Hunt­ing for bin Laden

Al-Qaeda leader re­mains on the loose — and dan­ger­ous to the United States

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - Peter Ber­gen is the di­rec­tor of na­tional se­cu­rity stud­ies at the New Amer­ica Foun­da­tion and the author of “The Long­est War: The En­dur­ing Con­flict Be­tween Amer­ica and Al-Qaeda,” from which this es­say is adapted.

We have al­most 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. We’ve launched more than 200 drone attacks in Pak­istan’s re­mote tribal re­gions. We’ve spent bil­lions of dol­lars on in­tel­li­gence. ¶ An­das the 10th an­niver­sary of the Sept. 11 attacks ap­proaches, we’re still no closer to find­ing Osama bin Laden. ¶ It seems pos­si­ble, even likely, that we’ll be say­ing much the same on the 15th an­niver­sary of Sept. 11, and again on the 20th. Given the sorry state of the hunt for the man who mas­ter minded the largest mass murder in U.S. his­tory, we should not be sur­prised if bin Laden dies, years from now, in the com­fort of his own bed. ¶ For the sec­ond con­sec­u­tive year, Pres­i­dent Obama didn’t men­tion bin Laden in his State of the Union ad­dress. The threat of ter­ror­ism re­ceived rel­a­tively lit­tle at­ten­tion; af­ter all, the bud­get deficit, eco­nomic com­pet­i­tive­ness and ci­vil­ity in Washington are the big de­bates of the moment. Be­sides, bin Laden doesn’t mat­ter any­more— he’s cow­er­ing in some cave and no longer run­ning al-Qaeda or its af­fil­i­ates, right?

Wrong. We un­der­es­ti­mate bin Laden at our peril. His in­flu­ence over al-Qaeda re­mains enor­mous— sym­bol­i­cally, strate­gi­cally and tac­ti­cally. His abil­ity to stay alive and free is a great morale booster for al-Qaeda and its al­lies and al­lows the elu­sive leader to keep set­ting the agenda for the global ji­hadist move­ment.

Bin Laden’s con­tin­ued sway over that move­ment is un­de­ni­able. Three years ago, the Saudi govern­ment com­mis­sioned a study of mil­i­tants in its cus­tody, in­ter­view­ing 639 ex­trem­ists ar­rested be­fore 2004 and an­other 53 ar­rested be­tween 2004 and 2006. In both stud­ies, Saudi of­fi­cials told me, a ma­jor­ity of par­tic­i­pants cited bin Laden as their most im­por­tant role model.

Sim­i­larly, in Bri­tain, ter­ror­ist plot­ters have made em­blem­atic re­marks about al-Qaeda’s leader in videos that they be­lieved would be their fi­nal earthly state­ments. Mo­hammed Sidique Khan, the leader of the July 2005 sui­cide attacks in London, called bin Laden and Ay­man al-Zawahiri “ he­roes,” while Ab­dulla Ahmed Ali, the ring­leader of the plot to bring down seven pas­sen­ger jets over the At­lantic in 2006, de­clared that “Sheik Osama warned you many times to leave our lands or you will be de­stroyed. And now the time has come for you to be de­stroyed.”

Ter­ror­ists con­tinue to act on bin Laden’s pro­nounce­ments. In­March 2008, the al-Qaeda leader de­cried the car­toons of the prophet Muham­mad pub­lished in a Dan­ish news­pa­per as a “catas­tro­phe” mer­it­ing swift pun­ish­ment. Three months later, an al-Qaeda sui­cide bomber blew him­self up out­side the Dan­ish Em­bassy in Pak­istan, killing six. And se­nior U.S. of­fi­cials say that plan­ning for Mum­bai-style attacks in Europe, which led to a Europe-wide ter­ror alert from the State Depart­ment last fall, was backed by alQaeda’s se­nior lead­ers, in­clud­ing bin Laden.

Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, which has long con­sid­ered it­self a van­guard or­ga­niza- tion, has ide­o­log­i­cally hi­jacked larger ter­ror­ist groups in Pak­istan that had not pre­vi­ously seen them­selves as part of his global ji­had. These in­clude Lashkar-i-Taiba, which mounted the 2008 attacks in Mum­bai; the Pak­istani Tal­iban, which dis­patched a bomber to Times Square in May 2010; and Harkat-e-Ji­had-e-Is­lami, which re­cruited a U.S. cit­i­zen to kill staffers at the Dan­ish news­pa­per that printed the prophet Muham­mad car­toons. And when mil­i­tants join al-Qaeda, they take an oath of fealty not to the or­ga­ni­za­tion but to bin Laden him­self.

De­spite bin Laden’s con­tin­ued im­por­tance, what has the hunt turned up since the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion as­sumed of­fice? Noth­ing. The clos­est we’ve ever come to catch­ing him was at the bat­tle of Tora Bora in east­ern Afghanistan in De­cem­ber 2001, when he was pinned down by hun­dreds of Afghan mili­ti­a­men and dozens of U.S. Spe­cial Forces op­er­a­tors — only to dis­ap­pear into the moun­tains like a wraith.

The con­sen­sus view among in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers is that bin Laden is now in or around Pak­istan’s North-West Fron­tier Prov­ince (re­cently re­named Khy­ber Pakhtunkhwa), a re­gion roughly the size of Vir­ginia, full of craggy moun­tains and xeno­pho­bic tribes. And even that in­for­ma­tion is sketchy. A se­nior U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial told me re­cently that he has had “no con­fi­dence” in any of the in­tel­li­gence re­lat­ing to bin Laden’s pos­si­ble lo­ca­tion “for years.”

What will it take to get him? Cash re­wards have helped en­snare other al-Qaeda lead­ers, but well ad­ver­tised boun­ties for bin Laden’s head have yielded noth­ing. Sim­i­larly, binLaden has not com­mu­ni­cated via cel­lu­lar or satel­lite phone for a decade. The United States, which re­lies heav­ily on sig­nals in­tel­li­gence, is vir­tu­ally blind in its pur­suit. If the trail has run cold, our best chance may be to wait for a mis­step on bin Laden’s part.

Ev­ery time binLaden ap­pears on one of his some­what spec­tral video­tapes or

A se­nior U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial told me re­cently that he has had “no con­fi­dence” in any of the in­tel­li­gence re­lat­ing to Osama bin Laden’s pos­si­ble lo­ca­tion “for years.”

sends out an au­dio mes­sage— weigh­ing in on topics from global warm­ing to France’s ban on burqas— he takes a risk. The tapes must be up­loaded to a ji­hadist Web site or dropped off at an al-Jazeera bureau, giv­ing pos­si­ble clues to his lo­ca­tion.

Also, some of bin Laden’s life­long habits may of­fer what in­tel­li­gence an­a­lysts call a “sig­na­ture” of his pres­ence. One is his pas­sion for thor­ough­bred horses, which the 53-year-old has rid­den since his teens. (Even in his late 40s, he boasted of rid­ing up to 40 miles a day.) And while most of Osama’s five wives and 20 chil­dren have left him, he may want to at­tend fam­ily events such as the wed­dings of chil­dren liv­ing nearby. Robert Gre­nier, who was the CIA sta­tion chief in Pak­istan in 2001, says lo­cal in­for­mants could also help by iden­ti­fy­ing un­usual amounts or types of food sent to ar­eas where bin Laden is be­lieved to be hid­ing. (Bin Laden’s first wife re­calls that his fa­vorite dish was zuc­chini stuffed with mar­row.)

Ul­ti­mately, the end for bin Laden might come on the busi­ness end of a Hell­fire mis­sile from a CIA drone fly­ing over Pak­istan. In 2010, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion au­tho­rized 118 drone strikes, about triple the num­ber that Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush au­tho­rized dur­ing his en­tire two terms. But even though such strikes have “dec­i­mated” the lead­er­ship of al-Qaeda, ac­cord­ing to U.S. coun­tert­er­ror­ism of­fi­cials, none of the strikes ap­pears to have tar­geted bin Laden him­self.

There was a time when our top lead­ers con­sid­ered get­ting bin Laden a se­cu­rity im­per­a­tive. “We will kill bin Laden. We will crush al-Qaeda. That has to be our biggest na­tional se­cu­rity pri­or­ity,” then can­di­date Barack Obama said dur­ing a pres­i­den­tial de­bate on Oct. 7, 2008. Af­ter win­ning the elec­tion, how­ever, he be­gan play­ing down the hunt. “My pref­er­ence ob­vi­ously would be to cap­ture or kill him,” the pres­i­dent-elect said in Jan­uary 2009. “But if we have so tight­ened the noose that he’s in a cave some­where and can’t even com­mu­ni­cate with his op­er­a­tives, then we will meet our goal of pro­tect­ing Amer­ica.”

Even Bush suf­fered bin Laden fa­tigue. Though he called for the ter­ror­ist’s cap­ture “dead or alive” af­ter 9/11, Bush later changed his tone. “I just don’t spend that much time on him re­ally, to be hon­est with you,” he said in March 2002.

It would help to spend more time on him. Not only does bin Laden re­main in­flu­en­tial, but his death or cap­ture would trig­ger a fierce— and po­ten­tially use­ful— suc­ces­sion bat­tle. While Egyp­tian Ay­man al-Zawahiri is tech­ni­cally bin Laden’s suc­ces­sor, he is con­sid­ered by many to be a di­vi­sive force and ill-suited for the top role. Elim­i­nat­ing binLaden “would cre­ate frac­tures within the move­ment, re­new a de­bate on broad strat­egy and re­move the one fig­ure best able to in­spire new re­cruits,” said John McLaugh­lin, who was the deputy di­rec­tor of the CIA un­til 2004. And as Roger Cressey, who co­or­di­nated coun­tert­er­ror­ism pol­icy for the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil at the time of the 2001 attacks, put it to me: “How do we close the 9/11 chap­ter with him still be­ing out there?”

For those of us hop­ing that chap­ter can some­day be closed, one name should be sober­ing: the Faqir of Ipi. The Faqir was a Mus­lim re­li­gious leader who waged a guer­rilla war against the Bri­tish in Pak­istan’s tribal re­gions dur­ing the 1930s and 1940s from his base in North Waziris­tan. As many as 40,000 Bri­tish and In­dian sol­diers de­ployed to the area to hunt him down.

They never found him. He died in his own bed in 1960 — re­port­edly from a se­vere case of asthma.



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