A Guide To the Hunt

By Peter Bergen
Sunday, February 26, 2006

When I visited Osama bin Laden's former base in Tora Bora a little more than a year ago, I climbed steep, scree-covered slopes to reach his Afghan house, perched high above the snow line and commanding views of verdant valleys several thousand feet below. The hamlet, known as Milawa, comprised several lookout posts strung out along ridge lines, a bakery, bin Laden's two-bedroom house and even a crude swimming pool, all of which had been destroyed by U.S. air strikes in December 2001. It is a place where bin Laden seems to have been very happy. He once told Abdel Bari Atwan, a Palestinian journalist, "I really enjoy my life when I'm here. I feel secure in this place."

It is also the place from which bin Laden staged one of history's great disappearing acts. His escape from those air strikes during the battle of Tora Bora has become part of al Qaeda's mythology: In an audiotape aired on al-Jazeera in February 2003, bin Laden boasted: "We were only 300 fighters. We had already dug 100 trenches spread out in a space that didn't exceed one square mile . . . American forces were bombing us by smart bombs that weigh thousands of pounds."

Shortly after the release of that tape, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was asked why the United States had not been able to find the terrorist leader. "It's very hard to find a single individual in the world. It's a big place," Rumsfeld explained, adding: "He's either alive -- he's alive and injured badly -- or he's dead. Who knows?"

Today, bin Laden remains stubbornly alive, as demonstrated by another audiotape released in recent weeks in which he offered a truce to the United States, should it withdraw its troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, and vowed never to be taken alive. Indeed, he has proved such a successful fugitive that it's worth asking some of the questions that underlie the continuing U.S. efforts to track down the al Qaeda leader: Does finding him really matter? What makes him so difficult to capture? And, if Osama bin Laden is finally located, would it be better to capture him or to kill him?

Why bother?

According to recent USA Today polls, seven out of eight Americans believe that it is important to capture or kill bin Laden, while 75 percent believe he is planning a significant attack on the United States. These numbers suggest that bringing bin Laden to justice would be a key psychological victory in the war on terrorism.

There is another reason that finding bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is important. Bin Laden may no longer be calling people on a satellite phone to order attacks, but he remains in broad ideological and strategic control of al Qaeda around the world. An indicator of this is that two years ago Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the insurgent commander in Iraq, renamed his organization al Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers and publicly swore bayat , a religiously binding oath of allegiance, to bin Laden.

Moreover, the 35 video and audiotapes that bin Laden and Zawahiri have released since 9/11 have reached tens of millions of people worldwide through television, newspapers and the Internet, making them among the most widely distributed political statements in history. Those tapes have not only had the effect of pumping up al Qaeda's base, but some have also carried specific instructions that jihadists have acted upon. In 2004, for example, bin Laden offered a truce to European countries willing to pull out of the coalition in Iraq. Almost exactly a year after his offer expired, explosions on London's public transportation system killed 56 people. On a subsequent videotape, Zawahiri explained that the bombings came as a result of the British government ignoring bin Laden's offer.

Why is it so hard?

Rumsfeld has a point. It can be difficult to find any fugitive, even one who stands out as much as bin Laden (who is 6 foot 5). Think of Eric Rudolph, the object of one of the most intense manhunts in U.S. history, who remained on the run for five years after bombing Atlanta's Centennial Park during the 1996 Olympics. Or the alleged Bosnian-Serb war criminal Gen. Ratko Mladic, whose arrest was reported and then denied by Serbian authorities last week -- more than a decade after he was indicted for genocide. Now imagine the challenge of capturing bin Laden, who is likely in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) on Afghanistan's border -- an area of 30,000 dauntingly inhospitable square miles.

The United States has had some success locating terrorists in Pakistan. Mir Aimal Kansi, who killed two CIA employees in 1993 outside the agency's Langley headquarters, was tracked down four years later in the obscure town of Dera Ismail Khan. His capture was the result of a carefully cultivated network of informants and the payment of a substantial reward to the person who dropped a dime on Kansi.

But those in bin Laden's immediate circle do not seem to be tempted by the promise of rewards. There were no takers for the $5 million bounty the State Department put on his head following the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa. And there seem to be no takers now for the payout which has risen to $27 million. (Throw in Zawahiri, and the total reaches $52 million.)

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