Can Bin Laden Be Caught?
After a year of silence, al-Qaeda's leader resurfaces. But with his health in question and his inner circle shrinking, the U.S. hopes it may not be for long
By APARISIM GHOSH
The voice was muffled, labored, weak——as you might expect from a man who has spent the past four years on the run. If it didn't belong to one of the world's most feared men, it would hardly scare a child. Having disappeared from view, sheltering in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, Osama bin Laden may have lost the ability to send a chill down the world's spine. Governments don't shut down airports or send security forces into red alert. Even when he makes the direst threats, we no longer feel compelled to slow down, much less stop, the course of our daily lives.
But bin Laden's re-emergence last Thursday was still a jolt, coming after a 13-month silence that raised questions about whether the al-Qaeda boss was incapacitated or even dead. The U.S. believes the 10-minute taped message, which aired on the Arab TV channel al-Jazeera, was probably recorded sometime since November, partly because of a reference to British newspaper reports from that time about a purported proposal by President Bush to bomb al-Jazeera. The tape suggested that bin Laden is alive, if not quite well. A longtime bin Laden watcher, French terrorism expert Roland Jacquard, speculates that the decision not to release a videotape may reflect a desire to conceal the deterioration of his physical condition. And if bin Laden's voice sounded more muted than in his last message, in December 2004, so did his rhetoric. He warned of forthcoming attacks on U.S. soil but didn't convey a sense of immediacy. "They are in the planning stages, and you will see them in the heart of your land as soon as the planning is complete," he said. He floated the idea of a cessation of hostilities with America if the U.S. withdraws troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. "We do not mind offering a long-term truce based on just conditions that we will stick to," bin Laden said. The White House didn't bite. "We do not negotiate with terrorists," spokesman Scott McClellan said. "We put them out of business."
That claim, of course, is undermined every day that bin Laden and his deputy and chief tactician, Ayman al-Zawahiri, remain on the loose. But bin Laden's resurfacing has come at a time when the leadership of al-Qaeda appears to be under as much strain as at any time since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Antiterrorism experts say the Saudi-born terrorist is no longer in active contact with field commanders, and his ability to plan and direct specific operations is hampered by his isolation. In Iraq, scene of al-Qaeda's deadliest strikes since 9/11, the group's leader, Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, is fighting battles with some Iraqi insurgent groups who want him dead almost as badly as the U.S. military does (see box). Meanwhile, an intensified U.S. push to hunt down al-Qaeda leaders has scored a series of apparent successes; just last week Pakistani intelligence officials claimed that a Jan. 13 U.S. air strike on the village of Damadola had killed as many as four senior operatives——although it may have missed its chief target, al-Zawahiri, whose voice was heard on an undated audiotape last Friday. Among some U.S. counterterrorism experts, there was speculation that the release of the bin Laden tape was al-Qaeda's attempt to boost the morale of its foot soldiers amid the run of bad p.r. Says an intelligence official: "The question is, Is this someone's way of changing the topic?"
It might be, but no one is confusing misdirection for surrender. While improved cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistan has apparently helped the U.S. zero in on bin Laden's lieutenants, credible intelligence on the main target's whereabouts is sketchy at best. Law-enforcement officials say that bin Laden's message aside, there are no signs of heightened al-Qaeda activity in the U.S., but they don't discount the possibility of a terrorist attack. "The threat's still real," says a U.S. intelligence official, "but because of this tape, does that make it any more real than it was before the tape? No." Today, the official says, al-Qaeda is not the same outfit it was on 9/11; it has morphed from a command-and-control organization into a philosophy that has "inspired cells around the world …… It's harder for them to coordinate, but it also makes them very dangerous."
Some terrorism experts believe that the perception that bin Laden is vulnerable may make jihadists more determined to carry out attacks. "I'd be worried over the next 60 to 90 days," says a former FBI counterterrorism official. "I believe if we don't hear from al-Qaeda in the near term, some will paint bin Laden as weakened and unable to deliver on his threat"——a possibility that may motivate terrorists to try to strike soon, to make good on the promises of their leader.
The reappearance of bin Laden came at a moment when U.S. intelligence officials felt pretty good about themselves. Even as the cassette tape was making its way out of bin Laden's secret lair, his pursuers were sending out signals across the borderlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he may be hiding. In recent weeks U.S. and Pakistani intelligence agencies have stepped up their search for top al-Qaeda leaders, with the skies above the mountains buzzing with spy planes and unmanned Predator drones, and a network of local spies and informants has been scouring the landscape for information. A Pakistani security officer told TIME the CIA has installed sophisticated surveillance equipment in several offices of the ISI, Pakistan's spy agency, to monitor any radio and Internet communications between al-Qaeda and its sympathizers.
The objective is to tighten the net around bin Laden and his deputies. In December a U.S. guided-missile attack in North Waziristan, based on intelligence from agents on the ground, reportedly killed Hamza Rabia, an Egyptian believed to have been the latest occupant of al-Qaeda's No. 3 spot. Then, in early January, the U.S. and Pakistan seized on the chance to bag even bigger prey. Details of the Damadola operation are beginning to emerge, and they provide a tantalizing glimpse into the intensifying hunt for bin Laden. A Peshawar-based official told TIME that in the past month, Pakistani-intelligence field agents had been tracking two groups of men who had crossed the border from Afghanistan into Bajaur, a small, often restive tribal region that borders Afghanistan's Kunar province. In the days before the attack, the search zoomed in on the group headed for Damadola; counterterrorist officials believed that some top al-Qaeda figures, including possibly al-Zawahiri himself, might have been in that group. "We knew there were going to be some VIPs, and any of those were worthy" targets, says a U.S. official.
The infiltrators sheltered in a small compound of three houses just outside Damadola. Shortly after 3 a.m. on Jan. 13, locals say, several missiles fired from Predators crashed into the compound, practically obliterating the houses. According to news reports, Pakistani officials initially said it was possible that al-Zawahiri had been killed, then backed away from the claim. Villagers told journalists who arrived at the scene that 18 civilians had died (the number was later revised down to 13); they denied that any bodies had been removed or that any foreigners had been in the compound. But some Pakistani intelligence officials began telling media outlets last week they believe as many as four leading terrorists, including al-Zawahiri's son-in-law and Abu Khabab al-Masri, a top al-Qaeda bombmaker, died in the strike. The U.S. is still uncertain if DNA was recovered from the scene to allow experts to positively identify any terrorists killed there or how the IDs were made. Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz told TIME late last week that so far investigators have recovered only bodies of civilians, "but our security forces are there in large numbers to get the facts. These things just cannot evaporate and disappear, if there is anything."
Although the missile strike provoked a round of protests in Pakistan's tribal areas that forced President Pervez Musharraf to distance his government from the operation, cooperation between the U.S. and Pakistan in the hunt for bin Laden has quietly deepened. A Peshawar-based Pakistani intelligence official speaking on condition of anonymity says Washington has an understanding with Islamabad that allows the U.S. to strike within Pakistan's border regions——providing the Americans have actionable intelligence and especially if the Pakistanis won't or can't take firm action. Pakistan's caveat is that it would formally protest such strikes to deflect domestic criticism. Some ranking Pakistani officials deny such an agreement exists.
The territory in which bin Laden may be hiding remains forbidding to outsiders. In pockets of Pakistan's borderlands, a resurgent Taliban has begun to impose its extreme brand of Islamic law, including a ban on music and the Internet, and the summary execution of criminals. Some counterterrorism experts, though, are cautiously optimistic that the turmoil in al-Qaeda's high command they hope was caused by the strike in Damadola may force its leaders to expose themselves. "You got to presume that all the al-Qaeda guys are asking each other who got smoked," says a former U.S. intelligence official. "When they stick their heads up to see who got whacked, it presents opportunities."
While the hope of finding al-Qaeda's bosses anytime soon remains just that——hope——the hunters have shown indications that they may be closer to picking up their targets' scent. A Pakistani intelligence official says Pakistani intelligence agents and CIA drones are searching the mountainsides for the second group that crossed from Afghanistan. In the message delivered last week, bin Laden signaled he would not allow himself to be captured alive. "I swore that I will not die except free, despite the bitter taste of death," he said. On that much, both bin Laden and his pursuers seem to agree: one way or another, his end will come.