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?
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.)
What's more, bin Laden seems to have long been preparing for life on the run, adopting a lifestyle of monk-like detachment from material comforts. One Palestinian journalist who interviewed him in Afghanistan in 1996 recalls that dinner for bin Laden and some of his inner circle consisted of salty cheese, a potato, five or six fried eggs and bread caked with sand. Noman Benotman, a Libyan who once fought with al Qaeda, told me that bin Laden used to instruct his followers, "You should learn to sacrifice everything from modern life like electricity, air conditioning, refrigerators, gasoline. If you are living the luxury life, it's very hard to evacuate and go to the mountains to fight."
Where exactly is he?
There doesn't seem to be much intelligence about bin Laden's exact whereabouts. The conventional wisdom is that he is somewhere in the tribal belt along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, but it is clear from the most recent videotapes of bin Laden and Zawahiri that they are not living in caves. Both men's clothes are clean and well-pressed, and the tapes that they have released are well-shot productions suggesting access either to electrical outlets or generators to run lights.
Their statements have also been notably well informed about what is going on around the world. In his most recent videotape bin Laden made a reference to the scene in Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" where President Bush continued to read a story about a goat to a kindergarten class after he had been informed that passenger jets had crashed into the World Trade Center. Comments like that suggest that if bin Laden and Zawahiri are indeed in the tribal areas, they are in a compound either in, or near, one of the larger towns with access to modern amenities.
One U.S. military official familiar with the hunt told me he believes bin Laden "has been hunkered down in one place for a long time," making it harder to track him, whereas Zawahiri is "more operational and is moving more." That may explain the U.S. air strike aimed at killing Zawahiri last month in the village of Damadola, on Pakistan's Afghan border. It resulted in the death of five alleged terrorists, but about two weeks later Zawahiri released a videotape thumbing his nose at President Bush.
How to go about it?
Probably not by signals intelligence generated from phone calls. Bin Laden had been careful not to use satellite or cell phones since long before the 9/11 attacks. According to his media adviser, Khalid al-Fawaz, whom I met in London in 1997, bin Laden had already learned to avoid electronic communications. Bin Laden has released only one tape in the past 14 months, possibly because al Qaeda leaders are aware that every time they do so, they open themselves to detection as the chain of custody of these tapes is the one sure way of finding them.
One possible vulnerability is bin Laden's immediate family, with whom he may remain in contact. Three of bin Laden's wives, along with a dozen or so children, chose to remain with him when he adopted the jihadist life. After the fall of the Taliban they all disappeared. My hunch is that they are under the protection of Jalaluddin Haqqani, a formidable Taliban commander who has known bin Laden since the 1980s. Haqqani's forces are spread from Khost in eastern Afghanistan to Waziristan in western Pakistan, sites of some of the most intense recent fighting.
Are we getting
the help we need?
Pakistanis certainly feel that they have done more than their share. Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's military dictator, has survived at least two assassination attempts engineered by al Qaeda and its affiliates in the past two years; hundreds of his security and army personnel have been killed, and Pakistani law enforcement has participated in the arrest of half a dozen key al Qaeda operatives. But the continuing presence of its leaders in Pakistan indicates that al Qaeda has found a congenial place to relocate itself, close to its former bases in Afghanistan.
Bin Laden has long enjoyed popularity among Pakistanis. In 2004 a Pew poll found al Qaeda's leader had a 65 percent favorability rating. However, in a poll released in mid-December by ACNeilsen Pakistan the number of Pakistanis expressing a positive view of bin Laden had fallen to 33 percent. This comes at the same time that Pakistanis are expressing more favorable views of the United States -- 46 percent -- as a result of American relief efforts following October's devastating earthquake.
Perhaps these more positive attitudes about the United States provide an opening that President Bush can exploit on his upcoming trip to Pakistan to advocate for some kind of role for U.S. forces on the ground in the tribal areas. Right now the key weakness in the U.S. hunt for bin Laden is that its soldiers are not allowed to operate openly on Pakistani territory. Granting such a request would entail political risks for Musharraf, who is widely seen as a stooge of the Bush administration (and often referred to as Busharraf).
Dead or alive?
Making bin Laden a martyr would not serve our interests. Instead he should be subjected to the same treatment that Saddam Hussein suffered when he was captured -- checked for head lice and publicly humiliated on camera. Bin Laden is now a mythic personality, and the best way to revert him to the status of an ordinary human being is to treat him like one. (One U.S. official told me, though, that if al Qaeda's leader were captured, it would likely produce a significant backlash -- Americans being taken hostage with the aim of freeing him.) It is, however, unlikely that he will be captured. Last year his former bodyguard, Abu Jandal, told the al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper, "Sheikh Osama gave me a pistol. The pistol had only two bullets, for me to kill Sheikh Osama with in case we were surrounded or he was about to fall into the enemy's hands so that he would not be caught alive."
Of course, bin Laden may make a mistake that reveals his location and makes him vulnerable to American Predator drones. If the United States felt it had intelligence about bin Laden's location, the pressure to launch a missile strike immediately would be intense, despite the risk of his ensuing martyrdom and a rash of anti-American attacks.
As bin Laden himself put it to Jandal, if he were killed, "his blood would become a beacon that arouses the zeal and determination of his followers." The man who once enjoyed a quiet rural life in the mountains of Tora Bora aims in death to ascend into the pantheon of Islamic heroes -- a Saladin for the 21st century "martyred" by those he calls "the Crusaders."
Peter Bergen is a fellow of the New America Foundation and the author of "The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda's Leader" (Free Press).