bin Laden maintained a compound in Hadda, a suburb of Jalalabad, that consisted of dozens of rooms spread out over more than an acre. The compound sustained several direct hits during the Afghan war and is now a shell.
For some perspective on Jalalabad, I spoke with Dr. Muhammad Asif Qazizada, the deputy governor of Nangarhar, the province that contains Jalalabad. In his office, in a splendid blue-domed nineteenth-century building that was once the winter palace of Afghanistan's kings, Qazizada explained why Jalalabad and the nearby mountainous redoubt of Tora Bora were the perfect places for bin Laden to stage one of history's great disappearing acts. In his early twenties Qazizada worked as a medic in Tora Bora when it was an important base for the Afghan resistance to the Soviets. At the time, he recalled, Tora Bora was a warren of caves and fortifications defended by machine guns and anti-aircraft batteries. Because it offered easy access by foot to Parachinar, a region of Pakistan that juts like a parrot's beak into Afghanistan, it was also an ideal place from which to mount hit-and-run operations against the Soviets. Indeed, bin Laden fought his first battle against the Soviets, in 1987, at Jaji, an Afghan village that abuts Parachinar.
During the 1980s, Qazizada said, Tora Bora was the object of several Soviet offensives, one of them involving thousands of soldiers, dozens of helicopter gun ships, and several MiG fighter jets; so solid were the fortifications that the Soviet offensives were held off by a force of no more than 130 Afghans. For this reason, Qazizada believes, bin Laden chose the region as his hideout and escape route in November of 2001. When the two-week battle of Tora Bora took place shortly afterward, in December, it was fought largely by the forces of local Afghan commanders, supported by small numbers of U.S. Special Forces, who called in intense air strikes against al-Qaeda's positions. But Tora Bora's mountainous topography worked to bin Laden's advantage. "It was difficult for the Americans to attack," Qazizada says, "and there was a way to flee."
From Jalalabad, Tora Bora is a two-hour drive up a narrow, potholed country road. Protected by a squad of ten Afghan government soldiers, I was led there by Muhammad Zahir, a thirty-year-old Afghan commander. As we drove into the foothills, we saw beneath us terraced fields of the deepest green, rising toward towering mountains that are flecked with snow even in summer. On one of Tora Bora's many rocky outcrops we visited four al-Qaeda graves—marked by flying pennants of pink, green, blue, and orange. "The villagers made the shrine," Zahir explained. "They are al-Qaeda sympathizers. They think al-Qaeda are holy warriors, fighting against the infidels."
During lunch Zahir, who fought on the front lines throughout the 2001 battle of Tora Bora, explained how the conflict had unfolded. Al-Qaeda's bases had dotted the surrounding mountains, which were covered with snow during the battle. Zahir said that he had seen Arab, Pakistani, and Chechen members of al-Qaeda fighting with rockets, tanks, machine guns, and artillery—a formidable force that could be taken on only with the help of B-52 bombing raids on al-Qaeda's positions.
A turning point came on December 12, when Haji Zaman, one of the Afghan commanders leading the attack against al-Qaeda, opened negotiations with members of the group for a surrender agreement. "They talked on the radio with Haji Zaman," Zahir told me, "saying they were ready to surrender at two p.m. Commander Zaman told the other commanders and the Americans about this. Then al-Qaeda said, 'We need to have a meeting with our guys. Will you wait until eight a.m. tomorrow?' So we agreed to this. Those al-Qaeda who were not ready to be killed escaped that night. At eight a.m. the following day no one surrendered, so we started attacking again. Those people who chose to stay were serious fighters."
When I returned to Jalalabad, I spoke with Commander Muhammad Musa, who said he had led 600 Afghan soldiers on the Tora Bora front lines; with grudging admiration he recalled the tenacity with which some of al-Qaeda's fighters resisted to the end. "They fought very hard with us. When we captured them, they committed suicide with grenades. I saw three of them do that myself. The very hardest fighters were the Chechens." Musa praised the U.S. Air Force but was dismissive of American forces on the ground. "They were not involved in the fighting," he said. "There were six American soldiers with us, U.S. Special Forces. They coordinated the air strikes. My personal view is if they had blocked the way out to Pakistan, al-Qaeda would not have had a way to escape. The Americans were my guests here, but they didn't know about fighting."
And therein lies the crux of the problem. With only a small number of American "boots on the ground," the U.S. military chose to rely on the services of local Afghan proxies of uncertain loyalty and competence—a blunder that allowed many members of al-Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden himself, to slip away. The blunder meant that, as a senior U.S. military official told me, "we don't know for sure when bin Laden disappeared."
I got help with this question from Lutfullah Mashal, a senior official in Afghanistan's Ministry of the Interior. Mashal told me, based on information he gleaned from radio intercepts, that "the Sheikh," as bin Laden is called by his supporters, departed Tora Bora in the first week of the American bombing campaign in that region, at the beginning of December 2001. According to Mashal, this information has been confirmed by Abu Jaffar, a Saudi financier who traveled to Afghanistan shortly before 9/11 with $3 million in charitable donations for al-Qaeda. Abu Jaffar, a fat middle-aged man with an amputated leg who described himself as an old friend of bin Laden's, told Mashal that once bin Laden had reached Jalalabad, he arranged for safe passage out of Afghanistan with the help of local tribal leaders.
Mashal told me that there were three routes out of Tora Bora. The young and the energetic took the difficult, snow-covered passes south toward Parachinar. Others took the road to the southeastern Afghan city of Gardez. Older fighters headed east into Pakistan. According to Mashal, bin Laden took the Parachinar route, aided by members of the Pashtun Ghilzai tribe, who were paid handsomely in money and rifles for their efforts. And so was lost the last, best chance to capture al-Qaeda's leader, at a time when he was confined to an area of several dozen square miles. Bin Laden may now be somewhere in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province—and if so, the area involved is approximately 40,000 square miles, a largely mountainous tract the size of Virginia.
Despite the importance of finding al-Qaeda's leaders, by early 2002 the United States was already shifting its attention and resources away from Afghanistan. (That shift began early: according to Bob Woodward, in late November of 2001 President Bush had asked the Pentagon to revamp its Iraq war plan, an 800-page document known as Op Plan 1003.) For more than a year and a half the search for bin Laden was given relatively low priority. On February 24, 2002, General Richard Myers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, "I wouldn't call [getting bin Laden] a prime mission." Intelligence and military assets that might have been directed at bin Laden were directed largely at Iraq. Only after the capture of Saddam Hussein, in December of 2003, were those resources redirected to the search for al-Qaeda's leaders. And according to CNN, not until this past spring were U.S. satellites ordered to survey the Afghan-Pakistani border region twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
Although bin Laden was able to give U.S. forces the slip at Tora Bora, he did not make it through the battle without some personal cost. The Palestinian journalist Abdel Bari Atwan, who spent two days interviewing bin Laden in 1996 and has proved a consistently reliable source of information about al-Qaeda, told me that bin Laden was wounded in the shoulder during the Tora Bora battle. In late December of 2001 bin Laden released his last videotaped statement, which seems to confirm the existence of this injury. On the videotape bin Laden appears haggard, his beard streaked with white and the left side of his upper body immobilized, which is unusual; he tends to gesture with both hands when he is speaking. As if to underline his weakened physical state, bin Laden says on the videotape, "I am a poor slave of God. If I live or die the war will continue."
Since the appearance of that videotape, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri have released a dozen or so audiotapes—about one every three months since 9/11. Paul Eedle, an Arabic-speaking British journalist who closely monitors discussions on al-Qaeda Web sites, says the audiotapes are "enormously important," in that "they provide sustenance to discussions of al-Qaeda's planning." In a recent bin Laden tape, which surfaced in April, he vowed revenge for the assassination of Hamas's founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who had been killed by Israeli security forces three weeks earlier.
W hy is it so hard to find Osama bin Laden? First, there is his obsession with security, which began in earnest not after 9/11 but a decade ago. In 1994, while bin Laden was living in Sudan, he was the target of a serious assassination attempt, possibly mounted by the Saudis, when a group of gunmen raked his Khartoum residence with machine-gun fire. After that attack bin Laden took much greater care of his security—an effort that was coordinated by Ali Mohamed, an Egyptian-American U.S. Army sergeant who during the late 1980s had worked as an instructor at U.S. Special Forces headquarters, at Fort Bragg, in North Carolina.
In 1997, when I was a producer for CNN, I met with bin Laden in eastern Afghanistan to film his first-ever television interview, and thus witnessed the extraordinary lengths to which members of al-Qaeda went to protect their leader. My colleagues and I were taken to bin Laden's hideout in the middle of the night; we were made to change vehicles while blindfolded; we were aggressively searched and electronically swept for tracking devices; and we had to pass through three successive groups of guards armed with submachine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
As has often been observed, the leadership of al-Qaeda is highly secretive, running the organization in a compartmentalized manner, which makes it hard to penetrate—and also ensures that any operative who may be captured will know only a portion of the group's secrets. An illustration of this is the limited number of al-Qaeda leaders who knew of the 9/11 plot. In a videotape discovered by U.S. forces in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, bin Laden is seen gesturing at Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, then the group's spokesman, and observing that not even Abu Ghaith was clued in on 9/11. And it's worth recalling that bin Laden and al-Zawahiri have spent their entire adult lives in organizations that prize discipline and secrecy. Al-Zawahiri joined a jihadist cell in Egypt when he was only fifteen; bin Laden became involved in clandestine efforts against the Soviets in Afghanistan when he was in his early twenties.
The situation is further complicated if bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are indeed hiding out in the tribal areas of Pakistan on the Afghan border—"the most concentrated al-Qaeda area on the planet," one American intelligence official told me. The Pakistan-Afghan border stretches 1,500 miles—roughly the distance from Washington, D.C., to Denver. It is lightly guarded and even undefined in some places; clandestine travel in the region is therefore relatively easy. The two Pakistani provinces that abut Afghanistan are Baluchistan, a vast, inhospitable expanse of broiling deserts, and the North West Frontier Province, a flinty, mountainous region punctuated by the fortresses of tribal chiefs. Pashtun tribes, who constitute one of the largest tribal groups in the world, are a major presence in both provinces. They subscribe to Pashtunwali, the law of the Pashtuns, which places an enormous premium on hospitality and on the giving of refuge to anybody who seeks it—an obvious boon to fugitive members of al-Qaeda.
But there's a problem with hiding somewhere along the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier, according to Rahimullah Yusufzai, a prominent Pashtun journalist. "Everybody knows everybody there," he told me. "If someone comes there who is from a different tribe, they stick out. It's difficult for Arabs to hide in tribal areas." If bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are indeed in Baluchistan or the North West Frontier, therefore, they may be hiding outside the remote tribal belt, in a city such as Peshawar or Quetta, or in a town such as Kohat or Dera Ismail Khan.
A further possibility, which to date has received scant attention, is that bin Laden is somewhere in the mountains of Pakistani Kashmir—an area that is off limits to outsiders and home to numerous Kashmiri militant groups, some of which are deeply intertwined with al-Qaeda. Harakat ul-Mujahideen (HUM), for instance, shared training camps in Afghanistan with al-Qaeda in the late 1990s. An offshoot of HUM, Jaish-e-Muhammad, orchestrated the kidnapping-murder of the American journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002, an operation run in conjunction with al-Qaeda. U.S. officials believe that Jaish-e-Muhammad received funding from bin Laden. The multiple relationships between those groups and al-Qaeda—what one U.S. official in the region described to me as "overlapping networks of nasty people"—make the groups obvious potential allies in the effort to hide bin Laden and al-Zawahiri. According to Pakistani terrorism analysts, several of the most militant Pakistani groups have recently gathered under an umbrella organization called Brigade 313, named for the number of men who stood with the Prophet Muhammad at the key battle of Badr, in the seventh century. Also, the Kashmiri militant groups are genuinely popular in Pakistan. Until January of 2002, when it was officially banned, Lashkar-e-Taiba maintained 2,200 offices around the country and attracted hundreds of thousands of followers to its annual gatherings. Technically Lashkar no longer exists, but it continues to operate, under a different name and with a lower profile, and its leader, Hafiz Saeed, continues to address rallies in Pakistan.
Further complicating the picture, the Pakistani government has long had a close relationship with the Kashmiri groups because they share the goal of expelling Indian forces from the Kashmir region. Bin Laden understands that Kashmir is Pakistan's "blind spot," a senior U.S. military-intelligence official told me. Musharraf's government has cracked down on Kashmiri militants since 9/11, but the intensity of the crackdown has ebbed and flowed. For instance, Maulana Masood Azhar, the leader of the Jaish terror group, is not under house arrest and, according to a U.S. official, has "good relations with [Pakistan's] spooks." An official in Afghanistan's Foreign Ministry concurs: "The leadership and brains of al-Qaeda are not in the tribal areas of Pakistan. The question is, Who is in Kashmir?"
To the extent that al-Qaeda has set up a new base of operations, it is neither in Afghanistan nor along the Afghan-Pakistani border but in the anonymity of Pakistan's teeming cities. As Lieutenant General Assad Durrani, the former head of Pakistan's ISI, explained to me, "Cities offer the best refuge. In the countryside information gets leaked out more easily." Since 9/11 none of the key captured al-Qaeda operatives have been found in Pakistan's tribal areas; instead they have been run to ground in the cities of Karachi, Peshawar, Quetta, Faisalabad, Gujrat, and Rawalpindi. Those arrested include Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who was critical to the planning of 9/11; Abu Zubaydah, who recruited for al-Qaeda; Walid bin Attash, who played an important role in the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen; Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, who is one of the conspirators in the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi, who bankrolled the 9/11 hijackers; and, most important, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the military commander of al-Qaeda, who had overall responsibility for planning the 9/11 attacks. Khalid Sheikh Muhammad was arrested in Rawalpindi, which happens to be home to the headquarters of Pakistan's army. One Western diplomat in the region asked me, "What the fuck was this guy doing just down the road from GHQ [Army headquarters]?"
In particular Karachi, a barely governable megacity of 14 million people, has emerged as a locus of jihadist violence perpetrated by a toxic alliance of the Kashmiri militant groups, Sunni sectarian fanatics who have launched a war on Pakistan's minority Shia, and al-Qaeda itself. Since 9/11 Karachi has experienced the bombing of a Sheraton hotel, which killed eleven French defense contractors; two separate attacks on the U.S. consulate, one of which killed a dozen Pakistanis; multiple bombings of Shell gas stations; and the murder of Daniel Pearl. In May alone militants killed sixty-three people in the city.
Al-Qaeda's active presence in Pakistan raises an important question: How reliable is the Pakistani government in the effort to hunt down the terrorist group? U.S. sources say that certain elements in the ISI may retain some ideological sympathy for the Taliban. However, the consistent record of high-profile al-Qaeda arrests in Pakistan indicates that the Pakistanis are doing a reasonably diligent job. According to Major General Shaukat Sultan Khan, the spokesman for the ISI, Pakistan has arrested 500 "foreign fighters" since 9/11. Moreover, after the assassination attempts against him Musharraf is personally determined to destroy al-Qaeda. Nevertheless, lower-level members of the military were involved in the planning of those assassination attempts: up to four members of the army and six members of the air force, according to Khan.
The capture of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, in March of 2003, was the most important al-Qaeda arrest since 9/11. However, according to Syed Mohsin Naqvi, a Pakistani journalist who interviewed Muhammad while he was on the run in August of 2002, Muhammad claimed that others were ready to replace him in the event he was arrested. "We already have so many backups," he said, "that the Americans can't imagine."
Muhammad's arrest may have brought investigators tantalizingly close to bin Laden himself. According to American sources, when Muhammad was arrested he may have been tortured, a not uncommon technique of Pakistani law enforcement. That may explain why he quickly volunteered that he had met with bin Laden in December of 2002. Although Muhammad would not reveal where the meeting took place, it was probably in Pakistan. After Muhammad's capture there was a brief flurry of anticipation that bin Laden himself would soon be arrested, but now, according to one U.S. official, bin Laden's "personal signature trail is cold."
A few months after the apprehension of Muhammad, I talked with Cofer Black, the former head of the CIA's Counterterrorist Center, who has something of a personal interest in tracking down bin Laden. In his spacious office at the State Department, where he is now serving as ambassador for counterterrorism, Black told me that while he was the CIA station chief in Sudan, during the mid-1990s, al-Qaeda tried to assassinate him. He handled the episode with admirable sangfroid, deciding to consider the attempt an exercise to "see how they [al-Qaeda] were conducting themselves." After 9/11, Black famously told President Bush that his operatives would bring Bush bin Laden's head "in a box." (A member of Black's staff told me that when his words came out in the press, Black said with a deadpan look, "Well, we will need some DNA.")
Black began our conversation by observing that the war on terrorism is far larger than the hunt for bin Laden. "You can't stop crime just by catching Al Capone," he said, going on to stress that he was not personally obsessed with getting bin Laden: "This is no Ahab and Moby Dick kind of deal." Bin Laden "is on the run, he is very defensive, spending a lot of time worrying about security," Black continued. "How effective can you be?" To avoid being captured bin Laden has to adopt a "hermit on the hilltop" approach, Black said, which destroys his ability to run an effective terrorist organization. On the other hand, if he remains "in business," he opens himself to the possibility that his communications will be detected. I suggested that bin Laden seems to be caught between a rock and a hard place, and Black leaned toward me, smiling broadly, and said, "You got it."
This past January, Lieutenant Colonel Brian Hilferty, the senior spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, announced, "We're sure we're going to catch Osama bin Laden and [the former Taliban leader] Mullah Omar this year." His prediction came at about the same time that the U.S. and Pakistani governments announced a plan to conduct more-intensive operations to find bin Laden. The joint "hammer-and-anvil" strategy involved Pakistan's moving 70,000 soldiers into the tribal regions to flush out al-Qaeda forces, which would then, at least theoretically, flee across the border into the arms of U.S. forces waiting for them on the Afghan side. But the plan was trumpeted at every turn—and as a result, any al-Qaeda member with an ounce of common sense very probably left the tribal areas earlier this year. "Al-Qaeda are not so foolish that they would be sitting waiting there for a year for the Pakistan army," Syed Mohsin Naqvi told me.
In late July, I met with Lieutenant General David Barno, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, at a Pakistani air-force base near Islamabad, after Barno had completed one of his regular meetings with his Pakistani counterparts to coordinate efforts along the Afghan-Pakistani border. Of bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, Barno said, "Their location remains a mystery." But he added, "More resources are on that today." He then described an important problem confronting the United States in Afghanistan—the $2.3 billion heroin trade. Barno said that drug money accounts for more than 40 percent of the Afghan economy—a figure that could rise above 50 percent next year. The possibility that Afghanistan could emerge as a Colombia-style narcostate, dominated by competing warlords and drug cartels, is what Afghanistan's Foreign Minister, Abdullah Abdullah, described to me as "the biggest danger and threat to stability."
Iran is another area of concern. Since early last year a number of important al-Qaeda operatives have shown up in Iran, a country that, according to one U.S. intelligence official, some in al-Qaeda envisaged as "an administrative hub" for the group. U.S. officials told me that Saif al-Adel, the No. 3 man in al-Qaeda's hierarchy; Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, the group's spokesman; Muhammad al-Masri, an important al-Qaeda trainer; and Abu al-Khayr, one of al-Zawahiri's deputies, have all been apprehended by the Iranian authorities. What the Iranians plan to do with their prisoners is something of a mystery. "We wish we could predict how this is going to turn out," one U.S. official says.
Given that al-Qaeda is highly secretive, compartmentalized, and security conscious, what strategies might work to flush out bin Laden? Will the $50 million bounty on his head work? In the past cash rewards have been useful in bringing terrorists to justice. Mir Aimal Kansi, a Pakistani who killed two CIA employees outside the Agency's headquarters in Virginia in 1993, was apprehended in part because of the $2 million reward offered. A $25 million reward played a role in the apprehension of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad. However, these men did not inspire the spiritual awe that Osama bin Laden does. That bin Laden's inner circle would turn him over for money is unthinkable. Bin Laden has had a multi-million-dollar bounty on his head since as far back as 1999, but there have been no takers.
In Washington I met one of the FBI's most effective investigators, Special Agent Brad Garrett, who ran Mir Aimal Kansi to ground in Pakistan in 1997. I asked Garrett, a former Marine who habitually dresses entirely in black, what methods had worked to find Kansi, and how they might be applicable in the hunt for bin Laden. "The key is developing sources," Garrett said. "You have to sort out what is BS from what is the truth, and develop multiple sources to see what is real. You hope to get an associate to give up real-time information about the fugitive. The intelligence is very perishable, so another factor is one's ability to react to it in a timely fashion."
Garrett encountered many dry holes in his four-year hunt for Kansi, finally tracking him down in the dusty backwater of Dera Ghazi Khan, in central Pakistan, which "felt like it was out of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." Garrett explained that although Kansi was helped by a loose network of people who "respected" him for his attack outside CIA headquarters, he did not have an organization he could rely on, as bin Laden does. In short, Kansi was more vulnerable to detection than the terrorist mastermind, because he was essentially a lone wolf.
It's possible, but not likely, that signal intelligence, known as "sigint," could be bin Laden's undoing. Sigint was critical in the case of the Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, the subject of a huge manhunt by the Colombian police in his native city of Medellín in 1993. The operation used CIA eavesdropping and direction-finding technology. When Escobar made a cell-phone call to his son that lasted longer than a few minutes, Colombian forces swarmed his neighborhood and shot him dead. But bin Laden is savvier than Escobar; a U.S. official told me that he "has quit any kind of device that can be listened to." That includes satellite phones, cell phones, and hand-held radios. When communication is absolutely necessary, he relies on couriers.
Information obtained from al-Qaeda detainees has proved important in the hunt for the group's leaders, as have the cell-phone numbers, documents, and computers recovered when al-Qaeda members are captured. U.S. intelligence services have apparently failed, however, to insert agents in al-Qaeda's inner circle—the only sure-fire way to get real-time intelligence about bin Laden's whereabouts. Colonel Patrick Lang, a fluent Arabic-speaker who ran Middle Eastern "humint" (human intelligence) for the Defense Intelligence Agency in the early 1990s, told me that the lack of humint remains a problem. "Everybody talks about effective humint," he said, "but nothing is happening. The people who do this kind of work are gifted eccentrics, who the bureaucrats don't like, or they are the criminal types, who the lawyers don't like. If only we were the ruthless bastards everyone thinks we are." According to the Pakistani terrorism analyst Amir Mir, however, the past year or so has produced one promising humint development: FBI officials have created what is known as the Spider Group—an elite team of retired Pakistani army and intelligence officers who are gathering information about the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
No matter how many resources are directed at the hunt for bin Laden, it is complicated by what one could call "the problem of finding one person." Criminals often stay on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list for years. Eric Rudolph, the alleged bomber of Atlanta's Centennial Park during the 1996 Olympics, eluded the police during the most intense manhunt in FBI history and was caught only last year, in the small town of Murphy, North Carolina, when an alert rookie cop spotted him and took him in for questioning.
The problem of finding one person becomes more pronounced once the hunt is extended overseas, of course. For almost a decade the United States and its NATO allies have searched the former Yugoslavia for Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, both alleged to have played a key role in the genocide of Bosnian Muslims during the early 1990s. "The last time we got a sniff of Karadzic," a U.S. military official told me, "was in 1997." During Operation Restore Hope, a 1993 humanitarian mission to feed starving Somalis, the United States had some 20,000 soldiers stationed in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, hunting for Muhammad Aideed, a warlord who was fomenting factional strife in Somalia. Aideed was never captured.
Of course, the capture of Saddam Hussein is an example of a successful U.S. operation against a high-value target. However, the search for Saddam played out against a different backdrop: the United States has some 140,000 soldiers in Iraq; it has only 20,000 in Afghanistan, a much larger country. And in Pakistan, where bin Laden is most probably hiding, the United States has only a smattering of CIA and FBI officials hunting for members of al-Qaeda, and must rely on the Pakistani army for search operations. Moreover, once Saddam's reign of fear collapsed, there were relatively few Saddam loyalists; in contrast, "love" is not too strong a word for the feelings of those who surround bin Laden. The former senior U.S. counterterrorism official Roger Cressey told me that an al-Qaeda operative betraying bin Laden would be like "a Catholic giving up the Pope."
If cash rewards, electronic intercepts, and moles within al-Qaeda are unlikely to yield leads in the search for bin Laden, then what might work, other than dumb luck? An obvious vulnerability is the audiotapes that bin Laden and al-Zawahiri periodically release to media outlets; theoretically, the custody chain of these tapes could be traced back to al-Qaeda's leaders. Another possible vulnerability is bin Laden's family. He is the only son of his Syrian mother, to whom he is extremely close and who visited Afghanistan in early 2001 to attend the wedding of one of her grandsons. She apparently splits her time between Saudi Arabia and the resort town of Latakia, Syria, and is presumably of considerable interest to investigative agencies.
Bin Laden also has a family of four wives and some twenty children, who cannot all have simply vanished into thin air. Although some of his children are living openly in Saudi Arabia, others are quite possibly somewhere in Afghanistan, probably under the protection of key Taliban commanders close to bin Laden. The person protecting bin Laden's family may be Jalaluddin Haqqani, a formidable Taliban commander who continues to attack American forces in eastern Afghanistan. Haqqani may be a key to finding bin Laden.
One of the most effective Afghan commanders against the Soviets, Haqqani was close to the Arab militants who were drawn to the Afghan jihad. He is married to an Arab, speaks fluent Arabic, and received substantial funding from sources in the Gulf during the early 1980s, which he used to set up an impressive base in the Khost area of eastern Afghanistan. After 9/11 Haqqani was tapped to become the Taliban's military commander. Lutfullah Mashal, of the Afghan Interior Ministry, told me that it was Haqqani who saved bin Laden after the fall of the Taliban, affording him refuge in Khost not long after the terrorist leader had slipped out of Tora Bora. According to Mashal, Haqqani is now based in Pakistan, in the wild tribal area of Waziristan, traveling back and forth more or less at will. According to Afghan and American officials, he remains an important point of contact for al-Qaeda's leaders.
Another veteran commander of the Afghan war against the Soviets who is close to bin Laden and therefore merits further investigation is Younis Khalis. When bin Laden settled in Jalalabad, in May of 1996, he was welcomed not by the Taliban, who as yet did not control Jalalabad, but by Khalis. Khalis has repeatedly declared a jihad against U.S. forces in Afghanistan, most recently this past summer.
Locating bin Laden's old friend Mullah Omar might of course also yield clues to the al-Qaeda leader's whereabouts—but according to Rahimullah Yusufzai, the prominent Pashtun journalist, who has interviewed Mullah Omar on several occasions since the mid-1990s, the number of people who would know where Omar can be found is tiny, and is confined to the Taliban's top leadership. "Eight or nine people would know," he told me.
Robert Baer, a former CIA operative based in the Middle East, argues that only a proactive approach to finding bin Laden will work. "It's never easy to find a single person," he told me, "but if you are operating on the ground, you go for the assassination and you find a group of people who will do this and benefit." The problem is, who would be foolhardy enough to take on the risky job of assassinating al-Qaeda's leaders?
Bounty hunters might. While I was staying in Kabul this summer, the bizarre tale of Jonathan "Jack" Idema, a former Green Beret, came to light. According to Afghan officials, Idema, who has a rich history of fraud, misrepresentation, and litigiousness in the United States, set up a private prison in the capital in an effort to run his own investigation into al-Qaeda. He developed a reputation in Kabul as a Special Forces–wannabe who drove around in an SUV, weapon at the ready, and a blowhard who hung out at the Mustafa Hotel, a seedy joint where like-minded war junkies came to swap tall tales over endless beers.
Idema and two American sidekicks, Brent Bennett and a cameraman named Edward Caraballo, rented a house near the Intercontinental Hotel. They told neighbors that they were running a company, Universal Exports, that dealt in Afghan rugs. After receiving multiple complaints of unexplained disappearances of Kabul residents, the Afghan authorities raided the house, where they found eight prisoners, some hanging by their feet from the ceiling. Idema had made his "arrests" based largely on people's appearance, particularly targeting men with long beards—hardly an uncommon trait in Kabul. According to Afghan officials, Idema and his colleagues interrogated and beat some of their prisoners to get them to confess they were members of al-Qaeda. Idema has said in his defense that he was acting with the knowledge of the Pentagon and of Afghan officials—claims that have been firmly denied by both parties.
Osama bin Laden may eventually be apprehended, or he may eventually be killed. A U.S. intelligence official told me that little thought has been given in Washington to what happens next. Which outcome is more desirable? What are the implications of either of those outcomes? If bin Laden is captured alive, for instance, where should he be put on trial? A case could be made that he be tried by an international tribunal, similar to those set up for crimes against humanity in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. And a useful precedent exists for handling a captured bin Laden: the pictures beamed around the world after Saddam Hussein's capture, of Saddam submitting to a doctor's probings, did more than anything else to puncture the Iraqi dictator's mystique. Similar pictures would do much to deflate bin Laden's mythic persona.
Of course, on several occasions bin Laden has said that he's prepared to die in his holy war—a statement that should be taken at face value. Khalid Khawaja, the former Pakistani military-intelligence official who has known bin Laden for almost two decades, told me, "He will never be captured. He's not Saddam Hussein. He's Osama. Osama loves death." In the short term bin Laden's death would probably trigger violent anti-American attacks around the globe. In the medium term it would be a serious blow to al-Qaeda, which depends to a critical degree on the charisma of its leader. But in the long term bin Laden's "martyrdom" would most likely give an enormous boost to the power of his ideas. Sayyid Qutb, generally regarded as the Lenin of the jihadist movement, was a relatively obscure writer before the Egyptian government executed him, in 1966. After his death his writings, which called for offensive holy wars against the enemies of Islam, became enormously influential. The same thing would happen after bin Laden's death, but to an infinitely greater degree.