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Renewed Focus on Hunt for Bin Laden

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Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Berlin Bureau Chief
Wednesday, September 10, 2008; 10:00 AM

Washington Post Berlin bureau chief Craig Whitlock was online Wednesday, Sept. 10 at 10 a.m. ET to discuss the U.S. government's push to capture or kill Osama bin Laden before President Bush leaves office, the failures and handicaps of the search to this point, and the state of al-Qaeda and the U.S.-Pakistani collaboration along the border with Afghanistan.

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The transcript follows.

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Craig Whitlock: Good day, everyone. Happy to entertain your questions regarding Osama bin Laden. Let's get started.

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St. Paul, Minn.: Assume we could capture him alive; what would be the legal process, and what court would get jurisdiction? I vaguely recall the details of the Saddam Hussein trial or Timothy McVeigh trials as comparisons.

Craig Whitlock: Excellent question. Most of the people I've interviewed operate under the assumption that he never will be taken alive. First, al-Qaeda operatives captured elsewhere have said that bin Laden has given instructions to his bodyguards to kill him rather than allow him to be caught, if necessary. Also, I think many U.S. officials do not want to put him on trial. They worry that any sort of trial effectively could turn bin Laden into a so-called martyr for his cause. Plus, the logistics of such a trial would be enormously challenging.

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Campbell, Mo.: Mr. Whitlock, thanks for the chat. Why has the Justice Department not sought indictments against Osama bin Laden? Is there an executive order to terminate bin Laden that may make an indictment unnecessary? Thank you very much.

Craig Whitlock: Bin Laden was indicted in U.S. federal court after the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. But as mentioned earlier, I don't think many people in the U.S. government think he ever will be brought back alive.

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Virginia Beach, Va.: A bounty of $25 million Dollars? That's it? Why not $100 million, a house in the Hamptons and a car with a driver? (Yes, I am being serious!) Does the U.S. government really think that someone is going to rat him out for that small amount of money, knowing how much bin Laden has and how much he "pays" his informants, who probably have a connection to the Pakistani government somehow?

Craig Whitlock: The U.S. government's rewards program for finding al-Qaeda terrorists hasn't worked well at all. The Congress has recommended that the State Department up the reward for bin Laden to $50 million, but the administration has decided that doing so might actually be counterproductive -- it would just give him more notoriety and there's no sign that it would actually work.

The Post wrote a long story about the failures of the Rewards for Justice program back in May.

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washingtonpost.com: Bounties a Bust in Hunt for Al-Qaeda (Post, May 17)

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Washington: Based on what you've gathered, is bin Laden in a position where he is still capable of materially planning a terrorist attack? Or is he largely a symbolic figure at this point, busy with escaping capture rather than masterminding al-Qaeda operations?

Craig Whitlock: Another excellent question, and one for which few analysts can agree on an answer. It's clear that bin Laden has become a symbolic figure of great importance in the world of Islamic extremism. But what are his operational capabilities? As we've reported, the CIA has concluded that bin Laden does not exercise control over day-to-day operations for "al-Qaeda Central." But the agency believes he does sign off on major decisions and remains very much the boss of the network.

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Washington: With a new president, is there any sign that the Pakistani government will stop playing the U.S. armed forces and the terrorists against each other?

Craig Whitlock: We'll see. There's a new Pakistani civilian government, a new Pakistani military ruler (Gen. Ashfaq Kayani), and both clearly are paying close attention to who will move into the White House in January.

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Baltimore: Has there been any content in the bin Laden audio/video recordings from the past two years to date them conclusively? You know, something like "Death to America! Death to Michael Phelps, the eight-gold-medal-winning infidel!" I get the feeling that we've been watching a lot of "best-of" tapes on Al-Jazeera Classic.

Craig Whitlock: Many of his videos and audio statements do include references to recent current events -- often within two or three weeks of the release of his speeches. But you're right: There have been a number of video "montages" with lots of B-roll, or archival material as well. Al-Qaeda's propaganda people seem to have a real talent for this.

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Fairfax, Va. (McCainville, for today): What are the chances that bin Laden is dead or incapacitated? His health reportedly has been failing for some time, and his video appearances are sporadic at best. Could they be splicing old prerecorded clips together? Also, what will the change in Pakistani leadership mean to the hunt? Thanks.

Craig Whitlock: I think the odds that bin Laden is dead or incapacitated are very slim. Al-Qaeda would have no reason to cover up his death. Becoming a "martyr" for the cause is the ultimate accomplishment for these people, and they would likely announce it to the world if bin Laden had died. They routinely take this approach with other al-Qaeda commanders who have been killed.

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Malvern, Pa.: Who would benefit politically, Obama or McCain, if the U.S. were to capture or kill bin Laden before the November election? Would it matter politically if he were killed versus being captured?

Craig Whitlock: I'm not a political reporter, so I won't speculate on that. My prediction is that it's very unlikely that he will be found before November, or before the new president takes office in January. All the people I've interviewed have said there's simply no trace of bin Laden, and that they'd have to get very lucky to find him anytime soon.

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Santa Rosa, Calif.: Benazir Bhutto said that Osama bin Laden died in a Pakistani hospital years ago. Others have said that too. Is "bin Laden" only an excuse to buy continuing war?

Craig Whitlock: No, I really don't think so. There's plenty of speculation but no facts to support the assertion that he's dead.

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The Woodlands, Texas: Timing is everything and so is hindsight. I guess Bush and the GOP are going to trot out Osama bin Laden dead or alive just in time for the elections? Imagine what our world would have looked like if the Bush administration actually had caught bin Laden when we invaded Afghanistan! There would have been no need for Iraq. Bush must think Americans are stupid -- I was once, when I voted for him.

Craig Whitlock: Thanks for the comment.

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Burlington, Vt.: What would follow Osama bin Laden's capture? While there is a debate among policy-makers and scholars concerning the organizational strength of al-Qaeda, would killing Osama bin Laden really make a difference in the fight to eradicate attacks by al-Qaeda or groups it has inspired? Even if Osama bin Laden has continued to guide al-Qaeda with success following the invasion of Afghanistan, what would his death mean? Surely, other leaders in this movement could emerge.

On the other hand, if al-Qaeda is actually a diffused organization, what bearing would bin Laden's death have on the "War on Terror"? It is not as if a diffused movement falling under the name of al-Qaeda would be hampered severely by the death of one leader. It seems that capturing or killing bin Laden may not have a significant impact on the war against al-Qaeda. So, no matter how one views al-Qaeda as an organization, how important is the capture of Osama bin Laden?

Craig Whitlock: Excellent questions, Burlington. Here's my take: Capturing or killing bin Laden clearly won't rid the world of Islamic extremists who embrace terrorism as a tool for advancing their religious or political views. You're right: The movement is too diffuse, and bin Laden doesn't control it, only his core command. That said, bin Laden is an extraordinarily charismatic leader who has united many disparate extremist cells under a single banner. Many of these other leaders can't stand each other and had fought constantly until bin Laden came along and served as a unifier. I think his demise certainly would have a deleterious effect on al-Qaeda's central command, which might crumble without him. Analysts and even Islamists I've spoken to say that his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, never would be accepted as a successor.

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La Vista, Neb.: They've had seven years to develop spies, and evidently they have failed. Do they still expect agents to be Christians, and wear black suits and button-down collars?

Craig Whitlock: Thanks for the comment.

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Chantilly, Va. (formerly serving in Gardez, Afghanistan): Under the current rules of engagement by the U.S. military on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, they are not to support of tribal militias to fight against Taliban -- and al-Qaeda-supported insurgents coming in from Pakistan. This tactic worked well in Iraq. Although these are different cultures, do you see this being considered with Gen. Petraeus taking over leadership of Central Command?

Craig Whitlock: Thanks for the comment. I think there is definitely an effort to see which tactics that worked in Iraq might be embraced in Afghanistan as well. But you're right: These are different cultures, different geography, and comparisons are limited.

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Chappell, N.C.: Why do we no longer hear any discussion of the al-Qaeda leaders held under house arrest in Iran, such as Saif al-Adel and Saad bin Laden? Do you think al-Zawahiri's recent criticism of Iran jeopardizes their fate?

Craig Whitlock: Another very insightful question. We haven't heard anything about the fate of Saif al-Adel and Osama's son, Saad, for a long time. You're correct: Zawahiri has been blasting the Iranians of late, and has accused them of helping the "crusaders" in Afghanistan and Iraq. Makes you wonder what, exactly, he's possibly referring to.

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Charlottesville, Va.: We don't want to try Bin Laden and give him a stage. We might like to capture him alive, but this seems unlikely. How, from potential evidence at a site in Pakistan, could we expect to confirm a kill?

Craig Whitlock: Your last point is a very good one. I'm sure officials would try to use DNA evidence as confirmation, but I wonder if that would suffice in persuading people around the world -- especially in the Muslim world -- that bin Laden were really dead. The clear advantage in capturing Saddam Hussein and placing him in front of the cameras was that it persuaded Iraqis he really and truly had been caught.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: Ah, it must be that time of year in an election cycle, because good ol' smoke-'em-out Georgie is making a show about getting bin Laden again. Heck, if we don't get him, old age will!

Craig Whitlock: Thanks for the comment.

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Stafford, Va.: Why would you tip off Bin Laden that we are surging to bring him to justice? Won't this push him deeper into hiding? Do you work for al-Qaeda?

Craig Whitlock: No, I don't work for al-Qaeda, and I don't think he or his lieutenants would be surprised to learn from our article that the U.S. has stepped up the number of Predator attacks in Pakistan.

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Washington: Perhaps the bounty on bin Laden is too high, not too low -- $25 million is an incredible sum of money, even by our high standards of wealth, and that amount is so unfathomably high to the average Pakistani or Afghan person that they probably think the reward is total bull. They probably think it's a lie or a trick.

Craig Whitlock: Some people, even inside the government, would agree with you. It seemed to make sense at the time: Certainly, someone would rat the guy out for a big payday, right? But it hasn't worked.

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Ranchos de Taos, N.M.: On Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush gave a speech warning countries they would be harmed if they harbored terrorist. Later, before our push into Afghanistan, we threatened the Pakistani government that if they did not aid us in eliminating the Taliban from Afghanistan, we would attack them. Why is it that, despite the large sacrifices -- chiefly our brave forces -- all we have is an address change card for Osama bin Laden? Why is it that only now, after Musharraf -- "out guy" -- is gone, are we engaging more inside Pakistan? I'm not trying to sound cynical, but this smacks of legacy engineering. Are we doing enough to really try and get the Pakistanis to aid us? Thank you.

Craig Whitlock: I think the question of how to engage and persuade the Pakistanis to cooperate is an enormously complicated one. I see few clear options. We've tried using both carrots and sticks, and the results have been mixed, to be charitable.

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Reston, Va.: Didn't the experts think Saddam wouldn't be taken alive, or did they fully expect to find him hiding in a hole in the middle of nowhere?

Craig Whitlock: The difference is that Saddam had millions of people in Iraq who had reason to hate him -- and could be expected to rat him out. I don't think that's the case with bin Laden in Pakistan or Afghanistan.

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Arlington, Va.: Why not use the technology Woodward talked about to catch Osama bin Laden?

washingtonpost.com: U.S. Teams Weaken Insurgency In Iraq (Post, Sept. 6)

Craig Whitlock: I think they are trying, but again, there are limitations. U.S. forces and agents can operate relatively unhindered on the ground in Iraq. This is not the case in Pakistan.

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Wilmington, N.C.: You wrote:"...I think his demise would certainly have a deleterious effect on al-Qaeda's central command." Would that necessarily be a good thing for U.S. domestic security?

Craig Whitlock: Yes. Among all the Islamic extremist networks in the world, only al-Qaeda's central organization has proven its ability to strike the United States at home.

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Norfolk, Va.: Dear CIA, FBI, Homeland Security, President Bush, Congress, the White House and the U.S. government: Please stop sugar-coating the truth. Issue a statement saying "we have no idea where Osama Bin Laden is." Thank you, from the citizens of the United States of America.

Craig Whitlock: Thanks for the comment..

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Rockville, Md.: I visited Pakistan twice this year and had conversations about al-Qaeda with common folks. They all say al-Qaeda is U.S. product, trained and financed by the U.S., mostly to serve U.S. interests during the not-so-Cold War. By invading Afghanistan without properly planning to seal the porous border, the U.S. has bungled it up. As a result, al-Qaeda has made lives of common citizens a living hell.

Why is the U.S. now blaming Pakistan for not doing enough? The U.S. expects Pakistan to seal the border, but one should know that every border has two sides. If the U.S. fixed the other side, the problem would be solved. Besides, why didn't the U.S. know that the border had been porous for centuries? A simple call to the British defense department could have been very enlightening.

Craig Whitlock: Well, there's no shortage of opinions -- or conspiracy theories -- in Pakistan or the rest of the Muslim world regarding the roots of al-Qaeda.

As for the border, you're right: there's no possible way to seal it. People don't even know where the border is in many places; it's never been marked.

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Ann Arbor, Mich.: Because of bin Laden's awareness of current events, it is likely he is not hiding in a cave in Afghanistan. With the extensive U.S. monitoring of the Afghanistan/Pakistan border, do you believe bin Laden has left the area? What is the likelihood he is in another obscure location, such as the Tajikistan/China border?

Craig Whitlock: I think it's most likely he's in Pakistan. Let's turn the question the other way: Why wouldn't he stay there? The locals support him, the Pakistani government looks the other way, U.S. forces can't really reach into the tribal areas. It's ideal for him in many ways.

That said, I don't think we can rule out that he has fled elsewhere, changed his appearance and given us the slip.

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Washington: How would Bin Laden dying of illness while in hiding from the U.S. make him a martyr? Dying on the lam isn't heroic, even by their standards. I would think that they'd prefer he died in a U.S. attack, rather than from dysentery in a cave.

Craig Whitlock: Well, I don't pretend to know how various means of death rank on their martyrdom scale. You're right, it would seem that dying a violent death would be more heroic. But you can't always choose, can you? Abu Obaidah al-Masri, a senior Egyptian al-Qaeda commander, apparently died of hepatitis earlier this year while based in Pakistan.

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New York:"Why not use the technology Woodward talked about to catch Osama bin Laden?" The answer may be because all the resources that go into this are deployed in Iraq, not Pakistan.

Craig Whitlock: Thanks for the comment.

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New York: I understand it would be very dangerous to try and send a covert agent into the tribal areas of Pakistan to pose as a radical Islamist wanting to train as a terrorist, but wouldn't the risk be worth it? After reading a recent article about the fear (on the part of Western intelligence agencies) of Westerners and specifically "white" individuals being in the camps, how can these agencies argue their people wouldn't blend in? Adam Gadahn went to Pakistan and became a leader. Why hasn't the CIA infiltrated al-Qaeda, given these circumstance?

Craig Whitlock: I think it would be enormously difficult and risky to send a CIA or MI6 officer into Pakistan -- not only would they have to look and speak the part, but they'd have to concoct a viable story about why they were there, family history, etc. Much more likely that the spy agencies would recruit others to go on their behalf, though that's not an easy job either.

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Freising, Germany: After reading an article in this week's New York Times Magazine, I was left with the impression that the Pakistani Military and the ISI would rather have the Taliban and associated al-Qaeda attack positions in Afghanistan than attacking the Pakistani government and military. From what I've read about the Pakistani military's battles against Taliban strongholds, they rarely -- if ever -- have won. If someone is waiting for and expecting a rout of the Taliban movement by the Pakistani government, they'll probably be disappointed, don't you think?

Craig Whitlock: I think you're right: It's highly unlikely that the Pakistani military ever is going to rub out the Taliban. They are closely and historically intertwined.

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Baltimore: Mr. Whitlock: I would imagine one reason the reward has not worked is that the tribal peoples of the border region live by a very strict code of hospitality. Bin Laden may be being sheltered by people who have only a dim idea of his ideology, but he is a Muslim to whom they have given refuge. To betray him would be a gross violation of traditions that are centuries old. Do you agree?

Craig Whitlock: I think that's probably part of it, but I think sympathy plays a bigger role.

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Minneapolis: You write that "bin Laden does not exercise control over day-to-day operations for 'al-Qaeda Central.' " Is there an "al-Qaeda Central," or are there a bunch of al-Qaeda inspired cells that don't take direction from a central figure/command-and-control hierarchy?

Craig Whitlock: There is an "al-Qaeda Central," a core organization overseen by bin Laden, Zawahiri and others, based in Pakistan/Afghanistan. Then there are a host of local affiliates in places like Iraq, Algeria and Somalia that have allied themselves with the core group but operate independently.

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Washington: Do you think the US would be showing this much deference to Pakistan if it didn't possess nuclear weapons? I get the feeling if it was a nonnuclear country like Afghanistan or Iraq, we'd have rolled over it a long time ago -- like Afghanistan or Iraq.

Craig Whitlock: I think it's a pretty fair assumption that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal has caused the U.S. government to tread much more gingerly than they would otherwise.

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The Woodlands, Texas: The book by Murray Waas about FBI agent John O'Neill, "The Man Who Tried to Warn America" is an excellent book to understand the beginnings of Osama bin Laden. It chronicles the struggles that O'Neill encountered in his pursuit of bin Laden, and how he was misled and stopped at the highest echelons of the State Department, the FBI and the CIA (and most specifically by Barbara Bodine, U.S. Ambassador to Yemen).

Even though Clinton was president at the time and I'm not attacking either party, I think it would help others understand why bin Laden is so elusive. Bin Laden committed the worst crime to ever hit our country -- no question there. Now, do I think that the Bush administration used bin Laden to their political advantage to advance their neo-con plan? Yes, I do -- and that is wrong.

Craig Whitlock: Thanks for the comment.

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Ypsilanti, Mich.: Who would be the likely successor if Zawahiri is killed? He is more visible and seems to have eclipsed bin Laden in stature because of his frequent media appearances. Do you think we would see a move from bin Laden to assume more of a leadership role over al-Qaeda if they lost Zawahiri?

Craig Whitlock: Good question. It's very hard to tell what the response would be to Zawahiri's loss. Al-Qaeda has lost many, many secondary and tertiary commanders through the years, but they always seem to find a way to replace them.

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Anonymous: Is there any second-guessing in the administration regarding the decision of the U.S. to arm the Afghan "freedom fighters"?

Craig Whitlock: I doubt it, though there has been second-guessing about how the U.S. stopped paying attention to Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew.

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Washington: What are the opinions of those in Germany and Europe concerning the hunt for bin Laden?

Craig Whitlock: I don't think people in Europe are fixated on the search for bin Laden. Many do wonder why the U.S. invaded Iraq instead of focusing all its energies on Afghanistan, especially now that NATO is increasing its forces there to fight the resurgent Taliban.

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Craig Whitlock: Time for me to wrap this up. Thanks very much for checking in, and for all the questions and comments.

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