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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

Voice of America June 21, 2006

Hunting for Osama bin Laden

By Meredith Buel

As the fifth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States approaches, the hunt for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden continues. Most military and intelligence analysts believe bin Laden is hiding somewhere along the mountainous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. 
December 2001: U.S. warplanes rained bombs and missiles on Tora Bora in the White Mountains of eastern Afghanistan. This is where Osama bin Laden and an estimated one-thousand of his fighters and their families were retreating from U.S. Special Operations Forces and thousands of Afghan fighters seeking to destroy them.

Retired C.I.A. officer Gary Berntsen commanded the small fighting force that used lasers to guide numerous air strikes against the al-Qaida terrorists. "I took as many risks as I could. I took every measure I possibly could take. I took every risk possible. The men that were with me took every risk," says Berntsen. "We destroyed a large portion of his force in Tora Bora and at the end of the day I can look myself in the mirror clearly and say I did everything possible. That is all I can do."

Close Encounter at Tora Bora

Berntsen details the hunt for bin Laden in his book, Jawbreaker, named after the codeword used for his team of commandoes that fought with Northern Alliance forces to defeat the Taleban and destroy al-Qaida's infrastructure in Afghanistan.

The author says hundreds of al-Qaida's fighters were killed in the bombing raids in Tora Bora, but bin Laden managed to slip away, probably across the porous border into Pakistan's tribal areas.

"It was satisfying to know that we were destroying a large portion of his force, but of course there is frustration when you don't get them all. We wanted to end this thing once and for all there. So, of course, there is a level of frustration. There is a level of frustration for me, for the men that were with me, for the American people there is a level of frustration. I am aware of that," says Berntsen.

Since the end of 2001, thousands of U.S. troops have searched for al-Qaida and Taleban remnants on the Afghan side of the border with Pakistan. The government in Islamabad has deployed 80-thousand soldiers to the region, and several top al-Qaida leaders have been captured in Pakistan.

John Pike, the Director of GlobalSecurity.org, a military information web site says characteristics of the remote region where bin Laden is believed to be hiding are adding tremendous difficulty to the effort to track him down.

"This tribal area on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan has really never been under the effective control of Pakistan's central government. It is extremely mountainous, very deep valleys, separated by these mountains, intense localism, very strong tribal loyalties, an area outsiders are simply not welcome in. It is an area where Mr. bin Laden's view of the world finds considerable support and sympathy," says Pike.

The Hunt Continues

During a trip to Afghanistan earlier this year, President Bush expressed confidence that bin Laden will be brought to justice. Mr. Bush says military forces from the United States, Pakistan and Afghanistan are all dedicated in their efforts to track down the terrorist leader and those who plot and plan with him.

"So we've got a common alliance, all aimed at rooting out people who are evil-doers, people who have hijacked a great religion and killed innocent people in the name of that religion. We're making progress in dismantling al-Qaida. Slowly but surely, we are bringing the people to justice," says President Bush.

In addition to military units on the ground, analysts say satellites, Predator drone aircraft armed with Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, communications monitoring, and human intelligence are all being used in the hunt for bin Laden.

Still, Afghan Army Lieutenant General Sher Karimi says it is not easy to track down individuals or small groups of al-Qaida fighters because they have sanctuaries inside Afghanistan and in neighboring countries. "So it will take time. It is not easy to eliminate such people. It is like looking for a needle in a haystack," says Karimi.

For more than 20 years, Michael Scheuer worked as a C.I.A. counterterrorism officer and was chief of the Osama bin Laden Unit between 1995 and 1999. Scheuer, currently a terrorism analyst for the C.B.S. television network and the author of two books about the war on terror, believes bin Laden is probably living in a village deep in Pakistan's Hindu Kush Mountains.

"I don't think he is moving from rock to rock and cave to cave. If he were moving a lot, we would have got him already. An insurgent is only really vulnerable when he is moving. If we get him, it is going to be because he zigs when we zag. He is no longer a target we can pinpoint. We are going to have to be very lucky and work hard," says Scheuer.

U.S. military leaders say they are continuing their persistent effort to fight al-Qaida and find bin Laden. The U.S. commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, General Karl Eikenberry, says the hunt for the terrorist leader remains a top priority.

"Bin Laden remains one man. He does remain a man, though, in terms of the need for us to find him to bring to closure his attacks against the United States and the international community. That's a commitment that we maintain everyday, and we will not rest until we find and capture or kill bin Laden," says Eikenberry.

As the fifth anniversary of the September 11th attacks draws near, the Pentagon is getting ready for what top U.S. officials are calling "the long war". Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has compared the international war on terrorism with the Cold War, a struggle that could last decades as allies work to defeat terrorists across the globe.

The United States is offering 25-million dollars for information leading to the capture of bin Laden, and U.S. officials promise to continue a relentless search for the world's most wanted man.

Copyright 2006, Voice of America