Why Can’t We
Michael Hirsh, Mark Hosenball and Sami Yousafzai
The new bin Laden tape, in
which he is seen walking down a mountainside with deputy Ayman
Two years after the horror of 9/11, Osama bin Laden appears
to be alive, well—and still a master of media manipulation
Sept. 22 issue — In the Pakistani city of Peshawar, the Kissakhani bazaar
is buzzing with talk of Osama bin Laden. When a new video aired by Al-Jazeera
last week showed the terror chieftain walking casually down a boulder-strewn
mountainside, it was almost as if he had risen from the dead. The market in bin
Laden baubles—photos, tapes—took off in hours.
MUHAMMAD YAQOOB, a 25-year-old hotel worker, quickly bought three new color
posters of bin Laden from a sidewalk vendor. “I’m so happy he’s
still in this world,” said Yaqoob. “I hope to hear one day that
he has exploded the Bush White House.” In a nearby hotel lobby where
locals usually gather over 10-cent cups of tea to watch Indian movies on TV,
the price quickly doubled as a huge crowd jammed in for the constant replay.
Many viewers proudly noted that bin Laden was wearing the rolled felt cap and
loose-fitting shalwar kameez, shirt and pants that are the dress of this rough
northwest region bordering Afghanistan. “Oh, America, look closely,” shouted
one man. “Osama’s still strong and can walk over mountains.” Amid
the boosterism, even adoration, one skeptical voice could be heard, a middle-aged
teacher who feared the war will go on forever. “I still can’t understand
why powerful America cannot catch him,” he said.
Arab TV airs alleged bin Laden tape
September 10, 2003 — MSNBC’s Jacob Keryakes translates a portion
of the Al-Jazeera tape purportedly from Osama bin Laden.
Why indeed? George W. Bush has already buried bin Laden—rhetorically.
It’s been many months since the president, who once declared he wanted
bin Laden “dead or alive,” even mentioned his name. But if last
week’s video is to be believed, bin Laden appears to be not only alive,
but thriving. And with America distracted in Iraq, and Pakistani President
Pervez Musharraf leery of stirring up an Islamist backlash, there is no large-scale
military force currently pursuing the chief culprit in the 9/11 attacks, U.S.
If the latest video is recent, which is by no means certain, bin Laden may
have also recovered from whatever ailments he had. (He’s rumored to have
been wounded, and to have kidney disease.) A former Afghan official points
out that bin Laden is carrying full clips of ammunition in a bandoleer across
his chest and has a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder, a burden unlikely
to be borne in the mountains by someone suffering from a debilitating illness.
A senior source with the now reconstituted Taliban believes the video is a
strong sign that Al Qaeda is actively planning new operations. Why? Because
bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, are both in it, and they appear
Appearances by America’s most wanted man
April 17-18, 2002Dec. 27, 2001Dec. 12, 2001Nov. 7, 2001Nov. 3, 2001Oct. 7,
2001Oct. 4, 2001June 20, 2001Jan. 10, 2001Sept. 21, 2000Jan. 15, 1999May 28,
1998August 10, 1997
The "Riverside tape," believed shot in October 2001, is shown on
Arabic language broadcasters MBC and al-Jazeera in slightly different versions.
In this tape, bin Laden praises the effects the Sept. 11 attacks had on the
U.S. economy. Also on tape: Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s chief lieutenant.
The Gaunt Tape," so named because bin Laden is haggard and doesn’t
move his left arm, is believed to have been recorded in late November 2001.
Al-Jazeera airs the tape.
Washington releases tape of the "dinner party" in which bin Laden
describes planning for the Sept. 11 attacks. Shot in mid-November, possibly
Nov. 9, 2001, in Kandahar. Released by the U.S. government to all broadcasters.
Also on tape: Khaled al-Harbi, a Saudi cleric.
Bin Laden’s sons play in the wreckage of a downed U.S. helicopter, believed
to have been shot in October. The tape is shown on al-Jazeera. Video later
shows up as part of a tape the U.S. government releases in December 2001.
Bin Laden, dressed in camouflage and armed with an AK-47, says in a tape
aired by al-Jazeera that Afghanistan is in a religious war. "The people of Afghanistan
had nothing to do with this matter. The campaign, however, continues to unjustly
annihilate the villagers and civilians, children, women and innocent people." There’s
no indication of when the tape was shot, but almost certainly it was within
weeks, if not days, prior to its release, since it refers to U.S. campaign
A threatening tape released at the start of the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan
and shown on al-Jazeera. It is believed to have been shot in late September
or early October. Also on tape: bin Laden spokesman Abu Ghaith, chief lieutenant
Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Mohammed Atef, bin Laden’s military commander.
The al-Qaida graduation ceremony tape. Al-Jazeera reports the tape was made
after the Sept. 11 attacks, but U.S. intelligence says it was shot in June
2001 to celebrate the merger of al-Qaida and Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Also
seen on the tape: Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad.
A 98-minute al-Qaida training tape believed to have been shot at various
times -- but after the USS Cole bombing in October 2000 and before the
inauguration in January 2001 – is distributed by APTN and Reuters. Bin
Laden praises the bombers of the USS Cole: "And the courage of our youth
was witnessed in Aden, where they destroyed their destroyer and instilled fear.
... Their ships stand so arrogantly in our ports."
Tape of bin Laden celebrating the marriage of his teenage son, Mohammed,
to the daughter of Mohammed Atef, his military commander. The tape was
previous day in Afghanistan. Also on the tape: Atef and Mohammed bin Laden.
Tape shown on al-Jazeera of bin Laden and three Egyptian clerics calling
for the release of Abdul Rahman, a blind sheik imprisoned in the United
It’s believed to have been filmed sometime between March and May 2000.
Also on the tape: Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s lieutenant, and Rifai
Ahmad Taha, a leading figure in the armed Egyptian group, Jamaa Islamiya, and
Assad Allah, son of Sheikh Abdel Rahman. Shown on Al-Jazeera.
In an interview with al-Jazeera, bin Laden praises those who carried out
the August 1998 Africa embassy bombings, saying the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi,
was hit because "because it was the major U.S. intelligence center in
East Africa.” More of the interview with al-Jazeera is broadcast on June
In an interview with ABC's John Miller, bin Laden praises Ramzi Yousef and
Wali Khan Amin Shah, convicted in the Day of Hate airliner plot, saying "America
will see many youths who will follow Ramzi Yousef." Bin Laden also praises
the bombers of the Khobar Towers U.S. barracks in Saudi Arabia. “We predict
a black day for America and the end of the United States as United States ...
Allah willing." Mohammed Atef also seen on the tape.
In an interview with CNN's Peter Arnett, bin Laden praises the bombing of
the U.S. barracks in Saudi Arabia. "If the American government is serious
about avoiding the explosions inside the U.S., then let it stop provoking the
feelings of 1,250 million Muslims," he says.
Source: NBC News
U.S. intelligence sources say they are not even close to pinpointing bin
Laden’s whereabouts. And one official involved in the search for him
frets to NEWSWEEK that they may not be able to kill or capture him after all—ever. “We’re
going to have to be very lucky to get him,” this Defense official said.
It’s not just that recent reports place him in remote Afghan and Pakistani
border provinces such as Kunar and Waziristan. Unable to infiltrate his network,
U.S. officials also cannot monitor bin Laden’s communications, since
he has long since dropped the use of satellite phones and land lines. He is
surrounded by “people who are extremely loyal to him,” said one
U.S. official. “Very, very few people know his whereabouts and those
who do would not be inclined to discuss it.”
Still, intel officials say the latest video doesn’t really confirm that
bin Laden is still alive and healthy. In audio portions, Al-Zawahiri makes
explicit references to the recent war in Iraq. But the bin Laden part of the
audio, and video shots showing both men wandering about a pastoral landscape,
give no real-time references. (The CIA believes the voice on the tape is bin
Laden’s, but has not been able to confirm that 100 percent.) Other knowledgeable
sources say they doubt that bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri are really at ease in
the mountains. U.S.-Pakistani operations to capture them have been too intense
and intelligence reports suggest that the Qaeda chief has gone to elaborate
lengths to stay on the move and not get caught. “He can’t afford
to go for leisurely strolls,” says one former U.S. intelligence official
who was recently involved in the hunt for bin Laden.
The search for Osama bin Laden
September 10, 2003 — Of the 8,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, no one
mentions Osama bin Laden’s name unless asked. NBC’s Mike Taibbi
visits with the 82nd Airborne for an update.
But bin Laden’s elusiveness and the Taliban’s resurgence—combined
with the postwar morass in Iraq—have raised tough new questions about
the administration’s overall strategy in the war on terror. It’s
not just whether the Bush administration is getting Iraq right, say a rising
chorus of skeptics among the military brass, along with some Democrats like
Sen. Bob Graham. It’s whether Iraq should have been invaded at all when
the task of destroying Al Qaeda in its Central Asian base was left so unfinished. “We’ve
essentially declared war on Mussolini and allowed Hitler to run free,” said
Graham, one of the few presidential candidates who voted no on the Iraq war
resolution in fall 2002. With each passing day that ready-to-fire weapons of
mass destruction are not found, it becomes harder to explain why Iraq was such
an imminent threat that America had to wheel 180 degrees to suddenly take on
Saddam Hussein—and sacrifice so much international support to do so.
Septeber 11: Terrorists destroy the World Trade Center. Osama bin Laden and
Mullah Omar are in Kandahar.
Sept. 13: U.S. Special Forces arrive in Afghanistan.
Sept. 28: Bush says U.S. is “in hot pursuit” of terrorists.
October: U.S. claims to have killed Qaeda leaders, but “none of the very
top six, eight, 10 people” are included.
Oct. 7: U.S. planes begin bombing military targets, including suspected Qaeda
hideouts within Afghanistan.
Nov. 9-10: Bin Laden leaves Kandahar for Jalalabad, where he grants an interview
and speaks in public.
Nov. 29: Dick Cheney says that bin Laden is probably inside the complex of
cavesat Tora Bora.
Nov. 9: Fighters routed from Mazar-e Sharif flee toward Kabul and Kunduz.
MID-Nov.: 240 fighters flee via Iran.
Nov. 16: Many Qaeda and Taliban officials flee via the White Mountain route.
Unpursued, they scatter in Pakistan.
Nov. 9: Mazar-e Sharif falls.
Nov. 13: Kabul falls.
Nov. 16: Bombing begins at Tora Bora.
Nov. 16: U.S. bombs the Khugyani route from Tora Bora while Qaeda and Taliban
officials escape by other routes.
Dec. 9: U.S. intelligence detects radio transmission from Tora Bora caves of
a voice that may be bin Laden’s.
Dec. 9: During a ceasefire to discuss surrender, bin Laden and other Qaeda
leaders may have sneaked out of Tora Bora.
Dec. 7-12: Bin Laden may have followed Khugyani escape route. Ayman Al-Zawahiri
may be in Pakistan. Or dead.
Dec. 7: Besieged Kandahar falls after the Taliban make a deal with warlords.
Fighting breaks out. Mullah Omar escapes.
Dec. 9-10: Qaeda defenders in Tora Bora are granted a two-day ceasefire to
negotiate a surrender.
Mid-December: Pakistani troops round up nearly 400 small-time Qaeda fighters.
U.S. bombs Khugyani escape route.
Late December: Gen. Tommy Franks’ U.S. Marines wait for the situation
to stabilize before moving into Kandahar.
Jan. 28: Six Qaeda soldiers holed up in a Kandahar hospital for seven weeks
were killed in a raid by Afghan forces.
February: Afghan officialsreport that bin Laden may have holed up for the winter
in the Shahikot area.
Early February: Qaeda remnants regroup in the Shahi-kot area under the protection
of local friendly Afghans.
February: U.S. troops continue to search Qaeda camps, looking for weapons of
mass destruction (and bin Laden).
March: Bin Laden could have headed for Pakistan’s Waziristan tribal area
before the U.S. launched its Operation Anaconda.
March 2: U.S. operation meets fierce Qaeda resistance.
March 28: Abu Zubaydah is arrested deep inside Pakistan.
March 2: Operation Anaconda begins. Coalition troops don’t deploy on
the Afghan frontier until late March.
Early April: Bin Laden reported in Pakistan near Miran Shah.
April 26: No sign of bin Laden in Miran Shah.
April 26: U.S.and Pakistani forces raid a madrasa in Miran Shah run by Qaeda
sympathizer Jalaludin Haqqani.
May: Qaeda remnants continue operating, especially along the Waziristan- Khowst
May 19: Operation Mountain Lion begins efforts to close the border, but few
suspects are caught.
June: Spokesman Abu Ghaith claimsbin Laden is alive and will soon release a
June/July: Smugglers moving Qaeda fugitives out of Afghanistan via Iran are
reported doing a brisk trade.
July: No new video appears. The FBI’s counterintelligence chief states
his belief that bin Laden is dead. Others disagree.
July 13: Boats smuggling suspected Qaeda fugitives are intercepted by Canadian
forces in the Gulf of Oman.
July 29: Qaeda fighters’ ambush of U.S. Special Forces near Khowst is
fiercest fighting since end of Operation Anaconda.
THE CENTRAL FRONT’
Military officials now openly worry about whether they’ll have enough
troops for just the tasks they have. One problem: declining re-enlistments
by frustrated Reservists and National Guardsmen. “The point is: why would
we open that new front? It wasn’t related directly to the war on terror,” says
retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, the former CENTCOM commander who has long
criticized the administration’s switch from bin Laden to Saddam. Iraq,
which had a meager Qaeda presence before the March invasion, was supposed to
be on its way to becoming a democratic model for the Arab world by now. Instead,
Bush declared recently that Iraq has become “the central front” in
the terror war, drawing legions of new foreign terrorists, including Al Qaeda.
The Bush administration has long insisted it could take on both Afghanistan
and Iraq. And senior officials point to the signal fact that there has been
no major attack against Americans by Al Qaeda since 9/11, and to the capture
or killing of “nearly two thirds of Al Qaeda’s known leaders,” as
Bush said in his speech to the nation on Sept. 7. That alone can be considered
a huge success, and probably is by many Americans: a new NEWSWEEK Poll shows
that a majority still supports Bush’s handling of Iraq and the war on
But some like Zinni say the number of terrorists is not static; many more
are being created. Meanwhile, the United States still has only about 9,000
in all of Central Asia, even as it struggles to fight off demands that it
increase its presence in Iraq. And some U.S. military officials trace the
gradual resurgence to the abrupt diversion of so many resources to Iraq, including
Predator aerial vehicles, in a critical period beginning in 2002. One example:
in February and March of 2002, the Arabic-speaking Fifth Special Forces Group—the
teams that were mostly credited with winning the Afghan war—were largely
pulled out to be soon redeployed in the Mideast. They were replaced by other
teams such as the Seventh Group, whose focus is Latin America. The result:
a loss of good intelligence. “From the very beginning we f—ked
it up,” said a Fifth Group officer who fought in Afghanistan. “The
conventional Army came in and new teams... didn’t have the same relations.
Continuity is everything. The trust you develop with another guy by fighting
alongside him is everything. We did it wrong.”
STINTING ON INTELLIGENCE?
Other intelligence resources were also badly strained. “It was widely
reported after September 11 that we didn’t have enough intelligence officers
who are familiar with [the Islamic] world,” notes one former staffer
on the Senate Intelligence Committee. “If we didn’t have enough
for Afghanistan, how did they make the argument they had enough for Afghanistan
and Iraq?” Bush officials insist they did not stint in their intelligence
gathering for bin Laden and Al Qaeda. “That’s a canard. There was
a deliberate effort not to make that happen,” one administration official
said. But privately, some U.S officials acknowledge that the search for weapons
of mass destruction in Iraq may have seriously drained away resources from
the hunt for bin Laden.
Washington has prodded Musharraf to send in troops to the tribal regions,
and Pakistani officials claim they came very close to catching bin Laden
past 20 months. In early September the military launched a fresh hunt after
intelligence reports showed a large concentration of Al Qaeda and Taliban
forces in the Waziristan tribal region. Helicopter-borne Pakistani troops
for the first time, but the operation was abruptly halted after suspected
Islamic militants fired three rockets at an air base being used by the Pakistani
Musharraf and other Pakistani senior officials concede that bin Laden and
Qaeda fugitives enjoy tre-mendous public support in the North-West Frontier
and Baluchistan, which are now governed by pro-Taliban parties. More alarmingly,
many Pakistanis suspect that elements in Pakistan’s military and its
powerful intelligence agency, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), provide
crucial support to Qaeda leaders and Taliban forces. Indeed, a number of Pakistani
military officers have been arrested recently for links to Al Qaeda, including
one soldier who gave shelter to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was Qaeda’s
No. 3. Even some in Musharraf’s administration express sympathy for Islamic
guerrillas. “Taliban are fighting a just war against occupation of their
country,” says a senior Pakistani official.
Perhaps the ultimate question, some U.S. military officers say, is whether
the Bush administration has left America more vulnerable by pushing so forcefully
for “regime change” in two countries at once, without planning
properly for what would come next. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld insists
on keeping the U.S. military “footprint” small in both Afghanistan
and Iraq. Yet meager nation-building efforts could turn both countries into
a sea of sympathy for Islamist terrorists to swim in. Osama bin Laden has always
proved depressingly capable in fighting for “hearts and minds.” The
very fact that he is able to persist makes his message, among the radical faithful,
only more potent.
With Donatella Lorch and Michael Isikoff in Washington, Zahid Hussain in Islamabad
and Ron Moreau