An incorrect date appeared in an earlier version of this article about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. The article should have said that several officers confirmed that the number of special operations troops in Afghanistan was reduced in March 2002.
FIVE YEARS LATER: An Elusive Target
Bin Laden Trail 'Stone Cold'
Sunday, September 10, 2006
The clandestine U.S. commandos whose job is to capture or kill Osama bin Laden have not received a credible lead in more than two years. Nothing from the vast U.S. intelligence world -- no tips from informants, no snippets from electronic intercepts, no points on any satellite image -- has led them anywhere near the al-Qaeda leader, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials.
"The handful of assets we have have given us nothing close to real-time intelligence" that could have led to his capture, said one counterterrorism official, who said the trail, despite the most extensive manhunt in U.S. history, has gone "stone cold."
But in the last three months, following a request from President Bush to "flood the zone," the CIA has sharply increased the number of intelligence officers and assets devoted to the pursuit of bin Laden. The intelligence officers will team with the military's secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) and with more resources from the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies.
The problem, former and current counterterrorism officials say, is that no one is certain where the "zone" is.
"Here you've got a guy who's gone off the net and is hiding in some of the most formidable terrain in one of the most remote parts of the world surrounded by people he trusts implicitly," said T. McCreary, spokesman for the National Counterterrorism Center. "And he stays off the net and is probably not mobile. That's an extremely difficult problem."
Intelligence officials think that bin Laden is hiding in the northern reaches of the autonomous tribal region along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. This calculation is based largely on a lack of activity elsewhere and on other intelligence, including a videotape, obtained exclusively by the CIA and not previously reported, that shows bin Laden walking on a trail toward Pakistan at the end of the battle of Tora Bora in December 2001, when U.S. forces came close but failed to capture him.
Many factors have combined in the five years since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to make the pursuit more difficult. They include the lack of CIA access to people close to al-Qaeda's inner circle; Pakistan's unwillingness to pursue him; the reemergence of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan; the strength of the Iraqi insurgency, which has depleted U.S. military and intelligence resources; and the U.S. government's own disorganization.
But the underlying reality is that finding one person in hiding is difficult under any circumstances. Eric Rudolph, the confessed Olympics and abortion clinic bomber, evaded authorities for five years, only to be captured miles from where he was last seen in North Carolina.
It has been so long since there has been anything like a real close call that some operatives have given bin Laden a nickname: "Elvis," for all the wishful-thinking sightings that have substituted for anything real.
After playing down bin Laden's importance and barely mentioning him for several years, Bush last week repeatedly invoked his name and quoted from his writings and speeches to underscore what Bush said is the continuing threat of terrorism.
Many terrorism experts, however, say the importance of finding bin Laden has diminished since Bush first pledged to capture him "dead or alive" in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. Terrorists worldwide have repeatedly shown they no longer need him to organize or carry out attacks, the experts say. Attacks in Europe, Asia and the Middle East were perpetrated by homegrown terrorists unaffiliated with al-Qaeda.
"Will his capture stop terrorism? No," Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), vice chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a recent interview. "But in terms of a message to the world, it's a huge message."