Where is Osama bin Laden—and why can’t the United States catch its public enemy number 1?
THE INVISIBLE MAN
Where is Osama bin Laden—and why can’t the United States catch its public enemy number 1?
GEORGE W. BUSH keeps a packet of photographs in his desk in the Oval Office. All are of men, many in turbans and sporting long beards. They are ranking members of the alQaeda terror network, and whenever U.S. forces capture or kill one, the delighted President removes the photo and crosses it off with a pen. So far, about 15 men, almost half of the known al-Qaeda leadership, have been caught or slain; last week Bush was able to cross off another face when it was revealed that the U.S. had captured Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, al Qaeda’s chief of operations in the Persian Gulf. But the President won’t be satisfied until he draws an X across the face of Osama bin Laden, and finding him is proving to be a tough task. U.S. authorities had hoped that the al-Qaeda leader was dead. But last week, Bush was told that an exhaustive analysis of a threatening tape recording played on the Arab television network al-Jazeera on Nov. 12 showed the voice to be, in fact, bin Laden’s.
So America’s public enemy number 1 is very much alive—and poised to strike again. He has managed to elude the greatest manhunt in human history, staying one step ahead of soldiers searching cave by cave in Afghanistan. America’s most advanced spy technology hasn’t been able to draw a bead on him. Even bounty hunters, motivated
by a US$25-million prize, haven’t been able to bring him in. No wonder bin Laden’s taped statement was full of bravado, warning America and its coalition partners, including Canada, that they will be attacked. He congratulated his operatives for the Oct. 12 explosion at a Bali nightclub that killed more than 180 people and the murder of a marine in Kuwait on Oct. 8.
Even more troubling: the tape may have been a signal to al-Qaeda operatives to launch a new wave of terror attacks. AndCanada, say security experts, is definitely on al-Qaeda’s list. “Canada is known as the Little Satan in Islamic extremist circles,” says David Harris, former chief of strategic planning for CSIS. “We are targeted.”
Where is the Invisible Man? The tape itself offers few clues to bin Laden’s whereabouts. But because it mentions recent terror attacks, it had to be recorded in the last few weeks, and CIA analysts say the tape appears to have been made over a phone line consistent in quality with those used in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There have been previous clues: on Dec. 10,2001, U.S. forces intercepted a bin Laden radio transmission, believed to be from the Tora Bora region of eastern Afghanistan. Searchers swept through the area, but if bin Laden was in fact there, he
escaped. Early last month, intelligence units received information he was in the Balochistan region of southern Pakistan, along the Afghanistan border, with the remnants of a Taliban force that fled there. But other sources say he dodged the coalition naval blockade, one of the largest in modern history, crossing the Arabian Sea to hide in his ancestral homeland of Yemen.
The conflicting reports frustrate intelligence agents. But most believe bin Laden is hiding in the mountains of northern Pakistan, a remote, lawless region dominated by fundamentalist Muslim tribesmen with a strong hatred of America and a history of sheltering people fleeing the Pakistani government. Coalition soldiers, including those from Canada’s elite JTL2 commando unit, have secretly spied on mountain passes and villages in the rugged region, but have failed to turn up any sign of their prey.
The Pakistani army is not strong enough to exert its influence over the area. And Pakistani intelligence may be thwarting efforts to track bin Laden—many military analysts firmly believe members of that country’s secret police who supported the Taliban are now helping bin Laden. “Someone’s protecting him,” says Robert Baer, a former CIA case officer and author of See No Evil, a scathing account of U.S. covert actions in the 1980s and ’90s. “This guy has more support than we can ever imagine. You don’t just hide guys like bin Laden and have them disappear. It takes more than that.”
Both CIA and LBI agents are on the ground
in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many in the CIA believe the hunt will soon yield more positive results. They have been helped by the capture of a handful of senior al-Qaeda operatives, which has resulted in solid leads and insights into how individual al-Qaeda cells operate and communicate with each other. The CIA alone has hundreds of analysts and agents involved, both at its headquarters in Langley, Va., and in the field. Some CIA and FBI teams are assisting Pakistani police and the army. And because the U.S. has relaxed its oversight rules, covert officers may also return to old ways of operating, including murdering enemies where they find them.
The most effective U.S. weapon may be the bundles of cash operatives carry in their briefcases. Just as the CIA bribed warlords in Afghanistan with millions of dollars to help win the war against the Taliban, officers are now lavishing money on undercover agents and intelligence services in foreign countries. The American agents carry the currency in denominations of $20, $50 and $100. The money is used, and carries a mix of serial numbers. No one wants it traced back to CIA headquarters.
In recent months, CIA officers have been on a spending spree in Yemen, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, among other countries. “They have received tremendous co-operation from the
intelligence services in those countries,” said one former U.S. spy, speaking on condition of anonymity. The largesse has started producing results: in Yemen earlier this month, a CIA drone aircraft fired a Hellfire missile into a car carrying six suspected alQaeda members, including Ali Qaed Sinan al-Harthi, the group’s top leader in Yemen. The operation also used electronic intercepts collected by the super-secretive National Security Agency, which was able to tap into Yemen’s sophisticated surveillance equipment with the government’s quiet blessing. “The incident in Yemen is a direct result of the co-operation of the Yemeni intelligence service,” said the former agent.
The arrest of al-Nashiri is another indication that the U.S. may be slowly winning its battle against al-Qaeda. Al-Nashiri, who officials say was captured at an undisclosed
He’s eluded the greatest manhunt in history-even America’s most advanced spy technology hasn’t been able to draw a bead on him
foreign airport in early November, worked at bin Laden’s side for nearly a decade. He is also believed to have been the mastermind behind the bombing of the USS Cole on Oct. 12, 2000, in the Yemeni port of Aden. He may also have been behind the suicide bombing that disabled a French oil tanker off the coast of Yemen on Oct. 6.
As well as information provided by alQaeda operatives like al-Nashiri, the audiotape itself may help point the way to bin Laden. In the past, he has secredy turned over videos and tape recordings to reporters working for al-Jazeera. Now, said one U.S. intelligence official, investigators “are trying to track how these tapes are getting to al-Jazeera. The intelligence community is feeling better and better about what they are getting to know there.” So far, though, the big break has eluded them. “The reality,” says Jay C. Farrar, a former senior U.S. defence official, “is that it’s like a police investigation of a murder. You eliminate things that don’t bear fruit, you keep working on those that give you an opening. The feeling is that inevitably someone is going to make a mistake, and the more you stay on it the better able you’ll be to see that first stumble.”
The Bush administration has played down the search for bin Laden, saying he is just one of many al-Qaeda terrorists being hunted. But Michael E. O’Hanlon, a military analyst
at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, says snaring the mastermind is critical. “The best way to make the argument is to look around the world at top terrorist leaders and what happens to the organizations under them once the leaders are caught,” says O’Hanlon. “You see a remarkable drop-off with their capture.” With the world’s top terrorist still on the loose, most Western governments are on high alert for another attack. In a post-Sept. 11 initiative, Canada is spending $7.7 billion for security measures, including upgrades to border security and at airports across the country. CSIS’s budget has been drastically increased, and legislation has been passed giving police more power to detain and question suspects. With those security measures in place, Deputy Prime Minister John Manley says Canadians are safer today than before the World Trade Center attacks. “I don’t think Canadians,” he said, “need to take any special precautions at the present time.”
Manley’s words may be reassuring, say security analysts, but Canada is vulnerable to attack for one simple reason: with more than 200,000 immigrants arriving each year, CSIS and immigration agents can’t possibly weed out all potential terrorists. The U.S. State Department also believes Canada is vulnerable to attack, and a list of 22 potential targets was leaked on Nov. 14. The list included Montreal’s Place Ville-Marie, the B.C. ferry system and Toronto’s CN Tower. And bin Laden’s tape, says Harris, “raises the temperature, because it plays to Islamic extremists already in our country.” Bin Laden’s continuing freedom has also put Bush on the defensive, with Democrats openly calling into question the success of America’s war on terrorism. “We can’t find bin Laden, we haven’t made any progress,” said Senate Majority leader Tom Daschle of the efforts to destroy al-Qaeda. “They continue to be as great a threat today as they were IV2 years ago. So by what measure can we claim to be successful so far?” Talking to reporters, Bush angrily dismissed any suggestion that he was losing the war on terror. “I warned the American people that this was going to take a long time,” he said. For now, bin Laden’s picture remains in Bush’s desk, while thousands continue to scour the world for America’s most wanted man. IU
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