Al-Qaeda's New Leadership
Osama bin Laden
Where's Osama? That's the question that nobody has come close to answering in the past six years, despite a multi-billion dollar effort by the U.S. military and intelligence agencies to find him. Not to mention a $25 million reward.
Bin Laden is believed to be hiding in Pakistan, U.S. intelligence officials said, but it's really anybody's guess. There have been no definitive sightings since December 2001, when he outfoxed the U.S. military and its proxy Afghan forces at Tora Bora and slipped away, presumably over the border into Pakistan.
Senior U.S. intelligence officials said Bin Laden remains in control of al-Qaeda's central command and that its leadership council still reports to him. But they said Bin Laden weighs in on major management decisions less frequently than in the past because of his inaccessibility.
The son of a billionaire Saudi contractor turned 50 this year and his age is starting to show. In a video released Sept. 7, bin Laden appeared more haggard than usual and sported a beard that appeared to be dyed black or dark brown. In the past, bin Laden's whiskers carried heavy streaks of gray.
U.S. intelligence analysts have fixated on bin Laden's physical appearance for clues to his health. In previous videos, he is seen walking with a staff, possibly using it as a cane. Media reports, invariably speculative, have diagnosed him from afar as being afflicted by kidney disease, hypertension, osteoporosis, cancer, an enlarged heart and hypochondria.
Bin Laden's most recent video, released in advance of the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 hijackings, was the first time he had shown his face in three years. The last occasion came on Oct. 29, 2004, in which he addressed his remarks to "the American people" in the days prior to the U.S. presidential election.
Some terrorism analysts have interpreted bin Laden's rare appearances as a sign that al-Qaeda is trying to raise the profile of other leaders on the assumption that someone will have to succeed the Saudi emir eventually. Although the U.S. government has placed great emphasis on capturing or killing bin Laden, there is a debate over what effect his demise would have on the movement he built.
"He's clearly tried to build an organization that can survive without him," said Michael Scheuer a former CIA analyst who headed the unit dedicated to tracking down bin Laden. "Killing him is important. It would help. It might cause fissures within al-Qaeda. Better a dead martyr, because of how talented he is."
"He's truly a historical figure," added Scheuer, now a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation. "There's no one who has influenced life in America in the last 50 years, negatively, as much as bin Laden."
— Craig Whitlock