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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

The Toronto Star July 04, 2009

Can Obama catch Osama?

By Lynda Hurst

Six days after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, U.S. president George W. Bush demanded the capture, "dead or alive," of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden

CIA counter-terrorism head Cofer Black duly dispatched a specialist team of manhunters to Afghanistan with the stark instruction: "Get bin Laden. Find him. I want his head in a box." For medieval good measure, Black also wanted the heads of al Qaeda lieutenants "up on pikes."

Capture was a done deal. Or so the world thought.

The last time the U.S. had a confirmed fix on bin Laden's location was Dec. 14, 2001, when he was using a walkie-talkie inside a Tora Bora cave. By the time Special Forces got there, he had disappeared into the night.

Despite the most extensive manhunt in history – albeit one that's peaked and dipped and peaked again – the "highest-value" target of them all remains on the loose. Or tucked up inside a safe bolt-hole with his mujahideen. Or lies, for all anybody really knows, dead and buried.

Does it even matter any more? The vastly expanded, post 9/11 world of terrorism is no longer solely bin Laden's to control.

It matters, says David Harris, director of international and terrorist intelligence at Insignis Strategic Research in Ottawa. "His continued existence is a real indictment of the counter-terrorism effort and a psychological victory for al Qaeda."

President Barack Obama thinks it's crucial, though his campaign rhetoric – "We will kill bin Laden. We will crush al Qaeda" – has devolved into the calmer: "Capturing or killing bin Laden is a critical aspect of stamping out al Qaeda. He is not just a symbol, he's also the operational leader."

Is he? It's been a given for some time that it's his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri, who runs the day-to-day operations, while bin Laden basks as the inspirational figurehead, letting his wishes be known.

But finally shutting him down is a top priority at the Central Intelligence Agency, its director Leon Panetta said last month: "I ask every day, `Where he is hiding?'"

Christopher Preble, foreign policy director at Washington's Cato Institute, says eliminating bin Laden "would be a bonus," but not essential to the containment of terrorism.

"Symbolically, it matters because remaining at large builds into his inspirational mystique. He's seen as someone who not only stood up to a greater power but then eluded capture."

He could be dead, a fact hushed up by the al Qaeda network, Preble says, but without compelling physical evidence, the assumption has to be that he's still alive.

"I asked my CIA colleagues who've been on the hunt for him, and no one was quite sure," former CIA agent Robert Baer told ABC News this winter. "Half assumed he was alive and half assumed he was dead. Obviously, they've lost track of this guy completely."

Yet, there was bin Laden's monotone invective on an audiotape broadcast by al Jazeera on June 3 – just as Obama arrived for the start of his Mideast visit – decrying the president for planting "new seeds of hatred and vengeance on Americans."

In fact, the past 10 bin Laden communiqués have been voice only. Not since September, 2007 has video of him (with dyed black hair and beard) been released. Whether that's because his kidney disease has taken a toll on his appearance or simply for security is an unknown – one of the many.

The official military consensus is that bin Laden, now 52, is holed up somewhere in the lawless, mountainous frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan, likely North Waziristan, a tribal region in Pakistan's northwest.

It's where he built his first base, the "Lion's Den," in the 1980s during the anti-Soviet jihad, and the theory is that he's sought out the protection of old allies.

Intelligence gathering in the area is particularly difficult because the local Pashtun tribes' code of honour, pashtunwali, fiercely protects guests, especially such an esteemed one. Also, it's known that bin Laden no longer uses electronic communication, preferring to send personal couriers.

"It's pretty close to impossible to track down someone who isn't using high-tech communications and you don't have a human information source," says David Harris. "Paradoxically, returning to `primitiveness' gives him security and an advantage over technology."

Or maybe, bin Laden is further north in Chitral, high up in the Hindu Kush mountains. Once a trekkers' paradise, it was sealed off to outsiders earlier this year and is now regularly buzzed by American spy drone aircraft.

Then again, he could still be in the vicinity of his last known location, Tora Bora in Afghanistan. At least, that was the conclusion in February of two University of California geographers who used satellite imagery and "fundamental principles of geography" to track where he could have fled the night he almost was netted.

Factoring in the need for security, electricity, high ceilings to accommodate his 6-foot-4-inch frame, and room for bodyguards (ordered to kill him if he faces capture), they narrowed their search to three walled compounds in Parachinar, a small Pakistani city less than 20 kilometres south of Tora Bora.

If he was there, he's likely gone now, with this week's deployment of 21,000 more U.S. troops. It was the reverse situation back in December, 2001. The Predator drones and man-tracking specialists who'd got so close were abruptly pulled out of Afghanistan and assigned to Iraq.

In the 16-month run-up to the Iraq invasion and first few years of the war, bin Laden seemed to fall off the radar, literally and figuratively. Not until 2006 did the CIA make a fresh attempt to find him, but "Operation Cannonball" foundered on internal conflicts rampant at the time.

However, after it became clear last summer that al Qaeda was reconstituting itself in the tribal regions of Pakistan, the Pentagon drew up new orders for a "drone war" against the network and particularly bin Laden.

The unmanned, robotic drones – the Predator and new Reaper – can sit over a target for 15 hours straight. Mounted cameras transmit live video of the scene to pilot-controllers stationed half a world away in Nevada. They launch the missile when a confirmed target is spotted.

There was an additional impetus: Long criticized for jettisoning the hunt for bin Laden in favour of Iraq, George W. Bush wanted to leave office on the high of a belated capture. In the waning months of 2008, drone attacks were dramatically stepped up. In 2007, there were only three; by the end of 2008, a total of 34.

Barack Obama has further ramped up the aerial war. In just the first four months of his presidency, he authorized 16 drone strikes in the region.

Since last September, the drones have successfully hit half the 20 "high-value" targets on the al Qaeda "get" list. Among them, in January, two senior militants who played a central role in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa.

But no bin Laden.

"They don't know who they're blowing up," says John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org. "They're just hopeful it will be him."

Obama has also approved a new joint operation between Special Forces teams, the CIA, and a select group of trusted officials from Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence agency, under CIA control. The teams are on constant standby if "actionable intelligence" suddenly becomes available. Surveillance drones still patrol from the sky.

"By making a safe haven feel less safe, we keep al Qaeda guessing," former CIA director Michael Hayden has said. "We make them doubt their allies; question their methods ... and that distracts them, at least partially and at least for a time."

Indeed, the number of "spies" al Qaeda (and their Taliban allies) have killed has risen dramatically in the past 10 months, says Peter Bergen, a counter-terrorism expert at the New America Foundation. He wrote last month that this suggests "the militants are turning on themselves in an effort to root out the sources of often pinpoint intelligence."

But Bergen believes many al Qaeda militants have now decamped from the tribal areas and the ratcheted-up drone program could "have hit the point of diminishing returns."

In other words, bin Laden and Co. may have moved on. As northwest Pakistan becomes too dangerous, operations could be transferred to safer havens with large ungoverned territories such as Yemen and Somalia.

Bin Laden could fly out by a private plane from one of several airstrips in Pakistan's Baluchistan region, says Pike. "They were built by Arab sheiks to go falcon-hunting. It's a clientele with a considerable appetite for discretion."

It's possible, of course, that he will never be flushed out and face retribution for 9/11 or any other Al Qaeda attacks.

"We tend to forget that he's been at this for 25 years," former CIA official Michael Scheuer recently said. "So there's very few people who are going to turn over Osama bin Laden now."

Not even for the $25 million reward that's still on the table.

Copyright 2009, Toronto Star